The year was 1989, the year of the earth serpent. The whole Communist world was in the midst of a democratic revolution at the presumed end of the Cold War. In China, millions are peacefully marching day after day in protest. The student leaders of the Democracy and Freedom movement demanded that the Chinese government begin a meaningful dialogue in the hope to implement significant political and social reforms.
On June 4th 1989, after fierce internal arguments, the Chinese Communist Party opted to violently repress the essentially peaceful student-led movement. While the democratic movements in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union appeared to have succeeded in overthrowing Communist party dictatorships at that time, the June 4, 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square and throughout the country revealed the brutal nature of Chinese Communist Party rule—a subject still taboo in China and that continues to haunt its body politic.
The Tiananmen Square repression had both domestic Chinese and global ramifications. It represented one of the first major steps by an authoritarian government against what were seen as pro-American-inspired democratic movements throughout the world. In effect, the Chinese Communist elites ironically saw themselves as repressing an American-backed movement similar to the working class-based Solidarity movement in Poland—in an effort to preclude such a movement from eventually implementing multiparty democracy in China.
From the Chinese Communist perspective, American criticism of China’s actions was hypocritical. Washington had violently opposed a number of democratic movements that were not seen as acting in US interests, in Guatemala, Congo, Iran and Chile, among others, while also backing many brutal regimes, such as the Apartheid regime of South Africa, that had opposed democratic reforms. And the U.S. itself would probably never tolerate the rise of a strong working-class movement like that of Solidarity in Poland, after having repressed the Professional Air-Traffic Controllers Association (PATCO) under Ronald Reagan in early 1980s.
A work of literary and historical fiction
It is in this historical context that I began to write my novel Year of the Earth Serpent Changing Colors (Edition Noema 2023, distributed in the US by Columbia University Press) as a means to explore the perilous repercussions of the year 1989—a year that had promised so much hope for world-wide democratic change.
A book of historical and literary fiction, the story represents over 30 years of reflection upon the events led to the brutal June 4th 1989 repression on Tiananmen Square and throughout the country and the domestic and global consequences. The novel seeks to explore differences in cultural outlook, understanding of human rights, religious views and interpersonal relations that profoundly impact East-West relations.
On the ideological level, the book critiques both Maoism and the American neo-conservative and neo-liberal forms of democracy, while warning against a U.S.-China “clash of civilizations.” From a literary framework, the novel develops themes from classic American, European and Chinese literature, from Miguel Cervantes, Victor Hugo, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Washington Irving, Stendhal, Mark Twain, Sinclair Lewis, Jack London, John Dos Passos, Franz Kafka, Robert Frost, Thomas Wolfe, Mo Li, Cao Xueqin, Mao Dun, and many others... while concurrently seeking to find contemporary meaning in Chinese fables, such as Tale of the White Serpent, as well as Dragon King creation myths.
On the one hand, the novel portrays characters, such as Chia Pao-yu and Tao Baiqing, who engaged in the risky and dangerous struggle for democracy and freedom in China. On the other hand, the book also seeks to depict the “changing colors” that were taking place in societies throughout the world as seen through the eyes of American, German, Russian and African expats living in China at that time.
Disillusionment with Maoism
My idea was to portray a self-proclaimed American Maoist, Mr. Mylex H. Galvin, a die-hard believer in the Chinese Communist cause, who had been invited to China to teach English as a foreign language by a shady American group, The True Friends of the East Wind. As the “pro-“ (or really “an-“) tagonist of this book, Galvin may appear tough on the outside, but is very very insecure on the inside.
It might seem absurd today, but many radicals in the U.S. and Europe called themselves Maoists or Trotskyites or other “isms”—even if those ideologies possessed very little relevance to what was happening in the U.S., Europe or even in the developing world. And while Washington supported “capitalist readers” and “democrats” against the Chinese Communists, it is often forgotten that Beijing strongly supported the Black Panthers in the U.S., for example, among other revolutionary groups —until China itself took the capitalist and imperialist path of “four modernizations”—without the “fifth modernization” of democracy—soon after Mao’s death. Now that China has “changed colors,” it has begun to spread its political and economic influence in new ways and sometimes by brute force, in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, for example, as well as against Vietnam and India.
Once in China, Galvin records his experiences in Shanghai, Beijing and Nanjing in his “Anti-Marco Polo” journal, while trying to come to grips with the Chinese language, history, and politics. At this time, he meets individuals such as the famous American journalist, Mark King Hayford and his photographer, Juan “Poncho” Carpini; the West and East Germans, Hans and Rolf, who can talk together in China, but not in the divided two Germanies; the Russian Vladim; and the Africans, the Nigerian “Chairman” and the Zambian, Siteke.
The more Galvin learns about China, however, the more he finds himself disillusioned with the poverty and environmental destruction that he finds; his barefoot doctor heroes are not capable of treating AIDS; Chinese and African students clash in Nanjing—with no sense of international solidarity.
Galvin thus begins to move farther away from supporting Chinese communism when he witnesses the poor treatment of African students by Chinese authorities, as told by the Nigerian “Chairman” and the Zambian, Siteke. In many ways, Galvin, in desperately trying to complete his Ph.D., is somewhat like the ancient Chinese scholars who were striving to pass the Imperial Civil Service Exam (a much tougher exam than the American PhD!). It is a classic subject depicted in the famous Tale of the White Serpent that is often performed at the Beijing Opera—as it takes place in the novel along with a discussion of 12-tone chords and the differences between Chinese and Western understanding of music.
As the democracy movement heats up, Galvin finds himself torn between the love of Tao Baiqing, a Daoist critic of the Communist regime, who is his teacher of Chinese civilization and language, and Mo Li, a student of English Lit, a Chinese nationalist. In favoring the sexier Mo Li, he unwittingly betrays the ties between the journalist, Mark King Hayford, and the militant democracy activist, Chia Pao-yu—who is accused of leaking “top secrets” to Hayford and arrested. Hayford is soon expelled from the country.
One of the major themes of the book is thus what happens to individual “true believers” after they have militantly struggled for a cause, but who then begin to question that cause. How do they react? Do they become even more militant? Or do they adjust their perspective and change their “colors”?
Much of the novel is based on actual experiences in China and elsewhere. These include the novel’s depiction of the speech of Professor Dr. I.CN. Jabber, PhD, at Beijing University on the eve of the November 1988 American presidential elections, just before George Bush Sr. was elected; the effort of the world famous journalist, Mark King Hayford, to permit the African student leaders, at the time of the African-Chinese student clashes in Nanjing at the end of December 1988, to tell their side of the story on a then famous American PBS news program—only to be told that the U.S. had shot down Libyan fighter jets and that the Libyan story would take precedence over that of the Africans. Also based on fact was Dr. I.CN. Jabber’s visit to Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi at the time when I wrote my first L.A. Times editorial, Those Stumbling Blocks* to *Recognizing Vietnam Do Not Have To Trip US Now.
In the novel, these experiences precede the account of the Tiananmen Square protests and the impact of both the protests and the Tiananmen Square repression upon the Chinese and foreigners caught up in that tumultuous Year of the Earth Serpent that mixes fact and fiction.
No way to return home
After he immerses himself in the study of China’s vast history and its relations with the Western world at least since the era of Marco Polo, with emphasis on the “hundred years of humiliation,” the violence of the Tiananmen Square crackdown haunts Galvin with nuclear nightmares of a “clash of civilizations.”
Upon his return from Beijing to Washington D.C.—then considered the Murder and Crack Cocaine Capital of the World that is sarcastically depicted as paralleling Shanghai before Mao’s take-over of China—Galvin enters into a deep depression.
On the one hand, he realizes that he is not at all welcome, that he has no “home” to go back to (in deference to Thomas Wolfe’s great novel, You Can’t Go Home Again); he simply cannot justify his previously militant support for the Chinese Communist regime. On the other hand, much like Rip van Winkle, after returning to Washington, DC, he also cannot believe in, and support, the “End of History” theosophy that had just begun to inundate American geopolitical pop culture in the belief that the democratic ideal, as imperfect as it is, would eventually prevail in all societies.
Yet unlike many American and European former Maoists and radicals after the Cold War, Galvin does not change colors into a neo-conservative or neo-liberal “End of History” red, white & blue… but moves in another direction…
Post-Mortem: mental aliens
Let me make this clear: Year of the Earth Serpent Changing Colors was not written to point fingers at China alone for opting to violently repress their best and brightest on Tiananmen Square. In different historical situations, the US, as well as other countries, have also engaged in grotesque human rights violations, after severely harming their own populations or those of others—a major theme of the book.
American slavery, Jim Crow and the US use of napalm on Tokyo and atomic bombing of civilian areas in Nagasaki and Hiroshima are cases in point. Yet the moral complexity of these issues is shown by the fact that the sudden US nuclear defeat of Japan (after Washington choose not to engage in a path of diplomacy) also ended Japan’s horrific occupation of China and the human experimentation of Unit 731—whose leaders the US then saved from prosecution for horrendous war crimes after World War II in order to obtain their “research.” The clash between the very different ethical standards, and the differing interpretation of norms by Washington and Beijing, is thus a major theme of the novel. This is not to say that U.S. and Chinese violations of human rights and crimes are somehow “equal” in violence and in terms of numbers, but that in ethical terms, both leaderships are culpable. The dilemma is that two (or more) “wrongs” of even different natures do not make a “right”—and that continually clashing “wrongs” prevent the possibility that the two sides can resolve their differences without going to war.
In other words, efforts to cover up and suppress the reality of social repression and crimes against humanity will not make the major issues go away in China, in the U.S., or elsewhere. Nor will a cover up of the “Truth” somehow help to resolve real issues. The point is that domestic and international tensions will only continue to augment if the Chinese leadership cannot admit what really happened on Tiananmen and later in Hong Kong, and if Beijing continues to blame the U.S. for the faults of its own leadership, while Washington attempts to blame China for many of its own mistakes. Both Washington and Beijing need to put their own houses in order to reach a lasting peace accord.
In addition to critiquing the Communist elite’s conception of a “Hundred Years of Humiliation,” another key theme of the novel is that the kernels of today’s conflicts between the US and China were already present in the year 1989: Mikhail Gorbachev had already initiated steps toward a closer Sino-Soviet relationship in 1986; China sold missiles to Saudi Arabia and Iran at that time; and while the democracy movement’s protests in favor of multiparty democracy obtained the most American and European attention before the June 4th repression, the Chinese neo-authoritarian movement was already gaining strength behind the scenes years before Xi Jinping more recently declared himself “president for life.”
Not generally mentioned in the Western press is the fact that, in addition to demands for democratic change in 1989, there were also demands for a “new authoritarianism”—a political movement that also opposed China’s oligarchic Communist power hierarchy, but in the search for stronger leadership. It would be the demands for a “new authoritarian” leadership that would eventually win out over the Communist oligarchy—and not democratic reforms—once Xi Jinping came to power as president in 2012-13. And in March 2023, he was granted a third mandate.
It is for the above reasons that Galvin fears a coming Apocalyptic Color War between the Balding Eagle and the Chinese Dragon—as the latter transmogrifies from Red into shades of Red-Brown-Black—that is, if the U.S. and China cannot soon mend their differences and overcome their inability to comprehend one another, as argued in the Post Mortem: “Mental Aliens”—the latter term coined by Jack London to depict the estranged relationship between the West and China.
I will not disclose the ending of the story, only to say that the Post Mortem: Mental Aliens warns that an alienated China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, among other states, have begun to form a neo-Mongol alliance against the global hegemony of the U.S. and its Allies. This represents a dangerous polarization of the interstate system, with some similarities to the alliances that formed before both World War I and World War II, and that stems, at least in part, from the June 4th 1989 Tiananmen Square repression…
And that is why the Post-Mortem of Year of the Earth Serpent Changing Colors raises the question as to whether the U.S. and Europeans, in working along with other countries and the UN Security Council where possible, possess the self-critical wisdom and leadership capabilities to engage in deep empathetic diplomacy with China, Russia, and the other U.S. rivals—so as to prevent the real possibility of major power war.