Tuesday, June 3, 2014

A retrospective on Tiananmen Square: Will China ever become a democracy?

On June 4, 1989, in Tiananmen Square, democracy in China was crushed under the treads of tanks. While the goals of the student protesters included corruption and nepotism, democracy was very much on their minds during the seven weeks that the protests continued until brutal force was used to end them.

Much has been written about the June 4 or Tiananmem Square Massacre, but there is much that the Chinese people and the outside world still does not know about what happened that day. For one thing, the name of the single pedestrian who stopped a line of tanks near Tiananmen Square remains unknown, yet for Westerners his courage is the iconic image that persists of this protest that took place 25 years ago.

In China, "Tank Man," as he is known, is a nobody from a non-event. "Young people have very little idea what happened in 1989 and very little curiosity or interest," says Louisa Lim, an NPR correspondent and the author of The People’s Republic of Amnesia (published June 4), which vividly describes the horror of 1989 and its aftermath through the eyes of eyewitnesses.

She writes that in four top Beijing universities, just 15 out of 100 students shown the "Tank Man" photo last year could identify it. To those who watched it unfold an overturning of Chinese Communist rule seemed genuinely possible in 1989. Then, on the night of June 3, the People’s Liberation Army turned its guns on the people. The iconic image of "Tank Man" was made on June 5, but many deaths happened the previous day.

A long shot of "Tank Man" and the tanks on Tiananmen Square, June 5, 1989

Today, the exact death toll from the protests also remains unknown. The crackdown left an estimated 500 to 2,600 dead,  China's official death toll is 246. About 5000 soldiers as well as 2000 civilians were injured.

The pro-democracy movement and massacre are not even taught in Chinese schools, and images and information about the event have been scrubbed from the Internet. All web searches for "June 4, 1989" are denied by Chinese servers, as as the numerous ways to circumvent this, such as a search for "May 35."

The writer Paul French has described the protests and their denouement as “the most pivotal moment in modern China’s history." In 1989, for the first time in the history of the People’s Republic of China, “people power” threatened to defeat the iron fist of the state. 

On May 20, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had imposed martial law and truckloads of soldiers began travelling into Beijing, with orders to secure Tiananmen Square. But only a few miles into their mission throngs of civilians hemmed in the trucks. 

They explained why they were protesting and asked the army to “go home”; a few days later, the troops retreated. “You might have said that our army was big and powerful,” one of the soldiers later told Lim, “but at that time… we felt very useless.”

Protesters around replica of the Statue of Liberty in Tiananmen Square,  June 2, 1989
In order to reassert authority over the capital in early June, the government needed to mobilize armed divisions that were personally loyal to the country’s veteran leader, Deng Xiaoping.

The crackdown of spring 1989 has transformed the destinies of the student leaders, who have had to live with the consequences of their activism in prison terms, exile and political marginalization. But these events have also fundamentally shaped the China during the past two and a half decades.

The bloody suppression of dissent also led directly to contemporary China’s headlong drive for materialism: China’s post-1989 leaders accelerated economic reforms, while slamming the door on political liberalization. The Chinese state’s decision to resort to violence in 1989 was a harsh reminder of the ruthlessness of the Chinese Communist Party. 

The Party’s chief concern was the preservation of its power; that power came out of the barrel of a gun. Popular fear of state violence and preservation of stability have consequently become two of the defining features of post-Tiananmen Chinese politics.

And the protests of 1989  transformed the ideological agenda of the CCP. In order to demonize, and then in order to block the events of 1989 from public memory, one of its most successful post-Mao political crusades, called Patriotic Education, was developed. 

Protesters stand atop government vehicle on Chang'an Boulevard, June 4, 1989

Looking for a new state religion around which the country could rally, the Party reinvented itself as defender of the national interest against Western attempts to contain a rising China.

To dislodge the worship of the West that had helped foment much of the unrest leading to 1989, Patriotic Education campaigns were waged in textbooks, newspapers, films and monuments that emphasized China’s “century of humiliation” (1840-1949) that were inflicted by foreign imperialism, while passing over the CCP’s own acts of violence, such as the man-made famine of the Sixties, the Cultural Revolution and the 1989 crackdown..

Lim's book features an extraordinary array of witnesses: a soldier-turned-artist who observed first hand the planning and implementation of the military crackdown; the parents of victims of the violence; two of the “most wanted” student leaders; and a high-ranking CCP official purged for his liberal stance.

The book also explores the ways the violence has been so successfully deleted from public consciousness, and the social and political costs of this amnesia. The process began with a vigorous propaganda campaign blaming the violence of June 3-4 on counter-revolutionary rioting and Western conspiracies against China. It then went on to erase from history any mention of the massacre, while drawing renewed attention to Western historical crimes against China. 

Bodies of dead protesters and destroyed bicycles filled Tiananmen Square, June 4, 1989

According to Lim, nationalism and cynicism have taken over from the political idealism of the Eighties to become the new religions of China. Even young Chinese who have some awareness of what happened in 1989 want to join the Party, since membership is seen as a fast track to wealth. 

Materialism also belong on this list of Chinese religions. Corruption will continue unabated. After the crushing of the protests in 1989, corruption, as already noted, has increased.

Lim’s final chapter, on the less-publicized crackdown in Chengdu, is a case study “in first rewriting history, then excising it altogether.”.The lack of foreign media footage in combination with state repression enabled the authorities to conceal perhaps hundreds of deaths.

According to The Telegraph, for all the suffering and sacrifice generated by the protests of 1989, few tangible reforms have resulted. Chinese people now enjoy a much greater degree of freedom in their personal and economic lives than they did in the Eighties: some 440 million have been lifted out of poverty. 

Yet these new liberties can be abruptly curtailed when the interests of the state are implicated. One of the chief complaints of the 1989 protests was official corruption, which had blossomed as Communist China’s planned economy lurched towards market reforms. 

Hong Kong protests mark 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square, June 1, 2014
Elsewhere in China no protests have been permitted, especially this year

In the 25 years since, the problem has grown to staggering proportions. In May this year, for example, more than a ton of cash (literally) was found in one official’s home. This melancholy reality notwithstanding, Lim has courageously battled state-imposed amnesia, forcing us to remember the human cost of China’s 1989.

Will China ever become a democracy? Obviously 1989 did not result in democracy. A quarter of a century later, democracy is still far becoming a reality for China's huge population, but perhaps the next 25 years will see the birth of democracy in China.

Democracy comes in many flavors. The Chinese flavor will be uniquely Chinese. If and when democracy is finally achieved, it will only happen, I suspect, when China  has become the pre-eminent economic power in the world and the CCP no longer feels threatened and may dissolve. 

The first will happen sooner rather than later, but the second not happen for a long time. Thus democracy may have to wait. That is a pity for almost one quarter of the human race. 

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