Tiananmen Square: A Novel, by Lai Wen (Spiegel & Grau, 528 pp., $19.80)

True to life, Lai Wen’s thrilling new novel, Tiananmen Square, opens its final act with the death, on April 15, 1989, of Hu Yaobang, a moderate member of the Chinese Communist Party Politburo. “The honest man is dead; the hypocrites live on,” proclaimed a poem that circulated at Peking University, where Lai, a fictionalized version of the author, has enrolled.

That night, in Lai’s recounting, she and thousands of her fellow students converge on Tiananmen Square, only to be viciously beaten by police. The students, Lai believes, are making “simple and patriotic appeals for free speech and a more democratic structure.” So she is shocked, the next day, to read in the newspaper of a government tirade against the “enemies of the state” trying to “poison and confuse the people’s minds,” “negate the leadership of the CCP,” and create an “unstable China without any future.”

An editorial to this effect really appeared in the People’s Daily on April 26—ten days after Lai says she encountered it. Her sequence of events seem a bit hazy, but the fundamentals of her searing account are accurate. For six weeks after Hu’s demise, students and workers held a series of strikes and demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, in the streets of Beijing, and in cities around China. The dissent spread to intellectuals, artists, and journalists. Some of the students engaged in a hunger strike. (“We can stand hunger,” read one banner, “but we cannot stand dictatorship.”) In Hong Kong, 1.5 million people—a quarter of the population—marched in solidarity with protesters on the mainland.

The CCP’s intransigent response, culminating in its declaring martial law, caused the demonstrators to become increasingly fractious and radical. In the West, Lai notes, the word “freedom” is today “bandied about casually and automatically, in conversations, in commercials.” By contrast, she recalls, “the yearning for freedom that we had in China in 1989 felt at times almost visceral.”

Many were prepared to die for that freedom. And die they did. On June 4, 1989, the People’s Liberation Army stormed central Beijing. It fired at civilians indiscriminately. (Lai: “There was no preamble, no hesitation; they started shooting in the dark, and from every angle.”) It ran them down with tanks. (“As it disappeared into the darkness, the echo of its roar reverberating, I glimpsed just the briefest slip of a blue dress caught beneath its treads.”) It cleared Tiananmen Square, crushing the Goddess of Democracy statue the students had erected there, killing some 3,000 people. (“But those pops rang out once more. Again, more flopping, collapsing bodies. And all around, screams of anguish, screams of rage.”)

Lai Wen’s book is a defiant act of commemoration, a small but powerful record of history that the CCP tries to erase. The Party prohibits discussion of the massacre, and of much else besides. But Lai refuses to forget what has happened to her and to others. When she is caught outside after dark during a U.S. governmental visit, police officers dislocate her shoulder, accusing her of “sabotage” and “counter-revolutionary action.” At the dinner table, her spry grandmother reflects on the cannibalism of the Great Famine. Her taciturn father cannot talk about the trauma of the Cultural Revolution; but he takes his daughter to a memory wall (later destroyed by the government) with letters smuggled from the reeducation camps. Lai tells of how the wall “had housed the ghosts of the past.” Tiananmen Square does the same, even if it’s illegal, in China, to read it. (The author fled to Canada shortly after the massacre. She now lives in Britain. “Lai Wen” is a pseudonym.)

The book is more than a political statement. It is long, but always up to something. Lai starts with her early childhood and vividly depicts the heightened emotional register (some might say the melodramatic bent) of the young. She recalls wrenching arguments with her mother; her discovery of literature (she devours Conrad, Orwell, Camus, Hemingway); and the on-again, off-again turmoil of her star-crossed romance with a smart but noncommittal classmate. She conveys the CCP’s brutishness (the curfews, the bullying, the propaganda) and the poverty of Communism (Lai uses the prize money from a writing competition to buy her family a television—in 1987). She reminds us that, even under authoritarianism, beautiful individuals retain a sense of wonder.

Lai Wen is not another modern novelist lost in a maze of introspection. She has been careful, amid her brooding, to put together a ripping good yarn. She writes in the King’s English. She serves up plenty of sex and violence, but with sophistication (a rare knack). Her narrative builds tension—which more than a few highbrow novelists these days forget to do—and does so even as the reader knows with grave precision the bloody end toward which all is hurtling.

The only flaws appear at the last gasp. In the closing pages, Lai Wen takes strange liberties with the identity of Tank Man. She then tries to connect the Tiananmen massacre with the Black Lives Matter movement, #MeToo, and “the fight to attain abortion rights.” The reader is spared, presumably by the publishing schedule, from being subjected to her opinion about the campus Gaza protests. Thank goodness. At any rate, skip the epilogue.

These false parallels are especially noisome because the regime that murdered Lai Wen’s classmates is still with us. In fact, the CCP’s stranglehold on Chinese society has only grown. Since the unrest of 1989, and partly because of it, the censorship is stricter, the surveillance broader, the indoctrination more thorough. Meantime, the Party has taken over Hong Kong, jailed its activists and dissidents, and shut down its annual Tiananmen vigil. Thirty-five years ago, the demonstrators wanted basic rights: free expression and meaningful political participation. Today, those rights remain a dream on the Chinese mainland; Hong Kong has lost them. 

Nothing is admirable about protest for its own sake. The world contains evil, yes, but also ignorance and pride. We need the strength to support the righteous causes; the resolve to spurn the many specious, overblown, or downright vile ones; and the wisdom to tell the difference. The novel Lai Wen has written is inspirational, but she leaves you wondering if she knows why.

Photo by David Turnley/Getty Images


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