How To Forget An Atrocity, Ctd

On the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square, Chinese activist Hu Jia feels “completely hopeless” about the prospects for reform in his country:

You have to say that a lot of the CCP’s methods are successful. They use the propaganda ministry to obfuscate this country’s true situation. They brainwash people, and the legal system is in their hands. If you criticize them, there are so many ways to deal with you: jail camps, labor camps, detention camps, prison camps, black prison camps, mental asylum camps. They have so many ways. Each method can make you disappear for a few years. And they can even have you die in prison like Cao Shunli. She was someone who simply asking to participate in the United Nation’s human rights review process. Someone who foreign countries were watching out for, but she died. So think about that.

“It is possible,” Melinda Liu argues, “to draw a direct line between the regime’s successful suppression of the Tiananmen generation then and the assertive China we see today”:

What’s not well understood is that the Communist Party leadership believes it has to behave in this bullying manner abroad, in part as a way of satisfying the patriotic sentiments it set in motion to quell Tiananmen-era discontent. Thus, Americans and other foreigners who are wary of China’s future power would do well to observe this anniversary, if only as a way of comprehending the roots of China’s new confidence.

But Andrew Nathan and Hua Ze believe China’s paranoid security state displays weakness, not strength:

The need to sustain and progressively intensify repression is a sign that the June 4 crackdown did not solve China’s problems; it exacerbated them. The ruling Chinese Communist Party faced a fork in the road in 1989. It could have dialogued with the students, as party leader Zhao Ziyang advocated, forming a common front against corruption. But the prime minister, Li Peng, argued that dialogue could end the Party’s monopoly on power. The top leader, Deng Xiaoping, sided with Li and the rest is history.

Refusal to dialogue with citizens has marked the regime’s modus operandi since then. This explains why citizens lack trust in government when it comes to land seizures, corruption, and pollution. Recent demonstrations against the building of a chemical plant in Maoming, Guizhou, and against an incinerator project in Hangzhou are signs of this corrosive mistrust.

Considering China’s rise to geopolitical prominence, Will Inboden addresses what its authoritarianism implies for US foreign policy:

It may seem now like distant history, but 2009 witnessed the shared hopes of the Obama administration and Beijing to forge a “G-2″ economic partnership of China and the United States, with other countries of the region envisioned in cooperative supporting roles. Instead today brings a region fraught with tension, division, suspicion of Chinese hegemony, and fears by other Indo-Pacific nations of American weakness and retrenchment. These trends are exemplified by tense exchanges between the United States and China at regional security conferences, neo-imperial territorial claims by China and aggression against the maritime vessels of neighboring countries, and a percolating China-Russia condominium based on shared interests in energy, countering American power, and preserving authoritarianism.

It is that latter factor that connects contemporary Asia with the legacy of Tiananmen Square. Beijing’s willingness 25 years ago to massacre its own citizens, and refusal today to admit it, let alone atone for it, illuminates this uncomfortable reality: The internal character of the CCP drives much of its external behavior.

Evan Osnos remarks on how effective the CCP’s propaganda has been “in framing the violence in 1989 as insignificant in the grand scheme, because it came amid broader gains in human development”:

In the government’s only official acknowledgement of the anniversary, the Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said, “In the last three decades and more of reform and opening up, China’s enormous achievements in social and economic development have received worldwide attention. The building of democracy and the rule of law have continued to be perfected.”

The message has been delivered to young people, in particular. We often imagine that young Chinese know nothing about the events of 1989; reporters who ask students to identify the image of the “tank man” frequently get blank stares. But more than a few students know the details and have applied a shade to the history. Several years ago, I met Liu Yang, a graduate student in environmental engineering at Stanford, who grew up in China. We happened to be chatting on the day of the nineteenth anniversary of Tiananmen Square, and, as I later wrote in The New Yorker, I asked him what he thought of the incident. He said, “If June 4th had succeeded, China would be worse and worse, not better.”

Christopher Beam finds Chinese millennials hazy on the details of what exactly happened and why:

Everyone I talked to knew the basic outline: Student protests, government crackdown, innocent civilians shot dead. But they weren’t all sure why the protesters were so upset. Jenny, a sharp 25-year-old legal expert living in Beijing, guessed it had to do with corruption. Several people suggested that the students were being manipulated by outside forces, particularly foreign governments. “Do you believe in conspiracy theories?” one young woman asked me. “It wasn’t about ideas,” said Susan. “It was just a power struggle.”

You can’t blame them for being confused. The 1989 protesters themselves didn’t know exactly what they wanted. They complained variously about high inflation, corruption, and a lack of democracy. As Wu’er Kaixi, one of the student leaders, put it in one interview: “What do we want? Nike shoes. Lots of free time to take our girlfriends to a bar. The freedom to discuss an issue with someone. And to get a little respect from society.” Even if they’d agreed on a set of goals, they couldn’t agree how to achieve them: Some wanted revolution, while others pushed for incremental change.

Lastly, Ai Weiwei stresses that Tiananmen isn’t the only thing the Party has sought to erase from history:

Modern China’s forgetfulness did not start or end with Tiananmen. Even before the summer of 1989, dozens of darker, crueler incidents lay hidden in Chinese history. Today’s leaders cannot acknowledge their stated ideology before 1949, the principles that helped the Communists gain power over the Nationalist government: establishing a democratic and law-abiding society, ending the one-party system and having an independent judiciary. In 1989, the students in Tiananmen Square asked for those same things. Since then, they’ve become unmentionable.

During Chairman Mao’s lifetime, he started dozens of political movements, none of which have been re-examined by the party in a forthright way. Huge topics such as the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward lack any accepted accounting. Because there is no discussion of these events, Chinese still have little understanding of their consequences. Censorship has in effect neutered society, transforming it into a damaged, irrational and purposeless creature.