Tiananmen Anniversary: Memory of executed poet resonates
Lin Zhao, who was executed in 1968, challenged history and Mao.
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Lin witnessed the Great Leap Forward, when millions died from starvation, though China was exporting grain. She thought Mao's program "insanity." Lin turned to Christianity. She criticized through poems such as "A Day of Suffering for Prometheus." In it, Zeus asks Prometheus, the god who brings fire to humans, "Is your head made of granite?" Prometheus says, "No, but it is protected by truth."Skip to next paragraph
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She had a relentless, stubborn quality that is a certain Chinese type – like the young teacher in Zhang Yimou's film "Not One Less." Or perhaps like the solitary young man who, 20 years ago this June, faced down a line of tanks in the famous Tiananmen video.
Now, thanks to Philip Pan of The Washington Post, we know more. Mr. Pan devotes two chapters to Lin in his recent "Out of Mao's Shadow," and tells the compelling story of Mr. Hu, the director. (Read the Monitor's review of "Out of Mao's Shadow" here .)
Hu's research on Lin opened up a history that the documentary filmmaker had never encountered in any Chinese school or book.
Hu saw that the antirightist campaign was "a turning point in Chinese history," as Pan tells it. "The moment when the party reneged on its promise to allow a more democratic political process."
My encounter with Lin formed two questions as I left China. First, must China confront past misdeeds to reach civil reform? Or is there a process hidden in China's tumultuous daily striving that will adjust things?
Second, can Beijing's unstated policy of "gradualism" – slow and stable change – be reconciled with "radical" hopes of those like Lin Zhao, or today's Charter 08 group, one of whose authors, Liu Xiaobo, remains in police detention?
"If China can't reflect on its own behavior, that is not good for the future. If we can't deal with the Cultural Revolution, how are we going to ever let people learn about basic civil rights? Modernization and civil rights go hand in hand."
No honesty about the past
China today is far from the China of Lin Zhao and the Cultural Revolution. That's plain at a time we talk about a "G-2," the US and China. Yet ahead of Tiananmen's 20th anniversary, the party still forbids honesty about its past, including Tiananmen – a moment when China decided to forgo political modernity for economic reform.
They say history is written by the winners. True?
After Lin's final sham trial in Shanghai, she wrote, "This is an extremely reprehensible and shameful judgment … but just watch! The court of history will proclaim a verdict for future generations. Justice will prevail!" She was shot, and her mother charged 5 cents for the bullet.
Last month, a senior party official, Yu Keping, advocated "incremental democracy characterized by some sort of radical reform" in a magazine published by the state news agency, Xinhua.
What that means, and whether efforts like Charter 08 will continue to stir China, is hard to know. The questions are still being asked. To paraphrase former Premier Zhou Enlai's famed comment on the American Revolution, many verdicts are still out.