When the students took over Tiananmen Square twenty years ago, the world watched with fascination as they gave the first visible protest against the Communist system in China. That the protesters were eventually overcome, and that the system has continued and has prospered, have not erased the memory of the uprising. Since the Communists won that battle, and seem to be winning the war, we are likely never to hear of all the Tiananmen stories that ought to be told. There is one now, however, that illustrates how strange (and successful) the Chinese repression has been. Egg on Mao: The Story of an Ordinary Man Who Defaced an Icon and Unmasked a Dictatorship (Counterpoint) by Denise Chong is testimony, biography, and history told in detail about just one incident in the 1989 temporary takeover, an incident that was part of the protest and yet distinct from it. Chong mentions in an "Author's Note" at the end how she was able to interview some of the former protesters and spent two months in China in 2007 secretly gathering information. In her "Acknowledgement" note, she refers to the many who helped in her research though she cannot name them. Two decades later, "a complete ban remains in place against discussion of the protest and events in the square and the subsequent brutal crackdown and repression - even an accounting of the imprisoned or the dead is a `state secret'." The story of Lu Decheng and his fellow protesters, then, represents an important view into the protest, even though their stories are not representative of the mass of students taking part.
Lu Decheng was born in 1961, and grew up under the strict regime that went unchallenged even after Mao died in 1976. He was a rebellious teen, and resented indoctrination. He became a bus mechanic, but was to face incomprehensible suffering from what he thought were arbitrary or foolish regulations. When he and friends heard of the Tiananmen protests, they traveled there, planning their own version: thirty eggs filled with paint, which they flung across the huge portrait of Chairman Mao that looked over everyone in Tiananmen Square. It was an independent action; they felt that targeting this particular icon would call special attention to the despotic rule of Mao and his successors. Their hope was that the symbolism of the defacement of the portrait would be taken up by the students. They were shocked that just the opposite occurred. The act was so provocative, that the student leaders were scared that Lu Decheng and his two companions might be agents for the other side, there to give an excuse for a crackdown. They were denounced as vandals and turned over to the Public Security Bureau. Lu Decheng was tried and sentenced to sixteen years in atrocious prisons that were supposed to reform his thinking, but he resisted. A practical man, he tried to find ways that even in the prison environment he might make himself a better person, and he did all he could to learn Mandarin, to read and write it, and to enjoy what books were available. He never recanted, and would not hear of the charges against him being reduced to simple vandalism. When a warden, probing to find how right-minded he was becoming, asked him what he thought of the 1991 upheavals in Russia, Lu Decheng said, "It shows the total bankruptcy of Communism." The warden was apoplectic, and there were meetings to denounce Lu Decheng in the prison while he was on stage in front of everyone else, but he kept silent and would not recant. There was a flow of political prisoners gradually released after the 1997 death of Deng Xiaoping, and then to curry favor for the 2000 Olympics, and Lu Decheng was freed in January 1998. He was able to sneak out of China eight years later, and now lives in Canada.
This is a timely and important political story, but Chong has told it by concentrating on the humanity and bravery of her lead character and contrasting it with other individuals, like his father, who had been ground down by authoritarianism. Chong has not stuck to chronology; the narrative zips from Lu Decheng's upbringing, to Tiananmen, to the prison, and back; the lurches can be confusing, but the payoff is that the climactic event of Lu Decheng's life, the defacement of Mao's portrait, is the book's climax on the final pages, with all strands leading up to it. It was a simple, quixotic gesture, but it was deeply resented by the Chinese government. It changed little, but that little matters; this is an inspiring story of real heroism. That the powers in China so feared Lu Decheng's action, and his inability to reform, means that this round was won by the people; there will be other rounds to come.