- The Lonely Few:Human Rights and the Dreams of the Tiananmen Generation — Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China by Rowena Xiaoqing He (review)
You will have to run the last lap deaf. You will have to run the last lap by yourself.Primo Levi, “Voices” 10 February 1981
Is dreaming of a better world a human right? It certainly does not appear explicitly in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights put forth by the UN to which China has nodded a most reluctant assent (with a loud proviso that countries still in lower stages of development cannot afford the “luxury” of fully implementing universal rights just yet).1 Many scholars have already documented China’s horrific abuse of prisoners, the lack of free speech, free movement, and free association. Rowena Xiaoqing He’s book offers a different opportunity: To expand the lexicon of “rights” to include a more vague yet compelling spiritual longing for an improvement of the human condition, especially as experienced under totalitarian regimes.
This work does not focus primarily on what happened in Tiananmen Square in May-June, 1989, although every essential fact about the Beijing Spring is noted and documented. Instead, this scholar enables us to listen to the ongoing conversations of a few key activists who now have to go on with mundane daily lives, knowing that the seeds of hope that were sown twenty-six years ago (and which took root all over Europe with the collapse of Communist regimes) are nearly rotting in the soil of enforced amnesia imposed on the Chinese mainland. To be sure, the painful predicament of a few exiled intellectuals does not seem compelling when compared to the ravages witnessed every day and the flood of refugees due to the violent conflict in the Arab Middle East. Yet there is a powerful call to moral conscience embedded in this work; if we do not remember Tiananmen and the brutal crackdown of 4 June, the wounds of history will go on festering much as they do in places where the Holocaust was willfully overlooked or forgotten. Primo Levi, a survivor of Auschwitz was worried about the next generation. This is also Rowena He’s concern in a very different historical context. What will [End Page 516] happen when the next generation ceases to be moved by the painful past? In despair, Levi wrote his poem “Voices” and then committed suicide.
His vision of latter-day young people running the last lap deaf can also serve as a backdrop for Rowena He’s keen attentiveness to the voices of those who shaped the events of 1989. The loneliness she records is not analogous to that of Jewish survivors of the Shoah. Instead, she documents the fate of a dream squelched by state-sponsored patriotism and the most naked encouragement of materialistic consumption. Her methodology of oral history is indebted to a new trend which encourages narrative and autobiographical engagement with the subject. The author, like her three key interlocutors, was a participant in the events of 1989. Like them, she will not let its memory rest un-commemorated. While other researchers have written monographs about the student movement for democracy, Rowena He’s focus is on the enduring shadow of unrealized idealism in the lives of individuals and in China’s conscience as a whole.2
Her subjects can best be described as duxingxia (loners).3 Once we begin to listen to them with a little more attention to the Chinese connotations of exile and homelessness, we are able to develop a keener empathy for those who long “for a time when idealism is not treated as garbage, when those who remain idealistic do not need to collect garbage.”4 While the right to idealism does not appear in the UN declaration, this well-written book enables the imagination to ponder, what would happen if it did? Would we respond more keenly to the grief of men and women who cannot go back and visit aged parents on...