By Martin Samuel (THE TIMES, 11/04/06):
KEN LIVINGSTONE would like to install a countdown clock for the 2012 Olympic Games in London, but is uncertain where to put it. I know, I know, but try to keep it clean, will you? Ken’s suggestion is Trafalgar Square. His fear is that it will be opposed by the conservatism of Westminster council, a body he bravely denounced on a fact-finding trip to the host city for the 2008 Games, Beijing. If only all leaders could be as enlightened as the Chinese, eh, Ken? If only the men and women of Westminster could be as foursquarely behind progress as our dear friend Wen Jiabao. Oh, come on folks, you’d pay good money for comedy like this over the West End. Despite the combined skills of three PR companies and the British Embassy, Mr Livingstone has been unable to go 24 hours in Beijing without putting his foot in it. Not with the Chinese, of course. God forbid an eastward-bound British politician should upset his hosts with all that lovely money waiting to be invested by the world’s fastest-growing big economy. No, Ken is far too shrewd a cookie to blunder in with talk of human rights and freedom of the press if there is a few quid in it. He might find America’s ambassador a chiselling little crook for not paying the congestion charge, but he is opening two offices in China, where, two years ago, 811,102 people were arrested for “endangering the State”.
No, where Ken went wrong was on the steps of the National Museum of Revolutionary History. Asked his feelings as he surveyed the site of the Tiananmen Square massacre, Livingstone uttered some guff about it being a big place, and then compared the event to London’s poll tax riots. Questioned on the most facile reckoning since his contention that the Daily Mail’s politics in the 1930s had any bearing on the thoughts of a Jewish reporter for the Evening Standard almost 80 years later, Mr Livingstone changed the subject to the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester in 1819.
There were no deaths at the poll tax riots in 1999 and 11 at Peterloo, while estimates of the fatalities in the aftermath of Tiananmen head towards 3,000. A sharp historian like Ken would also appreciate that while Margaret Thatcher’s hated poll tax was hastily abolished and the Great Reform Act — a tentative step on the long road to universal male suffrage that began at St Peter’s Fields, Manchester — was introduced in 1832, many of the Tiananmen protestors, 16 years after the massacre, remain incarcerated and are subject to torture, beatings and solitary confinement.
On February 23, 2006, Yu Dongyue, deputy editor of the Liuyang Daily, was released after imprisonment for “counter-revolutionary sabotage and incitement”. His crime was to throw paint at the Tiananmen Square portrait of Mao Zedong. Amnesty International considered him a prisoner of conscience. His first two years were spent alone and on his release it became apparent that Mr Yu had been driven insane. He had scars on his head, physical evidence of extensive abuse, did not recognise lifelong friends and repeated certain words and phrases continually. Others, such as Liu Zhihua, are not due to be released until 2011 for taking part in a demonstration at a factory in Hunan.
So, Ken, not much like the poll tax riots, then. And while Peterloo is ancient history, here are men and women in our lifetime, imprisoned by a regime your mute presence can only endorse. Mr Livingstone, like all mealy-mouthed politicians rendered morally speechless by China’s mammon, insisted he would make his views known to his hosts in private. Let’s see how this works, shall we? In 1999, Jiang Zemin. the Chinese Prime Minister, visited Britain. At a private reception, he seized a microphone and belted out a song from a 1944 film, Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.
Pressured to reply in kind, John Prescott led the company in a chorus of For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow. In 2001, Mr Jiang spent in excess of £350 million building labour camps for dissidents. Still, you do what you can.
Chinese government reforms are a convenient excuse for Westerners to make money because, while China’s attitude to us has changed, its attitude to its own is unrelenting. On April 6 the Index on Censorship wrote to Mr Livingstone in the hope that he would use this visit to raise the names of journalists and lawyers suffering under the present regime. They included editors of newspapers that had been “rectified” for writing about the spread of HIV or imprisoned for eight years for reporting an outbreak of Sars. A lawyer had been beaten for representing women who had suffered forced abortions; another wrote to the Government to complain of brutal treatment by state officials and was sent for “re-education through labour”.
Mr Livingstone has these names, 17 in all. So far, he has not put them to use in public, preferring to whine that Westminster council will not let him erect a statue to Nelson Mandela. That must go down well with Zheng Enchong, who also had a little difficulty with the planners and was sentenced to three years in October 2003, for exposing that Shanghai residents had been forcibly evicted by corrupt government property developers.
While it would be nice to think that when the doors close Mr Livingstone will begin laying into the Chinese Government with the venom he traditionally reserves for his former employers at Associated Newspapers, don’t hold your breath. He will follow the money, just like Mr Prescott, just like Tony Blair, just like grasping politicians who see not brutality and corruption in modern China, but cash and contracts.
Speaking at a function hosted by David Brewer, the Lord Mayor of London, on January 12 this year, Mr Livingstone said: “If China sees London as its base in the West, then this city’s future will be secure.”
Go on, Ken. Tell it like it is, mate. That is why we love him, you know. He’s such a maverick.