"Nonstop imagery is our surround, but when it comes to remembering, the photograph has the deeper bite....
In an era of information overload, the photograph..is like a quotation, or a maxim or proverb."
(Susan Sontag: Regarding the Pain of Others 2003)

03 June, 2009

#8964 Another Brick in the Great Chinese Fire Wall – Some Sober Thoughts ahead of the Tiananmen Anniversary

Match the correct caption to this photo (but don’t win £100,000):

A) Daily Telegraph publishes photo of the latest garden ornament bought on expenses by leading Labour MP (note iconic portrait of Party Leader in background).
B) French tourists inspect the unusual & ingenious exchange gift presented by President Obama to President Sarkozy ahead of their commemoration of D-Day (note iconic portrait of Party Leader in the background).
C) The makeshift “Goddess of Democracy” statue surrounded by student protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in May 1989.

Do you even remember the wonky, jolie-laide, but somehow potent figure which, for a few weeks at least, came to symbolize the aspirations of many younger Chinese for more transparency, democracy, for less corruption and repression. Oddly enough, it is an image you don’t see very much any more. I wonder why.

It was rather more difficult to suppress the equally identifiable image of “Tank Man” – the one which sits permanently at the top of this blog for – I hope – obvious reasons. Perhaps because the tank man was photographed by half a dozen Western photographers and won several awards, most notably the overall World Press Photo in 1989 - awarded to the shot taken by Charlie Cole of Newsweek.

I wasn’t at Tiananmen but I was as near as I could get – around 1200 miles to the South, huddled in Statue Square with hundreds and hundreds of like-minded optimists, milling between three bizarre monuments to Hong Kong’s colonial past: the Cenotaph War Memorial, the Mandarin Hotel & the Hong Kong Club. Frankly, there was not much we could practically do, but we felt we had to do something and so we came together, collectively symbolising solidarity with our peers in Beijing.

I was born in Hong Kong and I doubt if I will ever be able to do justice to what it was really like, growing up in such a politically anachronistic and avowedly capitalist society, hanging on gingerly to the underbelly of the mighty and hostile Chinese dragon. Perhaps my feelings for what was then the Peking regime were crystallised during the 1967-68 pro-Communist riots in the colony, during which we went to school in armoured cars and several of my father’s peers in the Fire Brigade and the Police Force lost their lives to random bombs and in violent street skirmishes.

On Monday night, I duly attended an event devoted to Tiananmen + 20 at London’s Frontline Club which champions independent journalism. The influential panel included Shiao Jiang, one of the organisers of the protests, who was subsequently imprisoned & eventually fled to the West after years of harassment. Shiao Jiang wore a simple black tee-shirt bearing the Tank Man image.

I hope to post later at greater length on the compelling, if frustratingly truncated, panel discussion. Founding Editor of the authoritative Chinadialogue, Isabel Hilton, provided several insightful contributions to the discussion which was expertly moderated by Sky News Foreign Editor Tim Marshall. Telegraph.co.uk's Kate Day did an excellent job live-tweeting from the event.

Inevitably, the debate came round to the potential of technology, the Web, the burgeoning Chinese blogosphere and enthusiastic uptake of Social Media. BBC World Service China Editor Shirong Chen suggested that communication technology was certainly pushing the boundaries of transparency within China, but the Party should never be underestimated and “could so easily put the lid back on”.

Nevertheless, I skipped out of the Club later, feeling that my few days standing in Statue Square 20 years ago might not have been totally in vain and that the amazing world-wide intraweb and the inexorable rise of on-line communities might - eventually - effect some real change in 21st century China.

Yet Shirong Chen was extraordinarily prophetic; when I logged on the very next morning, I discovered that China had blocked a range of social networks, including Flickr.com, Twitter, Hotmail accounts and even the new Microsoft Bing. The censors had already been at work according to the BBC’s Beijing-based James Reynolds.

One of the very first Chinese characters you learn to write – after your numbers of course: 一; 二; 三 - is 中 as in 中国

This image: copyright Reuters

The word for China: the Middle Kingdom. An empire which boasts several millenia of advanced and civilised culture and history, an empire which now has well over a billion of hard-working and deeply aspirational consumers; an empire which - perhaps understandably - sees itself as the kingdom at the centre of the world. Perhaps it is naive of me to think that Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and the ilk, could even start to chip away at the surprisingly agile monolith which is the Chinese Communist Party - but I don't intend to give up hope - not quite yet.