In twenty or thirty years’ time, perhaps, a monument will be raised to the martyrs of Tiananmen Square, innocent harbingers of a more liberal age. They will be reclassified, of course – transfigured from ‘counter-revolutionaries’ to ‘people’s heroes’ – and the political talk will be of their persecutors’ ‘mistakes’, as if the death of thousands were a slip of the hand.
The jargon is blinding. These sacrificial dead were not political clichés, but impatient and susceptible students and workers, some heroically brave, others naive – youths trapped in the home of their atrophied grandparents. No label really fits them. No label really fits anyone.
Some twenty years ago, in Beijing, a Chinese student bludgeoned to death an elderly porter during the Cultural Revolution because the old man was reading a Westernized novel. Decades later this murderer stood before me in a zoo-park with his daughter’s hand in his. He was quiet-spoken, neatly dressed. He and his gang had come upon the porter one evening in the street, he said. ‘It was a mistake. People said hit him, so you hit him …’