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Clearing the Square

Morgan Chua’s political cartoons from 25 years ago speak to the young Chinese.

Written by E P Unny | Published: July 28, 2014 6:31 pm

Book: Tiananmen

Author: Morgan Chua

Publisher: Navayana

Pages: 102

Price: Rs 350

Born in Singapore and based in Hong Kong, Morgan Chua got to visit China in 1979, when Deng Xiaoping opened the doorway on the Great Wall. For the cartoonist, his ancestral home till then was a teen-time image brought to life by his story-telling great-aunt. Subsequent visits and the camel ride along the Silk Road turned out to be worthy sequels to the stories.

Chua had by 1988 left the Far Eastern Economic Review after 15 years of cartooning. Of a scathing kind that reminded you of Pat Oliphant, the worthy wielder of the acid brush in the US press. Chua was no less a distrusting, unsparing practitioner. Yet he came away from the Silk Road thinking the worst was over for his homeland. He had even grown fond of Deng, a victim of the previous regime, now “the little big helmsman” who was out to take the walled-in nation to modernity.

So the Tiananmen assault, when it happened, came as a personal jolt. A month and a day after his 40th birthday, on June 4, 1989, troops moved into the square and massacred, Chua watched in disbelief and guilt – from the safety of the then British Hong Kong. He recovered soon enough to hit back as best as he could.  The outcome was a series of black-and-white cartoons – most of them on how Beijing terrorised and a handful on how Hong Kong acquiesced. This “one nation; two systems” collection comes as a reprint to mark the 25th anniversary of the trauma.

When last week’s cartoon is twice dead, how would vintage cartoons cut across? That, too, a hundred of them hitting hard at an ageing, scheming ruler who, unlike his predecessor, managed to look singularly unremarkable. After Mao, China is yet to produce a cartoonist’s delight. Much more goes against Chua including the global mood.  US to Russia and Africa to Latin America are learning to live with the Asian giant.

If anybody has a problem with this billion-strong, trillions-rich ultra reality, it is not over human rights. The Hitler moustache doesn’t quite stick on Deng.  The pragmatist’s cat-and-mouse quote echoes even in the democratic corridors of Delhi. The sole fault the world would find in him today is his ashtray diplomacy. The man was a chain smoker.

This slender book surprisingly stands against such heavy odds. The author’s preface gives it a redeeming personalised tone, seen more in graphic novels than in the political cartoon. The narrative emerges even more thanks to the notes with caricatures on the cast around Deng.  Herein lies the hope for Chua. Young people, Chinese and others, might eventually take to him for the same reason he went to his great aunt, for the story, however angry or sad.

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