• Satire, Cyberspace and the 25th Anniversary of the June 4th Massacre

    I learned several weeks ago that China Digital Times was about to publish Crazy Crab’s Chinese Dream in Cartoons, an e-book featuring material by a satirist whose work I had enjoyed seeing displayed on their site. When I got my advance copy, I began looking through it eagerly, expecting to be amused or moved by cartoons that I hadn’t seen before as well as appreciating the chance to look at some old favorites again. I wasn’t disappointed. And an added plus was making my way through the accompanying explanatory material provided by Sophie Beach, a central figure at CDT, on topics ranging from the derivation of the cartoonist’s name to the symbolism of some of the harder to parse panels.

    It was nice to learn as well that the proceeds from sales of the e-book, which was published on May 12, were to be split between the cartoonist and CDT. It’s a site worthy of support, as it’s one of the key online ventures that I rely on—as do many others interested in Chinese current affairs—to keep up to speed on how China is being covered by the media and on how the Party tries to scrub the web clean of the many things it fears or simply dislikes.

    Yet another good thing about this e-book is that, simply by appearing, it seemed to have the potential to solve a dilemma with which my China Blog co-editor Maura Cunningham and I had been wrestling. Namely, figuring out a suitably literary way to mark the 25th anniversary of the June 4th Massacre, which would complement two related essays that went up on the main page of the Los Angeles Review of Books yesterday (See Mishi Saran’s“Flames in a Mirror”: Tiananmen Square 25 Years Laterand Albert Wu’sThe Black Iron Cage: Taiwanese Protesters in and Age of Global Unrest). Surely, I thought, a post on the Crazy Crab collection would be appropriate, since among the topics the cartoonist had dealt with in strips run on CDT, as the screen shot above shows, were the massacre itself and the strenuous efforts that the Communist Party has made to suppress commemoration and even discussion of that event.   Actually, the match-up between text and date turned out to be even better than I’d hoped. This is because there are not just 1989-related cartoons, but also many images and phrases that deal with subjects, such as official corruption, that were of intense concern to protesters 25 years ago.

    A final feature of both the book and the site that intrigues me and makes referring to them so appropriate on this anniversary date is the way that they each draw on George Orwell. As for CDT, it has a regular series of translations of “Directives from the Ministry of Truth,” which nods directly to 1984 in the name it uses to refer to “the Central Propaganda Department and subordinate government bodies involved in propaganda and censorship.” Crazy Crab also likes his 1984 allusions, but he’s even more interested in Animal Farm. The second screen shot from CDT below shows just one of the many cartoons he has done that has ties to Orwell’s satiric novella about a revolution that ends up merely changing the names and faces of the oppressors.

    Screen Shot 2014-05-25 at 9.19.03 AM

    I’ve written many things in the last dozen years or so that flag my own fascination with Orwell, but like most people who have brought the writer to bear on discussions of contemporary China, I’ve mostly talked about 1984. Most notably, in a series of commentaries, including my very first contribution to this publication, I’ve ruminated, as other analysts have as well, on the value of thinking of the Chinese Communist Party as relying now on a hybrid sort of strategy to stay in power that combines elements of the sort of “soft authoritarianism” depicted in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (where those in control tried to keep people distracted and focusing on the pursuit of material goods and pleasure) as well the “hard authoritarianism” sort portrayed in 1984 (in which those in power relied more on what Orwell called “boot-on-the-face” techniques). I’ve mused on the elements in this Brave New World + 1984 mash-up varying over time (on June 4th, for example, and in the months immediately following it, the “boot-on-the-face” approach was dominant) and across space (with the bread-and-circuses vision of control described by Huxley being much more relevant for early-21st-century Hong Kong and Shanghai than it has ever been for Lhasa or Urumqi).

    Crazy Crab’s Chinese Dreams in Cartoons doesn’t alter my general thinking on the Huxley vs. Orwell or Huxley + Orwell issue, but it does make me wonder if I should pay more attention to Animal Farm in the future. There are, after all, famous phrases and ideas from Animal Farm as well as 1984 that resonated in 1989 and continue to do so today. One reason that students took to the streets and plazas of scores of Chinese cities 25 years ago, and one reason that members of other groups joined them there, was that they thought that officials and their kith and kin were getting far more than their fair share of the benefits generated by China’s economic reforms. And in recent years, much of the anger that has fueled expressions of discontent in public in China and in the virtual public square of the Internet has been similarly rooted in a sense that the spoils of economic boom times have gone unjustly to a small cluster of interconnected families.

    When the government insists that there was no massacre in 1989, the Orwell phrases that come to mind may be ones from 1984, which speak of the ability of a regime to make people accept that 2 plus 2 equals 5. But when corruption and nepotism disgusted people then and disgust them now, and those being criticized have links to a revolutionary struggle that was supposed to do away with unfair forms of privilege, the key Orwellian referent seems to me to be a famous part of Animal Farm. I mean, of course, that in which it is discovered that some animals will be “more equal than others” in the new farmyard order created after pigs have replaced the humans as the species in charge.

    For more on this topic see Megan Shank’s review of Louisa Lim’s The People’s Republic of Amnesia that went up today on the LARB main page.