Supping with a Long Spoon — dinner with Premier Li, November 1988

‘Therfore bihoveth hire a ful long spoon
That shal ete with a feend,’ thus herde I seye.

— Geoffrey Chaucer, ‘The Squieres Tale’

He who sups with the Devil should have a long spoon.

— proverb based on Chaucer

It is thirty years since I broke bread with Li Peng 李鵬. It was on 17 November 1988, and Li was visiting Australia on his first foray on the international stage as premier of the People’s Republic of China. Australia was the second stop on an itinerary starting with Thailand and ending with New Zealand.

At the time, I was completing a doctoral dissertation at The Australian National University in Canberra. On the morning of the 17th, a friend working in the Australia China Council called to invite me to the formal state dinner being hosted by Prime Minister Bob Hawke that evening. The main government interpreter, exhausted by non-stop work at high-level meetings from the moment Li touched down in Sydney a few days earlier, was requesting a night off. As I had some experience as an interpreter and, having been involved in the 1985 visit to Canberra by Hu Yaobang, then the General Secretary of the China’s Communist Party, my friend hoped that I could act for Hawke. What follows are my recollections of that evening.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
10 December 2018

***

A Note on ‘Five Courses, No Soup’

Following the Mise-en-scène below, this essay is divided into ‘five courses’: Amuse-gueule; Starters; Main course; Sorbet; and Dessert. ‘Five Courses, No Soup’ is a reference to the expression 四菜一湯 sì cài yī tāng, literally ‘four dishes and a soup’.

Determined to limit bureaucratic waste and curtail the excesses common under the previous ruling house, Zhu Yuanzhang (朱元璋, 1328-1398), founder of the Ming dynasty, decreed that henceforth banquets would be limited to ‘four dishes and one soup’. It is recorded that, for a time, he even personally chose the menu. Zhu’s interdiction, like previous attempts to impose sumptuary regulations on Chinese officialdom, was soon forgotten.

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in October 1949, Premier Zhou Enlai decreed that, henceforth, official banquets should be limited to ‘four dishes and one soup’. Over the following decades similar restrictions were re-iterated yet, as in both the Ming and Qing dynasties, they were honoured more in the breach than in the observation.

As part of his signature ‘anti-corruption’ drive, Xi Jinping renewed the hallowed call for limits on official excess. Once more, official banquets were to consist of no more than ‘four dishes and one soup’.

This memoir concludes with Simon Leys’s observations on ‘raw and untreated truth’.


Five Courses, No Soup

Geremie R. Barmé

Mise-en-scène

The state dinner for Li Peng on 17 November 1988 was held in the Great Hall of Australia’s new Parliament House in Canberra, the national capital. The grandiloquent structure replaced a ‘provisional parliament house’ at the bottom of the hill that had been in use from 1927. It was officially opened by the Queen of Australia, the British monarch Elizabeth II, on 9 May 1988. The design of the building was said to symbolise the concord of two boomerangs positioned both atop and in Capital Hill, the focal point of the city. The bulge of the massive structure was soon dubbed ‘The Cowpat’ or ‘The Bunker’ by its subterranean denizens.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser is greeted by Hua Guofeng, June 1976

A meal with Li Peng was not my first encounter with China’s Communist leaders. As an exchange student in the People’s Republic in the 1970s I had attended a state dinner at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing hosted by the newly elevated Premier Hua Guofeng. Deng Xiaoping had recently been ousted and Hua hosted the visit to China Australian’s prime minister Malcom Fraser in June 1976. A decade later, in April 1985, I was an interpreter when representatives of the Australian government met with a high-level Chinese delegation at Old Parliament House. Prime Minister Bob Hawke chaired a gathering of his cabinet for formal discussions with Communist Party Secretary Hu Yaobang and Hu Qili, Secretary of the Party’s Secretariat. It was during the burgeoning ‘bromance’ of the Australian leader with the Chinese party-state under Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang.

There were assurances that Australia would ride the tide of China’s economic reform, but editors in the pop media couldn’t keep from having a bit of racially tinged fun. Taking a cue from the expression ‘It’s not who you know, it’s who you ho’, one tabloid headline welcomed the Communist with a headline that screamed ‘Who Ya Bang!’; and in bawdy ’Strine fashion, people soon characterised Australia’s supposedly ‘special relationship’ with the People’s Republic with the quip: ‘It doesn’t matter Who Ya Know, what counts is Who Ya Bang!’

(A few years later, Aussie tabloid merriment ridiculing Hu Yaobang’s name was unintentionally replicated by wags in Beijing who, affronted by the Zhongnanhai merry-go-round, mocked the new leader’s names: Zhao Ziyang 趙紫陽 was called ‘Condom’ 罩子陽 and his ‘head’ of government, Li Peng 李鵬, was known as ‘Waste-a-Load’ 裏噴.)

But I had never had to interpret for a one-on-one conversation between the leaders of the two nations, and the November 1988 dinner came at a significant moment in the Australia-China bilateral relationship. Given my history with the People’s Republic since the early 1970s, I was an unlikely participant.

***

Hu Yaobang surveying Australia’s mineral wealth with Bob Hawke in April 1985

I had returned to Australia in 1983 following an absence of nearly a decade having gone to China as an exchange student in 1974, during another period of Labor-led change in the country: Gough Whitlam, elected prime minister in 1972, had moved quickly to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic.

In 1983, in the Australia I knew, there was a mood of euphoria since Bob Hawke’s Labor Party trounced the conservatives in a national election; soon after, a Perth-based shyster by the name of Alan Bond helped fund a yacht that won the America’s Cup, something famously celebrated by Hawke as a national victory; and, a long-lasting drought broke. Things were somewhat more ominous in what Australian’s used to call ‘The Near North’ for, in that same year, the Chinese Communist Party launched a nationwide crackdown on crime along with an ideological campaign against ‘Spiritual Pollution’. Downplayed by many at the time as nothing more than a side-show to the real story of China’s economic reforms, I believed that these were signs of things to come. I published a long essay about the attack on Spiritual Pollution in the Australian media (see Culture Clubbed: Dealing with China’s ‘Spiritual Pollution’, The National Times, November 1983-January 1984).

Premier Zhao Ziyang with Bob Hawke in Beijing, May 1986

My doctoral research at The Australian National University under the supervision of Pierre Ryckmans (Simon Leys) was frequently punctuated by trips to Hong Kong and China. These included an extended period in Hong Kong in 1985-1986 working with John Minford to edit Seeds of Fire: Chinese Voices of Conscience, a volume reflecting the cultural ebullience of what we called the ‘Chinese Commonwealth’ (Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China), and the on-going threat of political repression. The book had been commissioned by Ian Buruma, the culture and arts editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review.

Mao Zedong, Gough Whitlam, Stephen FitzGerald, October 1973

(The book came out in August 1986 and shortly thereafter a contact in the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs gave former prime minister Gough Whitlam, who was acknowledged as the prescient architect of the Australia-China relationship, a copy. When the great man was visiting Canberra in late 1986, I was summoned to a meeting. Having gone over Seeds prior to the audience, Whitlam, a man noted for his voracious reading habits and a prodigious memory, took it upon himself to berate me: this kind of book did not reflect the main trends in China and it was unhelpful to the bilateral relationship, in particular because it emphasised the non-official art scene and dissent. Whitlam took particular offense at our lampooning of the Communist Party’s official over-culture and our dark assessment of the ‘deep structure’ of Chinese politics. Unbeknownst to me, this dressing down followed an attempt by Whitlam to block the appointment of Pierre Ryckmans as professor of Chinese Studies at the University of Sydney, his alma mater. Judge Roddy Meagher, also an alumnus of that institution and a friend of Pierre’s, was indignant at Whitlam’s interference. It turns out that the former prime minister, who was a member of the University Council had spoken against Pierre’s appointment due to his ‘anti-China’ writings. ‘It is as if,’ Meagher remarked, ‘in the thirties, one had opposed the appointment of a Jewish scholar to a chair of German on the grounds that it would not be welcome to the German Government’. On the evening discussed below, Whitlam acknowledged me with a nod and a curt greeting. I could tell that he hadn’t forgotten our earlier encounter.)

Following demonstrations demanding a free media and political reform in late 1986, Hu Yaobang was sacked as the head of the Communist Party and a series of high-profile, and outspoken, intellectuals, were also purged and publicly denounced in the official Chinese media. John Minford and I took advantage of the opportunity offered by the publication of Seeds of Fire by Hill & Wang (an imprint of Farrar, Straus & Giroux) in New York in November 1988 to include new chapters in the book that would cover these events. We included an interview with the astrophysicist Fang Lizhi by the Italian journalist Tiziano Terzani in a chapter simply titled ‘Dissent’. Another chapter that we called ‘Bourgelib’, focussed on the purges of culture and independent thought since 1979 and included material from Liu Binyan, Wang Ruowang, Wu Zuguang, Bo Yang, Lee Yee, Hah Gong and Ba Jin (see 白杰明, 初級階段的幾種知識分子,《九十年代月刊》, 1987年12月, 第81-83頁). This was followed by ‘Pressure Points’, a lengthy chapter inspired by the Hungarian dissident writer Miklos Haraszti’s book Velvet Prison: the artist under state socialism which included excerpts from an interview I had conducted with Liu Xiaobo the previous year, as well as the first translations of songs by a young Chinese rocker by the name of Cui Jian (I had painstakingly transcribed the lyrics from a battered cassette tape of Cui’s music). The concluding chapter was simply titled ‘Böd’. It addressed the ongoing tragedy of Tibetan China.

Three months prior to Li Peng’s state visit, Fang Lizhi, one of the Communist Party’s bêtes-noire who had been purged at the time of Li’s rise to power, was hosted by my university during the week 14-21 August 1988. He addressed a large and enthusiastic audience (consisting mostly of mainland Chinese students) in which he re-stated his views about the dangers facing China, and the world, if the leaders of his homeland refused to pursue legal and political reforms concomitant with their economic agenda. Fang and his wife, Li Shuxian, and me and my wife, Linda Jaivin, became friendly, and I was able to give them an advance copy of the North American edition of Seeds of Fire which contained his interview with Tiziano Terzani.

At the time, I was adding the finishing touches to my dissertation and I had only recently returned from an extended research trip to the People’s Republic, during which I had visited provincial libraries to hand-copy material related to my topic (photocopiers were unavailable and cameras forbidden). On the road, I, along with tens of millions of other viewers, had seen the blockbuster TV series Héshāng 河殤. Back in Beijing I had searched out its makers. In what was the first review of the documentary, published in early November by Far Eastern Economic Review, I decided to translate the title Héshāng 河殤 as ‘River Elegy’ (see also 白杰明, 電視系列片《河殤》及其啓示, 《九十年代月刊》, 1988年9月, 第98-100頁). I note this, not merely because of the later notoriety of that TV series — after 4 June, it would be pilloried for contributing to the ‘counter-revolutionary uprising’ — but as background to the comments I made to Prime Minister Bob Hawke during the meal with Li Peng described below.

Amuse-gueule

Upon formally assuming the premiership in April 1988 following the annual sessions of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, Li Peng had addressed a press conference. The new premier even took questions from the foreign media. The gesture was hailed by the international community as further evidence of China’s continued openness and its unstoppable progress towards adopting recognisable standards of modern (that is, ‘western’) political ritual.

Li had been acting premier since October 1987 after his predecessor, Zhao Ziyang, had been appointed Communist Party General Secretary; Zhao had in turn replaced Hu Yaobang, the disgraced Party leader purged in early 1987 for ideological weakness in the face of ‘bourgeois liberalisation’ (that is, increasing popular pressure for the Party to launch substantive political reforms in tandem with the economic reform agenda).

My friend Marlowe Hood, a Beijing-based stringer for the Wall Street Journal, was among the pack of journalists that day and, as the carefully stage-managed event drew to a close, he realised that he had been called on. Instead of asking the kind of pro forma question that allowed Li to regurgitate Party policy, Marlowe had the wit to ask the premier about his hobbies, and what he liked doing in his spare time. Stunned by an unexpected query from a young Chinese-speaking journalist, Li sat frozen for what seemed like minutes before mumbling, ‘I haven’t really prepared for this question.’ After what seemed like an interminable period of blank-faced cogitation, the Chinese Premier offered:

As a member of the Communist Party of China, naturally, in my free time, I like to read Marxist-Leninist works. Oh, yes: I also enjoy cooking.

***

Despite his formidable personality deficit, Li Peng’s advent was a significant, and deeply troubling, event. He was seen as the agent both of ideological recidivism and the kind of economic thinking that was closer in spirit, and policy approach, to the revisionist Soviet Union than the neo-liberal Chicago School. Aficionados were well aware that the new premier represented a seismic shift in the country’s politics: he was both a ‘Red Engineer’, to use Joel Andreas’s expression, trained at Tsinghua University, as well as being the son of a revolutionary martyr raised by Zhou Enlai and his wife Deng Yingchao. Twenty-five years would pass before the next ‘Red Princeling’ rose to national prominence.

After all, Li Peng was among the Moscow-trained Chinese students encouraged by Mao Zedong in 1957 with the words:

The world is yours, as well as ours, but in the last analysis, it is yours. You young people, full of vigor and vitality, are in the bloom of life, like the sun at eight or nine in the morning. Our hope is placed on you.

世界是你們的,也是我們的,但是歸根結底是你們的。你們青年人朝氣蓬勃,正在興旺時期,好像早晨八九點鐘的太陽。希望寄託在你們身上。

Parliament House, Canberra, 1988

For Starters

Because of my role that evening, the writer and journalist Linda Jaivin — my wife at the time — was also invited to the Great Hall of Parliament House, although she got to sit with a more agreeable crowd. Linda recalled the night in an essay published in 2013:

It was late 1988. The occasion was a state banquet in honour of the visiting Chinese premier Li Peng. Thanks to an old friend in Protocol, my then husband, China scholar Geremie Barmé, and I had landed seats at the top two tables as spare translators. I was at Table Two with Gough and Margaret Whitlam. Barmé was at Table One, seated between Hawke and Li Peng. Hawke, through my husband, asked Li to pass on his best wishes to his ‘mates’, former Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang and General Secretary Zhao Ziyang. Li, who was not personally or politically ‘mates’ with either, stared at his hands and gracelessly picked at his fingernails.

Li batted away Hawke’s attempts at small talk with one-word replies until Hawke gave up and chatted with Barmé instead. Discreetly gesturing with his thumb in the direction of the Chinese premier, Hawke said he’d heard that ‘this bloke’ was locked in a power struggle with Zhao Ziyang. Barmé confirmed this. Hawke asked him who he thought would win. Barmé’s eyes flicked in Li’s direction. ‘Aw, shit,’ Hawke replied.

Linda Jaivin, Fairweather Mates
The Monthly, February 2013

Actually, it was more than just a flick of the eyes, for I followed it up by saying: ‘You’re sitting next to the winner.’ After the expletive Hawke said, ‘That’s not what my people [presumably those in the Australian intelligence and foreign affairs establishments] are telling me.’ I suggested that he had better get ready for a stark future without the ‘mateship’ of Communists like Zhao Ziyang, who Hawkie regarded as a friend.

Being Served a Main Course 

Prior to this, and as if roused from a dream, Li Peng had suddenly turned to me; it was as though he was making a token gesture to engage in ‘small talk’ with the help. Although I’d been interpreting for Bob Hawke the better part of an hour, Li asked: ‘Do you speak Chinese?’ Having established that I didn’t require the service of the blushing factotum next to him, Li then said ‘I suppose you work for foreign affairs’ or, rather, in his mannerless diction: 是外交部的? He was surprised to learn that I was standing in for the regular interpreter and that I was pursuing doctoral research at the nearby university on a topic related to China’s Republic.

Then, with barely a flicker of interest, Li said:

民国史啊:民国有个叫袁世凯的,你知道吗?
Ah, yes, the history of the Republic of China: have you ever heard of someone called YUAN SHI KAI?

The Premier enunciated the name slowly and clearly for, although we had established that I could indeed converse in Chinese, he still spoke to me as though I were a halfwit. The question was an unintended gift. Like so many others, I had been appalled by the purge of Hu Yaobang in early 1987, not to mention the denunciation of the outspoken Party men Fang Lizhi, Liu Binyan and Wang Ruowang. This was later followed by Hu Qiaomu’s request that my old friend the playwright Wu Zuguang quit the Party or face expulsion for his ‘bourgeois liberalist’ tendencies. Those events were part of a political and economic counter-current to the post-Mao reforms; they also saw the rise of Li Peng to power. What an ideal chance to cause the ranine Li a little indigestion!

知道:他是民國初年的一位怪傑
I do indeed: he was a 怪傑 guàijié in the early years of the Republic.

怪傑 guàijié: has a range of meanings including: eccentric public figure, a fascinating oddity or just a preposterous character; monstre sacré is an approximation. Yuan Shikai was indeed notorious, and excoriated by the Communists. In the late 1890s, he had betrayed the reform movement supported by the Guangxu Emperor aimed at saving the Qing dynasty from political and social collapse. Yuan supported the Dowager Empress during her last decade in power and, then, following the abdication of the imperial house in early 1912, he craftily positioned himself to become president of the new republic. Shortly thereafter, he betrayed the Republic by making an abortive attempt to found a new dynasty, the Empire of China 中華帝國. Today, his China Palace 中華宮, Zhongnanhai, is the seat of the People’s Republic party-state

不,不: 袁世凯是个反面教员
No, no! YUAN SHI KAI is a NEGATIVE TEACHING EXAMPLE!

反面教員 fǎnmiàn jiàoyuán: literally, a ‘negative teacher’, or ‘someone who teaches you what not to do’, or ‘teaches through negative example’. Mao used the expression and, along with 反面教材 fǎnmiàn jiàocái, or ‘negative teaching material’, it became a staple of Chinese education and political discourse. Readers avidly sought out negative teaching material

Li testily spluttered these words with the same finger-pointing emphasis that the whole world witnessed when, seated in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing the following May, he lectured an upstart student protester by the name of Wuer Kaixi.

Not one to let things go without a bit of ‘pushback’, I added mischievously:

那時還有一位叫做張勳;帥令辮子軍的張勳:他也是個怪傑。
And then there’s Zhang Xun and his pig-tail army. He was also quite a character 怪傑 guàijié.

 Zhang Xun (張勳, 1854-1923) was another reviled early republican strongman. A supporter of Yuan during his presidency, in 1917 Zhang led a military force, the members of which still had their hair braided in queues, symbolising loyalty to the fallen dynasty, in an unsuccessful attempt to restore the Qing and the last emperor, Xuantong (宣統帝 gehungge yoso hūwangdi, Aisin Gioro Pu I 愛新覺羅 · 溥儀, aka Henry Puyi, 1906-1967). The restoration lasted a little over eleven days

Without missing a beat, Li shot back:

他也是反面教员!
He was also a Negative Teaching Example!

And with that I was dismissed. That was the extent of our ‘dialogue’ 對話, to use a term made famous by Li’s mishandling of student protests. Those demonstrators would prove to be far more obstreperous than me.

Palate-cleansing Sorbet

This exchange was carried on while the Australian prime minister sat in baffled silence. Never known to be a history buff, our garrulous leader now asked me what in heaven’s name that had all been about. When I explained the conversation he in turn grunted with disinterest and ventured forth to engage his guest in chit-chat about such gripping topics as golf and hydroelectricity, the former a prime-ministerial obsession, the latter Premier Li’s area of expertise. I dutifully returned to my task as translator and did my best to ‘add oil and vinegar’ 加油添醋, that is, choose language that was as engaging as possible, to buoy up Bob’s flagging bonhomie.

The names Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang came up, as Linda describes in the above and, after Li Peng picked at his fingernails, Hawke and I had our own little chat.

My observations on the near-open factional warfare in Beijing were hardly fanciful, or dependent on the crystal-ball gazing common in China watching. Anyone, and I mean anyone, who was paying attention, and not only to the economic liberalisers around Zhao Ziyang, could have told Bob Hawke pretty much the same thing. Reading the press, following the Hong Kong media (including the insightful, if distasteful, analyses and warnings by He Xin 何新 in Ming Pao Monthly), speaking to people in Beijing, Shanghai and elsewhere who were responding to the mounting economic crisis and on-going political tensions unleashed by the 1987 purge, it was evident to me that 1989 would be a cataclysmic year. Even soothsayers had noted that the upheavals of the 1988 Year of the Dragon  presaged disaster; after all, the previous Year of the Dragon was 1976 during which Zhou Enlai, Zhu De and Mao Zedong died, the Tangshan Earthquake killed hundreds of thousands, and a military coup ousted the ‘Gang of Four’, events that initiated a process that is now, in 2018, being celebrated as the dawn of four decades of Reform and the Open Door.

Furthermore, even a moderately well-connected observer who was familiar with the Chinese gossip salons of Beijing would also have known that, earlier in 1988, Party chief Zhao Ziyang had chaired meetings convened to prepare for the kind of popular unrest that might well result from the shock therapy price reforms being introduced by the government. Those meetings had formulated a plan to impose martial law on the capital and other key Chinese cities in the case of mass unrest. The stench of sulphur was thick in the air.

Following the main course, the two leaders stood on the stage to make obligatory formal speeches. These were followed by the evening’s entertainment — a lacklustre orientalist dance-drama performed by the Chinese Youth League of Australia entitled ‘The Dragon Down Under’. It told an upbeat story of the Chinese community; that is to say, there was no mention of such unseemly issues as anti-Chinese riots, the White Australia Policy, or ongoing racism, although Hawke had touched on some of these issues in his remarks. During the show, I again attempted to prod the doughy Communist. Surely Premier Li must find performances like this, no matter how well intentioned, to be a tad irksome, I asked, in particular as they were derived from Jiang Qing’s Model Theatre Productions 樣板戲, which were now outlawed in China itself. By then, however, Li Peng had my measure, and he ignored me.

Just Dessert

Before too long, I heard that there was considerable displeasure with me in Canberra’s corridors of power. Not being bound by the strictures of the Australian public service, and indeed entirely ignorant of official protocol — no one had bothered to brief me on the evening, or even to suggest that the brain-numbing exchanges between Hawkie and Li Peng were tantamount to being a state secret — I’d blabbed about the dinner with fellow doctoral students, teachers and friends. In particular, I mentioned Hawke’s expletive when I had told him that I thought 1989 would see a showdown between Zhao and his opposition and that Zhao was headed for a fall. The China boosterists in academia and the Australian government were not amused by such off-piste remarks, and one of the most prominent among them told me so in no uncertain terms.

In early 1989, Linda Jaivin, who we will recall had been on Table Two that night in November the previous year, bumped into an Australian diplomat at the Beijing home of a journalist friend. When the dippo realised she was my wife, he said that my leaking Bob Hawke’s comment about Li Peng was already known all over the Chinese capital. He added words to the effect that: ‘a hell of a lot of people in Australian Foreign Affairs would like to see Barmé turfed into Lake Burley Griffin’ (the artificial body of water in the centre of Canberra); and they added, ‘with cement booties on his feet!’

A few days later, Linda visited our friends the translators Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang. It was at one of their usual whiskey-fueled salons. When Linda was introduced as coming from Australia, one of the Chinese guests chimed up to recount a story he had heard about this Australian academic called ‘Bai Jieming’ 白杰明 (my Chinese name), the Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke and Li Peng. The raconteur told his story with a confident flair, liberally adding apocryphal details.

By the time I was next in Beijing, in May 1989, it seemed that everyone I knew was anxious to relate the Australian state secret they had heard about. They assured me that they had it on the best authority.


The Morning After the Night Before

Raw and Untreated Truth

Some seven months after supping with Li Peng in November 1988, I would be back in the Great Hall of Parliament House. This time I was on the stage with Prime Minister Bob Hawke, Dr Stephen FitzGerald, Australia’s first ambassador to the People’s Republic, and many others. We had gathered to mourn those murdered during the Beijing Massacre of 3-4 June, and also to mark what, for a time, seemed like a hard-won and clear-eyed Australian understanding of the nature of the Communist-dominated Chinese party-state.

In the wake of the massacre, Simon Leys (Pierre Ryckmans, my undergraduate Chinese teacher and, later, my doctoral supervisor) observed:

There is in Lie Zi (third century BC) a parable about a man whose particular talent enabled him to identify thieves at first sight: he only needed to look at a certain spot between the eye and the brow, and he could recognise instantly whether a person was a thief. The king naturally decided to give him a position in the Ministry of Justice, but before the man could take up his appointment, the thieves of the kingdom banded together and had him assassinated. For this reason, clear-sighted people were generally considered cripples, bound to come to a bad end; this was also known proverbially in Chinese as ‘the curse of the man who can see the little fish at the bottom of the ocean’.

Yet sometimes — as we have just witnessed in Peking — truth breaks free. Like a river that ruptures its dams, it overwhelms all our defences, violently erupts into our lives, floods our cosy homes, and leaves high and dry in the middle of the street, for all to see, the fish that used to dwell in the deep.

Such tidal waves can by very frightening; fortunately, they are relatively rare and do not last long. Sooner or later, the waters recede. Usually, brave engineers set to work at once and start rebuilding the dykes. The latest attempts by the communist propaganda organs to explain that ‘no one actually died in Tian’anmen Square’ may betray a slightly excessive zeal (one is reminded of the good souls who, probably wishing to restore our faith in human nature, insisted that, in Auschwitz, gas was used only to kill lice), but if we give them enough time, in due course their ministrations will certainly succeed in healing the wounds that the brutal dumping of raw and untreated truth inflicted upon our sensitivities.

Whenever a minute of silence is being observed in a ceremony, don‘t we all soon begin to throw discreet glances at our watches? Exactly how long should a ‘decent interval’ last before we can resume business-as-usual with the butchers of Peking? The senile and ferocious despots who decided to slaughter the youth, the hope and the intelligence of China may have made many miscalculations — still, on one count, they were not mistaken: they shrewdly assessed that our capacity to sustain our indignation would be very limited indeed.

The businessmen, the politicians, the academic tourists who are already packing their suitcases for their next trip to Peking are not necessarily cynical though some of them have just announced that, this time, the main purpose of their visit will be to go to Tian’anmen Square to mourn for the martyrs! — and they may even have a point when they insist that, in agreeing once more to sit at the banquet of the murderers, they are actively strengthening the reformist trends in China. I only wish they had weaker stomachs.

Ah humanity! — the pity of us all! …

Simon Leys, The Curse of the Man
Who Could See the Little Fish
at the Bottom of the Ocean,
New York Review of Books, 22 June 1989


Postscript 

In 1989, I took up a post-doctoral fellowship at the Institute of Advanced Studies at The Australian National University to work on confessional culture in post-Mao China. Following 4 June, apart from more run-of-the-mill academic duties, I developed a Tiananmen Documentation Project that contributed to my work on Liu Xiaobo, He Xin and Dai Qing. With John Minford I also began planning a sequel to Seeds of Fire: Chinese Voices of Conscience (1986, 1988). In the event, New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices, which I co-edited with Linda Jaivin, appeared in 1992. Those books, along with my participation in the April 1989 Bolinas Conference (see On the Eve, China Heritage, 29 January 2018), led Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon to invite me to work on the documentary film The Gate of Heavenly Peace (Boston: Long Bow Group 1995), for which I was the main writer and lead academic adviser. For the next two decades I had nothing more to do with Australia’s leaders until, that is, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd invited me to contribute to a speech he was planning to make at Peking University in April 2008 (for the details, see Contentious Friendship — Watching China Watching (XXI)China Heritage, 29 April 2018).

Li Peng remained premier of the People’s Republic until 1998, and sat on the Standing Committee of the Communist Party’s Politburo until 2002. After quitting the premiership at the end of his term, Li became Chairman of the National People’s Congress, a post he held from 1998 to 2003.

Bob Hawke was forced out of office in 1991 by Paul Keating, his ambitious treasurer. He went on to find success, and considerable wealth, in the business world. After 4 June, and despite his public mourning for the victims of the Beijing Massacre, Hawke’s relationship with the People’s Republic was soon back on an even keel. He was one of the first prominent international figures to lend their names to the Strategy and Management group, a quasi-academic body set up with PLA backing in June 1989. The ‘Young Turks’ of Strategy and Management 戰略與管理, whose number included the vicious xenophobe Wang Xiaodong 王小東, played a key role in the rise both of virulent party-state and commercial nationalism in the People’s Republic. Hawke remains an ‘Old Friend of China’.