Dai Qing by Siobhan Dowd

Siobhan Dowd

Dai Qing


The 4th June 1989 will always be remembered as one of China’s blackest days. The estimates of how many citizens were killed, in Beijing and elsewhere, still vary from hundreds through to thousands; the true total will never be known. There is only one place where the massacre runs a risk of being forgotten, and that is in China itself. The muzzling of the press, the distortion of facts and the silencing of all dissent has been so chillingly thorough that it is understandable if few any longer dare to believe in what they saw with their own eyes. The methods which the authorities have employed to create the impression that a massacre never happened have been penetratingly described in a booklet called ‘The Year of the Lie’ published recently by the London-based human rights group Article 19. It is prescribed reading for anyone interested in media manipulation. The poet Duoduo, who as luck had it had an air ticket to London pre-arranged for the 5th June, arrived in Heathrow in a state of shock after witnessing the slaughter in Tiananmen Square. He told me recently that at least two other prominent writers had been tortured in an effort to make them appear on television stating that the Beijing massacre had never happened. One had given in and appeared. The other, a friend of his, had refused and had tried three times to commit suicide. ‘Maybe they’ve both been shot by now, who knows?’ he said.

International PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee has, meanwhile, been carrying out the dispiriting task of documenting the cases of writers and journalists arrested because of their pre-clampdown activities. The forty names it has obtained most probably represent only the tip of the iceberg, especially when one reflects that on May 4th literally hundreds of journalists marched through the streets of Beijing calling for greater press freedom. No one seems to know where the arrested individuals have been taken or even whether they are still alive. Amnesty International reported recently that ‘there are now credible reports that executions are taking place in secret, as official reporting of both executions and arrests has become more selective.’

Dai Qing, a famous writer and hailed as China’s most prominent woman journalist, is amongst those about whom PEN is anxious. In her early forties, Dai is the daughter of a general and a graduate from Harbin Military Technology Institute. During the Cultural Revolution she worked at the office of the People’s Liberation Army General Staff Headquarters. In 1979 she moved to the Foreign Relations Office of the Chinese Writers’ Association. It is hardly surprising that throughout her later literary career her past continued to dog her; many of her contemporaries reportedly believed she was a government spy. Her response was to laugh and say ‘If my relationship with the General Staff makes me a spy, maybe I am!’

In 1983, she became a columnist for Guangming Ribao, a newspaper popular among intellectuals. Her lively articles reflected her exuberant character and she became noted for her reportage of incidents blotted out by the party from official Chinese history; she had access to many ‘inside stories’ of the top cadres and an acquaintance said of her, ‘She knows the dirt and will publish it’. Another friend recalls the wicked way she described how Mao Tse-tung danced – ‘stiffly and in straight lines until he bumped into something’. She also wrote an important series of articles on the situation of Chinese women and more recently started a journal of political and literary discussion called ‘Dongfang Jishi’ (‘Chronical of the East’). At the time of her arrest she was working on a vast oral history of the Cultural Revolution and it seems nothing short of tragic that this work will probably never reach the light of day as all her notes and manuscripts have been confiscated.

Throughout the dramatic events of 1989 Dai played a key if somewhat maverick role. When George and Barbara Bush visited China in February, they invited both her and astrophysicist Fang Lizhi to a barbeque. Fang was prevented from attending, but Dai was given a satin rose by Barbara Bush which she kept as a souvenir in her apartment near the Beijing University campus. Two months later, when a prominent journalist was fired from his job on the World Economic Herald in Shanghai, Dai organised messages of support for him but failed to attend a demonstration mounted on his behalf. During the Gorbachev visit the next month, Western journalists rapidly latched on to Dai for her animated manners and photogenic face but she was cautious in her replies to their more leading questions about the government. Finally, her military background again caught up with her when she went to Tiananmen Square and tried to persuade the students to disperse. Her behaviour provoked jeers from the students and many automatically assumed she was acting on behalf of the government.

Dai was not, however, the only writer who feared that the students’ protest would end in disaster. Beijing’s literary world was divided, not necessarily inimically, between those who demonstrated with the students and those who observed events unfold with ever increasing anxiety.

Knowledge on Dai’s case ends abruptly with her husband’s report that she was arrested on July 14 and that their apartment had been ransacked. No information is available on her current situation or whereabouts.

A source in London told me that Dai’s arrest told against the rumours of her being a spy and that he now believed she had been right in believing that the occupation of Tiananmen Square would end in bloodshed without any of the students’ demands being granted.

Letters expressing your grave concern for the recent repressive measures in China and asking firstly for assurances that Dai Qing is not being mistreated and secondly that she be restored to her husband and daughter should be sent to the Chinese ambassador in London:

His Excellency Ji Chaozhu
49 Portland Place
London W1N 3AH

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