Fighting for the freedom to create our own history

Last Updated 31 December 2019, 07:57 IST

It is 2006. We are huddled around a dingy table in a raucous restaurant in Xuchang, China, sipping jasmine tea. We are a motley group — my friend and I, both of us Indians, and Liu and Lynn, our Chinese students.

Liu is the smartest in my class. Xuchang is a small town in Henan province. And it's here that we sit, talking of the future.

Liu has a lot of plans. He wants to start a business, teach, and wander the world. Lynn is more content to stay in Xuchang. "Maybe, I will teach," she says.

In China, it's best not to talk politics. You see the meaning of freedom when you can't access Google. When certain search terms disconnect your Internet, you learn to live with censorship. But maybe, that evening, the weather loosened us up.

"What will you teach?" I ask Lynn. "How will you tell your students about the real China?" There's a pause.

"What's the real China?" Lynn asks, leaning in closer.

"You do know that there's so much censorship here, don't you?" my friend asks.

She shrugs. "It doesn’t bother me."

"We just want a house, good jobs. That's all we want. It doesn't matter if there's censorship," Liu adds.

I should let it go. But I don't. "Doesn't Tiananmen matter to you?" I ask. Now, they both pause and look at each other.

"No. We don't talk about that. Not anymore," Liu answers, looking at Lynn who nods.

"You just want jobs and money. Not freedom," I say, defeated.

They smile. We walk into the cold night after that. We never talk politics or the meaning of freedom with any of our students.

Six years later, I am back in China. It's 2011, and the Spring of the Jasmine Revolution is being felt around the world. But not in China. Here, in Chengdu, it's business as usual except that we are smarter now. We use VPNs to access the blocked sites. But elsewhere, the students on campus are still the same as the ones we met in 2006. They are still worried about jobs, making money, getting married, and waiting to escape the country. They dream about going to Germany or the US. Anywhere, really.

We keep to our world. We accept China for what it is. Except once, when we slip up again. It's a lazy afternoon, and we are with our Chinese tutor, Xiang Jin. At 24 years of age, Xiang Jin has just one dream: To go to the UK.

"That's great. You may be free there," I reply carelessly. But it's the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square 'incident'. You can't, of course, come across any mention of it in China. But we knew. I tell Xiang Jin about the Tiananmen anniversary. She looks at me blankly. I think I have got my Mandarin tones wrong and I resort to English. But she simply can't comprehend what I am talking about. I try again, back in Chinese, to explain. "Shenme. What?" She asks me, utterly bewildered. That's when it hits me. She doesn't know.

The history she has been taught has never mentioned this. A graduate of one of China's best universities has had an education that has systematically obliterated any mention of the historic student protests and the massacre that followed. How can a government re-shape history? It can. How can a government erase history? It can. How can the voices of freedom be silenced? Thus.

History is present around us. It is the present moment. I was reminded of those times here in India over the last few weeks. Of how freedom was a luxury in China but taken for granted in India, until recently. I was reminded of this when I heard slogans for freedom in Bihar and West Bengal last week. I had previously only compared India to China in infrastructure and economy. Yet, when my mobile phone service shut down in Bihar, when I found myself cut off from communication because a government had ordered it, I was reminded of China.

In China, silence was not a choice, but an order. In India, we are fighting to make sure our voice is free, despite the state's attempts to silence it in many cities and towns.

Free to do what, you ask? Free to shape and create our own history.

(Smitha Murthy is an author and entrepreneur. She was an ESL teacher in China for three years)

The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

(Published 31 December 2019, 07:07 IST)

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