Review of: Ma Jian, Beijing Coma, trans. Flora Drew (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008)

Jim Feast Review of: Ma Jian, Beijing Coma, trans. Flora Drew (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008)

In Remembrance of Things Past, as we've all read, the author is able to recall events from the distant past with tremendous sensory detail after tasting a madeleine  cake. In Ma Jian's Beijing Coma, a similarly monumental recall is instituted, not by an experience, but by a unique situation. Struck down by a bullet to the head, the protagonist lies comatose in bed, but, while unable to move, communicate or see, he can still think clearly. Being taken care of by his isolated mother, a retired singer, he has little to occupy his mind but memories, particularly of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in which he was one of the leaders, and at which, when the military cracked down, he was shot.

Ma Jian, himself an exiled dissident, living in England, in this 600-page novel meticulously recreates the events of those seven weeks in the square. Indeed, some readers might find his documentation overwhelming. He lays out a massive amount of information on such particulars as coordinating the distribution of the donations of food, shoes, clothing, tents and electronic equipment from Beijing citizens; the setting up of a broadcast station at the foot of the Monument to the People's Heroes; and the leadership infighting, including the setting up of a rival broadcast station (with a more powerful transmitter) on the opposite side of the Monument, to which the first group responds by putting their speakers in a van that can drive around the square, drowning out their opponent's sound. Though the accumulation of facts is dense, if you want the inside story of how a small group of inexperienced leaders cope with an out-of-control, highly dangerous, yet historically decisive situation in which they attempt to bring greater democracy to an authoritarian regime, this book provides it.

There have been attempts to portray uprisings in literature before, such as Zola's brief depiction of the Paris Commune in The Debacle and Flaubert's depiction of the 1848 revolution in France in Sentimental Education or, for that matter, Malraux's depiction of a Communist uprising in Shanghai in the 1920s in Man's Fate. But, for all that, this is still an historical first. Never before Beijing Coma, has the story of a (failed) uprising been told with such intimacy and complexity from the novelistic inside.

One might say further that the novel gives more than a glimpse into how large social movements are generated and function, which leads to thoughts on their place in current history. Let me say a few words on that before proceeding with an evaluation of the book's literary qualities.

The book makes clear that guiding such assaults on the state are fraught with hazards. Battling over who will control the broadcast stations is a minor skirmish compared to the three major internal disturbances that put a fearsome strain on the leadership. These are:

1.  A few days in, given the government's total intransigence in the face of the students'  simple demand -- the opening of a dialogue between upper echelon party leaders and student representatives -- hundreds of protesters decide to engage in a hunger strike. This quickly gathers widespread national support, yet, also creates a rift in the leadership. As the food refusers grew to more than 1,000, their coordinators wrest power from the first wave of instigators. The new directors are taking charge of a much more complex situation in that the starving have to be monitored and taken to emergency tents or hospital when they pass out.

 2. Meanwhile, as the movement swells, copycat groups spring up all over the country and tens of thousands of provincial supporters pour into Beijing where, if they don't move into the square, they have to be housed and integrated into the action. With this influx, there are eventually 100,000 protesters camped out in the public space. By the later days of the occupation, these newcomers vastly outnumber Beijing students and they unseat the current leaders so as to assume control of the protest. It is they who set up the rival broadcasting post.

3. Once it becomes clear, and only after it becomes clear that the Chinese Communist rulers are split on how to handle the rebellion, and so are not going to crack down immediately, do the intellectuals, journalists and professors come out of the woodwork and try to capture the movement for their own, more circumscribed ends, such as freedom to publish in foreign magazines. However, because of their prestige and clout, these people can be of significant aid to the students, and so have to be treated generously if carefully. This is shown when the students establish Democracy University in the square and need to cultivate prominent members of the intelligentsia as teachers.

And there is a big question here, posed and answered. What is an occupation?

A glance through recent history, looking especially at the 1988 Tompkins Square riot and the Oaxaca protests of 2006, reveals that the massive, lengthy takeover of a public space is the central revolutionary strategy of our time, involving the setting up of a shanty town of proletarian resistance and DIY squalor in the most sacred sites of the nation-state.

1.The Place Occupied:

It might be said that Tompkins Square's Tent City was less provocative than these other actions in that what was under contest was simply part of a public park. The striking teachers in Oaxaca more abrasively set up their camp in front of city hall while the Chinese students were blocking entrance to Mao's mausoleum and the Chinese Historical Museum. However, in other ways, it outdid them in radicalism insofar as, beyond simply occupying a public space, supporters squatted in abandoned buildings in the vicinity, all of which networked into a kind of zone of “liberated” real estate. 2. Outside Support

Also, in distinction from the Mexican and Chinese experience, Tent City received little support from the wider Left. While its longevity depended on the sustained, creative and large-scale support of the Lower East Side neighborhood, and its fame depended on the wide international and national news coverage it garnered, in the city its existence was downplayed until the riot. Even the Village Voice ignored it. Clayton Patterson has argued this was because the respectable Left was deeply allied to the city's Democratic Party, which tolerated (since it jibed with the idea of planned shrinkage) while condemning this occupation. As he writes in The Front Door Photos & Other Artistic Reminiscences:

          It is interesting to note that the established Left was against us, because NYC was a Democratic Party city. This is to say that the Democrats were in control of all the housing agencies that funneled money into various (scanty) tenement rehabilitation programs. So all the abandoned buildings in the neighborhood were considered their turf, not to interfered with by the homeless or those desperate to get a roof over their head.
          I think because of the NYC Democratic Party adamant opposition to the squats even those who generally standing up for the rights of all people, such as Amy Goodman, were nowhere to be found.

Whatever the reason, as the book Resistance documents, only a few intrepid reporters, such as Bill Weinberg and Sarah Ferguson for Downtown, a handful of WBAI hosts and some lone cultural outposts, such as Steve Cannon's Gathering of the Tribes gallery, stood shoulder to shoulder with the homeless and squatters.

The Beijing students, depicted in Coma, are not ignored, but attacked, by all the mainstream press and TV stations, which, after all, are under direct state control. However, they are embraced by the left, and all China's most famous, older dissenters pledge solidarity. And, as we've seen, the students set up their own pirate radio stations, as well as printing their own newspapers to spread the word.

3. Rationale

Clearly, the rationale behind an occupation  is what Cloward and Piven call the “politics of turmoil.” This arises when a powerless group, (such as Blacks in the South in the 1950s), that is, a group with nothing to offer in trade to gain concessions from the elite, can still achieve limited ends by messing with the smooth running of society through marches, sit-downs, freedom rides, riots and other disruptive activities.

Felix Kolb in Protest and Opportunities: notes how this strategy was adopted by the civil rights movement:

    The actions of the civil rights movement in the early and mid 1950s were overwhelmingly locally organized and its tactics such as …. the sit-in best suited to address local injustices.  However, the civil rights leadership became frustrated with … the persistence of white resistance to any meaningful change in racial policies. … Therefore the subsequent tactical innovations - the freedom rides and the community-wide campaign - were designed to create crisis on a national scale, which would force the reluctant federal government to intervene.

In a parallel way, the Tiananmen Square occupiers offered a quid pro quo to the government. We will stop our occupation if you meet our simple demands, namely, that the government establish an open dialogue with the their representatives and that the university groups be able to set up their own student organizations, outside of Communist Party control.

However, when the first cards were dealt, it seemed the students had an even stronger hand than they would have subsequently, for they were counting on more than interfering with the everyday functioning of the system. The occupation was set up originally in anticipation of the visit of the liberal Soviet leader Gorbachev, who was scheduled to appear in the Great Hall, whose entrance was through Tiananmen. It was believed the government would settle quickly to avoid the embarrassment of having to drage the Russian through the hordes barricaded in the square. However, the authorities sidestepped the conflict by moving the reception, which precipitated the escalation into a hunger strike.

The disruptive tactics in Tompkins Square, to quote from Patterson again, were based on the following premises:

          The L.E.S. radical movement worked to get the homeless off the sidewalks to set up camp in Tompkins Square Park, which would make the problem, to which the government turned a blind eye, more noticeable. This Tent City homeless camp was impossible to ignore. It got plenty of news including international media coverage. We may not have had the wealth and power of the system, but we were a formidable force that gave out as many black eyes as we received.
          We felt change was a-coming. We did not see using the park as a Tent City a solution for the homeless crisis, we saw it as a way to force the city to deal with all of the people on the streets.

4. State Reaction

Now, to return  to Kolb, he argues there are three broad options a government has when faced with a major disruption. It can ignore the whole thing, suppress it or make concessions. The second choice, the  violence which eventually drowned the Tiananmen occupation with blood or broke up the Tompkins Square encampment, is not without cost to the state. Kolb notes, “Sometimes social movements have already aroused strong sympathy among groups that are crucial supporters of the regime; unless the protesters have a total outcast status, the use of force is risky, because the reactions of other aroused groups are impossible to predict.”

In any case, inaction on the part of the powers that be, neither suppression nor conciliation, for seven weeks in relation to Tiananmen and for more than a year in New York City, indicates the elite are split, something of which the Beijing students were well aware. They constantly speculate on the rifts between hardliners, such as Deng Xioaping, and more liberal elements, such as General  Zhao Ziyang, who was later sacked for showing to much sympathy toward the protesters. Indeed, the Chinese students' first action, predating the occupation, was a series of marches on the square to lay wreathes for Hu Yaobang, the prematurely deceased reformer.

In the case of the period when the Tent City was ignored, I think divisions among the elite were not so much over the occupation as on how to deal with homelessness. After all, the city's strategy of planned shrinkage depended on making the neighborhood unlivable enough so the poor could be rousted out (as a first step toward gentrification), and the presence of the homeless in the park was a help toward that end, even while it showed the city's lack of consequential policies. The shrinkage plan, though, was partially undermined, when, instead of being scared away by the raggedy homeless, a large part of the  immediate community bonded with them and provided food and supplies. 5. Leadership/Tactical Shifts

We have seen that in Tiananmen Square, there were shifts in leadership as different groups became more prominent in the struggle. Steve Cannon has rightly remarked on the enervating and dispiriting effect of the endless infighting and jockeying for power that these changes entail. On the other hand, at least ideally, such a constant reshuffling makes for an estimable flexibility. And note that the leadership alterations accompany a shift in tactics. The pattern looks something like this:

Action 1:  march to the square to lay wreathes (which demands in leadership positions, parade marshals and coordinators from the individual universities).

Action 2: Tiananmen occupation (which called for a larger, more integrated leadership that dealt with information, provisioning, waste disposal, PR, and, at the top, negotiation with the government).

Action 3: the hunger strike (with a new leadership, especially concerned with the medical staff and health issues).

Action 4: the spread of the democraticization movement across the country and various student groups sending of representatives to Beijing (with the rise of a leadership more drawn from the provincial members, who need to integrate the incoming students into the evolving culture of the square).

I don't know of a study of similar tactical/leadership shifts in relation to Tompkins Square, but, clearly enough, a new set of tactics emerged when Tent City was expunged, as new homeless emplacements were set up on vacant lots, supportive punk concerts were held and more rioting took place over the next two years. I believe a closer study would show a shift in leadership strata as new strategies came to the fore.

6. The Growing Threat of the Occupation

Even as tactics branched out and mutated while leadership fought and developed, the longer an occupation lasts, the greater are two central threats to the state. For one, as the occupation persists, it continues to develop chains of sympathy, which, as we saw, became particularly extensive in a case such as Beijing where the students are standing up against an authoritarian state, which most citizens join them in resenting, but whose power they fear too much to openly oppose. We saw also that as Tent City stayed in place, it gathered more friends and sympathizers in the surrounding neighborhood.

Second, as long as the occupiers remain, they hold a sacred space in a new status. It has been converted from a ceremonial or recreational enclave into a seized stronghold for living out a (at times carnivalesque) confrontation, which calls into question schemas of public/private as well as those governing private property. Even for those at a distance, it stands as a potent symbol of the limits of the system and the ability of autonomous groups to self-organize. At this point, we can return to the novel, having, I believe, shown that it raises in an act of stunning imagination and translucent grandeur a powerful view of one of the towering incidents of our time (in the way that Tolstoy did with the Napoleonic conflict in War and Peace).  But Beijing Coma is a two-stranded story and, up to now, I have neglected the second string, that of the mother's devotion to the care of her son, which involves ten years of feeding the protagonist through a tube, washing him, massaging and rotating his limbs, and emptying his waste jar.  This last, though, in one of the many comic incidents in the book, becomes quite lucrative when his piss is discovered to have medicinal properties and people queue up each day to buy a flagon, which they usually quaff on the premises, piping hot!

This is one of the mother's only means of getting funds to pay for medical treatment, since she is existing on her small pension and, as she finds, no doctor can treat her son and no hospital admit him in that he is one of the now-stigmatized Tiananmen protesters. To try and bring him out of his coma, she is forced to rely on alternative practitioners and faith healers, and even with them has to use forged or unreadably smudged  medical certificates to explain his condition. She can't afford the antibiotics he needs to treat his bed sores so has to buy outdated drugs on the black market.

She ends up connecting with Master Yao of the Falun Gong sect, a link that gets her into more hot water when the government cracks down on this group, underlining the fact that, by the time this new persecution starts, in 1999, there has been no let up in the state's heavy-handed policies.

The mother is not saint or, could we say, she is a saint by inadvertence, since she constantly begrudges being homebound and condemned to endless drudgery by her son's condition, and tells him she wishes he would die and put her out of his misery.

Truth is, riddled with flaws and weaknesses, the two main characters, Dai Wei and his mother, are believable, tinsel-less heroes. 

In other words, the novel is strong in the two areas that, before postmodernism, were considered the hallmarks of valuable work: a plot that wasn't just exciting and surprising, but divulged something significant about how the world worked and the presentation of characters, who were not only vivid and credible, but are struggling with the most troubling issues of their time. Judged by those worthy criteria, Beijing Coma must be branded a triumph.