Anniversary of a Massacre

4 June 2009

Thursday


June Fourth Incident

Tiananmen2

天安門事件


As of yet I do not think of myself as a long-lived individual, though I have lived far beyond the lifespan of our prehistoric ancestors, and even beyond the usual life span of perhaps most people in the world during the nineteenth century, before the advent of technological medicine. However brief that span of history with which I am personally acquainted, I have noticed in that time a change in the observation of significant historical anniversaries.

goddess-of-democracy-in-tiananmen-square

When I was younger, the anniversary of Pearl Harbor was widely noted. As veterans of the Second World War die off in increasing numbers, the anniversary becomes progressively smaller and less widely observed. It was formerly the occasion of presidential speeches, whereas now it is largely passed in silence. Even in the less than ten years since 11 September 2001 there has been a marked diminution of the observance of the anniversary. I recall last 11 September, during 2008, I read a satirical piece on the internet about Dick Cheney’s “celebration” of the “holiday” of 11 September. We have already come to tolerate cynicism about an event of the magnitude of Pearl Harbor (Pearl Harbor: 2,345 military and 57 civilians killed; 11 September 2001: 3,017 killed, including 24 presumed dead and 19 hijackers).

Tiananmen3

Thus it has been with the greatest of interest that I have been reading the various reports on the upcoming anniversary of the massacre in Tiananmen Square. Twenty years marks something of a milestone, and on 04 June 2009 it will be twenty years since the People’s Liberation Army cleared the protesters for democracy from Tiananmen Square, killing an undisclosed number in the process.

tiananmen1

The reports in the press have been mixed, some sympathetic to China’s ability to sustain economic growth and thus improve the lives of the Chinese people over all, while many still focus on the unsustainability of one-party leadership by those willing to shed the blood of their own people. Chinese officials are, of course, tight-lipped about the whole thing. I read somewhere that both a question and an answer about the anniversary asked at a press conference with a Chinese official were expunged from the official record of what was said.

Tiananmen4

At the same time that I have been reading these news reports, I have been listening through, for the second time, to Robert Kagan’s The Return of History and the End of the Dreams, which is (sort of) a reactionary response to his own earlier Of Paradise and Power. I have already discussed these works elsewhere (Doctrinaire and Inorganic Democracy), expressing my decided preference for the earlier work. I bring it up here again as I note how central China is to Kagan’s discussion.

kagan return front

One of the themes in The Return of History is that the ideological contest of the Cold War between democratic capitalism and communism has been replaced by a contest between democracy and autocracy. Despite Kagan’s attempt to argue the contrary, I remain unconvinced that autocracy is in the least ideological; it is, rather, the entrenched ruling class serving the interests of the ruling class at the expense of everyone else. For those who can pull off this unlikely state of affairs, it is no doubt an achievement to be proud of, but there is no measure by which it could be said to be done in the interests of the people so ruled.

Kagan return back

Despite his enthusiastic relativism which apparently sees little or no difference between the “imposition” of democratic rule and the imposition of autocratic rule, Kagan acknowledges that, “Even the Chinese have learned that while it is possible to have capitalism without political liberalization, it is much harder to have capitalism without cultural liberalization.” (p. 82) But it would have been more accurate if Kagan had said that it was impossible to have capitalism without social liberalization. The mobility of labor and capital, and the de facto meritocracy of capitalism, force certain social changes upon a society. The European rulers of the Enlightenment had no more interest in social or political liberalization than do the Chinese leaders of today. But the Industrial Revolution was a force that no political regime could control; it is a larger force than the state.

Louis XVI had no interest in presiding over the French Revolution, and no interest in the social or political changes that were to follow, but sometimes events are larger than individuals, who are powerless to stop them.

Louis XVI had no interest in presiding over the French Revolution, and no interest in the social or political changes that were to follow, but sometimes events are larger than individuals, who are powerless to stop them.

It has been a controversial claim that economic liberalization drives political liberalization. Some people regard the proposition as having been “proved wrong” by history, in much the same way as many people regard Marx as having been “proved wrong” by history. But the social changes wrought by industrialization are only different in degree, not different in kind, from the political changes sought by advocates of democracy. Social change is coming slowly to China along with its relentless industrial revolution. Political change will eventually follow this social change as it did in western Europe, though it may take a century or more to happen. The only reason people resist making the connection between economic liberalization and political liberalization is because their perspective is too short and their horizon too restricted, too tightly circumscribed by the familiar world of day-to-day activity in which the subtle sounds of great movements of history are drowned out by the din of contemporary events.

Marx has no more been disproved by history than has the claim that social change begets political change.

Marx has no more been disproved by history than has the claim that social change begets political change.

We must remember that democracy came late in the history of civilization. There was Athenian democracy, of course, and this still today stands as a symbol of the Western tradition and its unique heritage. But Athenian democracy was an aberration in the ancient world that did not last. For all practical purposes, democracy as a robust form of social organization that can compete on equal terms with other forms of social organization dates from the Enlightenment, and specifically we can date its modern advent to 1776. Democracy in its modern form, then, is less than three hundred years old.

Democracy in its modern form dates from 1776 and is therefore a comparatively young historical institution.

Democracy in its modern form dates from 1776 and is therefore a comparatively young historical institution.

We should expect, as the pendulum of history slowly swings, that democracy will take two steps forward, followed by one step back. And the fact that the progress of democracy is interrupted, that it has suffered setbacks and will likely suffer further setbacks, does not demonstrate that historical progress does not occur, nor that the future of democracy is not brighter than ever. On a much smaller scale, the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma might suggest pessimism about the spread of democracy, but does anyone really believe that the Burmese generals are creating a sustainable political order? It should be obvious to anyone that what the generals in Burma are doing, and what the Communist Party of China is doing, are manifestly unsustainable. Their actions may be politically viable in the short term, but they are not historically viable.

Aung San Suu Kyi will remain a symbol of Burma long after the generals are forgotten. This is the kind of power that autocrats can never understand and can never master.

Aung San Suu Kyi will remain a symbol of Burma long after the generals are forgotten. This is the kind of power that autocrats can never understand and can never master.

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