…by middle age Lu Xun had concluded that China’s ills were wholly of its own making and could not, in good conscience, be laid at the doorstep of any foreigner. – Jon Kowallis (The Lyrical Lu Xun, 1996)
In the wake of the brutal repression of the student protests across China in June 1989, a national survey conducted by the government’s Xinhua news agency found that the mood of university students all over the country was one of terror and an inclination to resistance, but that this mood was smothered in silence. Fear of the Communist Party’s secret police induced both the mood and the silence.
Some remained defiant and wrote graffiti on campus walls with slogans such as ‘China is dead!’, ‘Where is justice?’, and ‘The government caused the turmoil!’ One of the most striking pieces of graffiti was ‘Thunder from the silent zone!’
The source of that rather poetic turn of phrase, and this book’s title, is an untitled poem from 1934 by Lu Xun (1881 “1936), one of the most famous and independent-minded of modern Chinese writers. It is a short poem, written in Shanghai, two years before Lu Xun’s death, during the White Terror – Chiang Kai-shek’s effort to extirpate the Communist Party, which had begun in 1927. The poem was a protest against the suppression of dissent and the failure of the Chinese revolution to uphold the rights of the individual.
While translating poetry is a notoriously difficult thing to do, this poem might be rendered into English as follows:
Ten thousand ashen faces stare mutely from the undergrowth.
Who will give them a voice; pour out their sorrows to the Earth?
My heart aches for the unending tribulation of my land;
And in its very silence I hear the rumble of thunder.
This mood was used by the communists after Lu Xun’s death in 1936 to suggest that he was a supporter of the communist revolution. He was not. He was, instead, an admirer of the liberalism of John Stuart Mill, as introduced to the Chinese world by the great translator and man of ideas Yan Fu in the late-nineteenth century.
Mao Zedong described Lu as ‘a man of unyielding integrity, free from all sycophancy or obsequiousness a cultural hero without parallel in our country’s history.’ For this very reason, he could not have worked with Mao Zedong himself.
Had Lu Xun lived long enough to flee to Yan’an in the late 1930s or the 1940s, he would have found a very anti-liberal spirit at work. Had he survived into the 1950s, he would have been appalled by the communist terror and propaganda, and would quite certainly have been arrested during the Anti-Rightist campaign of 1957. He would have been staggered by the catastrophe of the Great Leap Forward, and would have been lucky to have survived the Cultural Revolution.
It was Lu Xun’s spiritual and intellectual heirs who were suppressed by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s and by his successors in the 1990s and 2000s. Individuals such as Hu Yaobang, Hu Jiwei, Qin Benli, Wei Jingsheng, Fang Lizhi, Liu Binyan, Yan Jiaqi, Ruan Ming, and ten thousand others who have been silenced or suppressed were the heirs of Lu Xun. That, ultimately, is why his protest poem gives this book its title and its inspiration.
It was as one of the heirs to Lu Xun that Yan Jiaqi, as director of the Institute of Political Science in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, gave a speech in 1988 titled ‘China Is No Longer A Dragon’. In it he argued that the symbol of the dragon gave China the image of imperial authority and unrestricted power, but that this was ‘inappropriate for a nation seeking to be a democracy’. It should be replaced, he urged, by a symbol more consistent with the idea of the rule of law:
We want to change the concept of the worship of authority represented by ‘dragon culture’ so that governments at all levels, various enterprises and every individual can make their own decisions under conditions permitted by the ‘optional norm’ in the law.
This book is dedicated to the idea of the democratic liberation of China and the Chinese people. Lu Xun used the expression ‘thunder from the silent zone’ to mean ‘explosive anger within a repressed society’. However, I am not using it only in Lu Xun’s sense.
Goddess of Democracy statue in Tiananmen Square.
I am certainly concerned with the suppression of human rights in China and, in particular, with the Tiananmen Square brutality of 1989. I have a broader concern, too, with the Communist Party’s long-standing suppression of all dissent and potential opposition in China. But I am also referring to ‘the silent zone’ surrounding the general understanding of China’s place in the world, and unexamined assumptions about what is possible both within China and in relations between China and the rest of the world.
Within ‘the silent zone’, too many people outside China avoid saying things that might cause offence to ‘China’ (almost always meaning offence to the Chinese Communist Party, which presumes to speak on behalf of the Chinese people), particularly regarding the appalling state of human rights in China, and unreasonable insistence by the powers-that-be in Beijing that Taiwan must accept that it is an inalienable part of the sovereign territory of the People’s Republic of China.
Both the continuing abuses of human rights and the mounting pressure on Taiwan, as well as the orchestrated campaign against Japan early in 2005, make it clear why this silence is intolerable and, indeed, dangerous for the world at large. It must be broken.
Lu Xun was writing of explosive anger about the suppression of democracy and human rights in the Nationalist China of Chiang Kai-shek. He was not alone in doing so, and the democratic dissidents of that time were the forerunners of the far larger numbers who have struggled against the arbitrary rule of the Communist Party since 1949.
In the 1930s and 1940s there were many critics of the Nationalist (Guomindang) dictatorship in China. Liberal intellectuals such as Hu Shi, Luo Longji, Sun Fo, and Zhang Junmai argued that the dictatorship had to give way to democracy, and that human rights, beginning with the right to freedom of speech, had to be respected. Their arguments bear a striking resemblance to those advanced against the communist dictatorship ever since the Hundred Flowers campaign of April to June 1957.
In the 1930s, the response by the regime of Chiang Kai-shek, when it was not outright repression, was that China needed a period of ‘political tutelage’ before it would be ready for democracy. This appears to still be the response from authoritarians now, 70 years after Lu Xun wrote his poem.
The retort of the proponents of democratisation in the 1930s was that, even if political tutelage was necessary, there was no self-evident reason why the Nationalist Party should have a monopoly on it. Nor should it occur without a constitution that would enshrine and protect human rights, since otherwise the tutelage would be in submitting to an arbitrary dictatorship, not a democratic government.
The demands for democratisation had their roots in the reform movement under the late Qing Dynasty, and in the 1919 May Fourth Movement. They were reinforced from 1929, in opposition to the Nationalist dictatorship imposed by Chiang Kai-shek as he sought to unify China by force and crush the communist movement. Those demands, as articulated by Hu Shi and Luo Longji, were not made because of a few abuses of human rights by the Nationalists and certainly not out of covert support for the communist revolution, but because of fundamental principles of political philosophy. It was a fellow liberal, Zhang Xiruo, who wrote to Hu Shi in July 1929, praising him for having the ‘rare courage and seriousness’ to lecture the government on behalf of ‘the silent majority’.
The Nationalists were no more inclined to heed their critics than the Communist Party has been. The staunch anti-communist Chen Qitian warned, in 1932, that there were disturbing similarities between the Nationalist dictatorship and the late Qing Dynasty in their resistance to constitutional reform, and that the Nationalists would meet the same fate as the Qing. Chen was proven right. Unfortunately, they met their fate at the hands of Mao Zedong’s Communist Party, which then put in place a dictatorship more complete and more ruthless than anything the Qing or the Nationalists had so much as contemplated.
The dictatorship is still in place, despite all the changes that have occurred since the death of Mao Zedong, in 1976. Remarkably, it still defends its monopoly of political power on the basis that China is not ready for democracy, or that democracy is not compatible with Chinese culture. Given the Communist Party’s history, these are truly extraordinary claims.
It is not the Chinese people who require tutelage from the Party, but the party which requires tutelage, at the very least, from the Chinese people. It requires correction by the ballot box, by a free press, by an independent judiciary, and by a citizenry able to defend its rights without being imprisoned, shot, or crushed beneath tanks.
This is an edited extract from Thunder from the Silent Zone: Rethinking China, which is published by Scribe, $35.00.
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