Daily Archives: 4 May 2005

May Fourth in China, 1919 and 2005

In yesterday’s New York Times, reporter Joseph Kahn reminds us of possible similarities between China’s current anti-Japanese demonstrations and those 86 years ago.

The Communist Party stirs patriotic feelings to underpin its legitimacy at a time when few, even in its own ranks, put much faith in Marxism. Official propaganda and the national education system stress the indignities suffered at the hands of foreign powers from the mid-19th century through World War II. Japan, which China says killed or wounded 35 million Chinese from 1937 through 1945, gets the most attention….

But China has never made nationalism the driving force of its foreign policy. The government mainly emphasizes its desire to have a “peaceful rise” that does not impinge on its neighbors, and the authorities are nervous about disrupting the flow of investment and technology that has powered economic growth.

Moreover, anti-Japan protests have a long and, for the government, a sobering history. A student-led march on May 4, 1919, to protest the decision by World War I Allied powers that allowed Japan to take over Germany’s colonial territories in China spawned Chinese resistance against Western colonialism. But the May 4 movement and uprisings in 1931 and 1937 turned against the government.

“My impression is that the well-educated elite in China are genuinely baffled and upset by how long the government has tolerated provocations from Japan,” said Wenran Jiang, an expert on China-Japan relations at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. “Every anti-Japan movement has sooner or later turned against the government.”…

But a senior editor at a party newspaper says the persistence of the anti-Japan campaign and the participation of urban professionals has alarmed the authorities. Officials are accustomed to dealing with unrest among peasants and workers who feel defrauded or disenfranchised by China’s economic boom, not among the urban elite, who are its primary beneficiaries.

“The white-collar middle class is supposed to be a pillar of stability,” the editor said.

On the other hand, maybe they are now the only ones who have the luxury of fighting about ideology and international status, rather than more material issues.

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Collaboration, a Gulag Survival Strategy

Perhaps the most famous exception to the near-universal refusal to admit to informing is, once again, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who describes his flirtation with the camp authorities at length. He dates his initial moment of weakness to his early days in camp, when he was still struggling to accustom himself to his abrupt loss of status. When invited to speak to the operative commander, he was ushered into a “small, cozily furnished room” where a radio was playing classical music. After politely asking him whether he was comfortable and adjusting to camp life, the commander asked him, “Are you still a Soviet person?” After hemming and hawing, Solzhenitsyn agreed that he was.

But although confessing to being “Soviet” was tantamount to confessing a desire to collaborate, Solzhenitsyn initially declined to inform. That was when the commander switched tactics. He turned off the music, and began to speak to Solzhenitsyn about the camp criminals, asking how he would feel if his wife in Moscow were attacked by some who managed to escape. Finally, Solzhenitsyn agreed that if he should hear any of them planning to escape, he would report it. He signed a pledge, promising to report news of any escapes to the authorities, and chose a conspiratorial pseudonym: Vetrov. “Those six letters,” he writes, “are branded in shameful grooves on my memory.”

By his own account, Solzhenitsyn never did actually report on anything. When recruited again in 1956, he says he refused to sign anything at all. Nevertheless, his initial promise was enough to keep him, while in camp, in one of the trusty jobs, living in the trusties’ special quarters, slightly better dressed and better fed than other prisoners. This experience “filled me with shame,” he wrote–and doubtless provoked his disdain for all trusties.

At the time of its publication, Solzhenitsyn’s description of the camp trusties was controversial–and it still is. Like his description of inmate work habits, it also sparked a running debate in the world of camp survivors and historians, one which continues to this day. Virtually all of the classic, most widely read memoirists were trusties at one time or another: Evgeniya Ginzburg, Lev Razgon, Varlam Shalamov, Solzhenitsyn. It may well be, as some claim, that the majority of all prisoners who survived long sentences were trusties at some point in their camp career. I once met a survivor who recounted to me a reunion of old camp friends he had once attended. The group had taken to reminiscing, and were laughing at old camp stories, when one of them looked around the room and realized what it was that held them together, what made it possible for them to laugh at the past instead of crying: “All of us had been pridurki [trusties].”

There is no doubt that many people survived because they were able to get indoor trusty jobs, thereby escaping the horrors of general work. But did this always amount to active collaboration with the camp regime? Solzhenitsyn felt that it did. Even those trusties who were not informers could, he alleged, still be described as collaborators. “What trusty position,” he asked, “did not in fact involve playing up to the bosses and participating in the general system of complusion?”

SOURCE: Gulag: A History, by Anne Applebaum (Anchor Books, 2003), pp. 367-368

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