ATol: Beijing Coma also covers the decade after Tiananmen Square. What surprised you most about what happened in those years and thereafter? What changes did you expect after Tiananmen Square that haven’t materialized yet?
Ma: What astonished me after the Tiananmen massacre was to see one communist regime after another topple in Eastern Europe, while in China the communists not only retained, but strengthened, their control. Like many others at the time, I presumed that the brutality of the massacre would destroy the regime’s legitimacy, and that a new, democratic system would inevitably emerge. I hadn’t expected that the Chinese people, numbed by the horror of the crackdown, would acquiesce so quickly and return to their previous state of subjection. The changes that I expected – a move to freedom, democracy and respect of human rights – are, I still believe, inevitable, but it appears they will take much longer than many had hoped.
ATol: Why does it matter if China’s government acknowledges what happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989?
Ma: It is crucial that China’s government acknowledges what happened in Tiananmen Square. The Chinese psyche is crippled by historical taboos. There’s 1989, but also the catastrophe of the Great Leap Forward, the Anti-Rightist Movement, and the Cultural Revolution. An estimated 70 million Chinese people have lost their lives due to communist rule, and until the government acknowledges the injustices they have committed and apologizes publicly, the nation will continue to live in an amoral, ahistorical limbo.
Today, parents are unable to look their children in the face and talk honestly about their pasts. There is a collective fear of truth, of personal memories. So it is important to address the past, not only to commemorate the dead, but to allow the living – the survivors – to regain their personal histories and their sense that each human life should be afforded dignity and respect.