Was the Tiananmen massacre an atrocity?

4 June 2011



It is time for another anniversary of the “June Fourth Incident” (天安門事件), now twenty-two years past. Soon it will be a quarter century, then fifty years, then a hundred. It will slip into the past, into history, into legend, and into myth — unless the Chinese authorities can extirpate the memory entire, which seems unlikely. But that the desire still apparently remains on the part of China’s Communist Party to gloss over the Tiananmen massacre shows that, whatever changes have occurred in the past couple of decades — and there have, most assuredly, been some profound changes — this particular Stalinist aspect of the Chinese leadership remains intact.

Indeed, on the twenty-second anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre we find China’s most prominent artist — Ai Weiwei — in custody and incommunicado, and we find a renewed and reinvigorated Maoism among the aspirants to the top spots in the Chinese leadership. The Financial Times ran a great piece a couple of days ago, China: Mao and the next generation by Kathrin Hille and Jamil Anderlini, in which the authors describe the current politicking for the upcoming party congress, and how those who aspire to seats on the Central Committee have been invoking the ghost of Mao in a surprisingly retrograde fashion.

And Mao certainly is the right figure to invoke in this context. In terms of absolute numbers of people killed in the service of a political or ideological program in the twentieth century, Mao probably takes the prize, though he is often not seen as even the equal of Hitler or Stalin. As with Stalin, some today still praise the achievements of Mao, and there is also the fact that the vast majority of the people that Mao liquidated were his own countrymen.

It is an interesting moral thought experiment to ask whether the Tiananmen massacre was an atrocity. That it was a massacre I think few will argue, but I can’t think of any context in which it has been called an atrocity, though in scope it was larger than many political crimes that are typically called atrocities.

If we had something approaching a true political science we might be able to answer questions like this, but political science remains anecdotal in our times. Political science needs formal rigor before we can make fine distinctions between massacres and atrocities. And we know that matters such as this are intrinsically problematic, and not readily amenable to formalization. There are always running debates over whether this or that campaign of terror constitutes “genocide,” which is another term which has seen many attempts at clarification but its usage remains largely anecdotal.

But let us consider this on an even larger scope and scale. Let us consider the Great Leap Forward. The Great Leap Forward was no more a massacre than Stalin’s Terror Famine, the Holodomor, was a massacre. But as an event that was a socially engineered historical episode that resulted in the deaths of millions — in the case of the Great Leap Forward, tens of millions — it certainly was an atrocity, and perhaps it was also genocide. Even if not genocide in the strict and narrow sense of the term, the Great Leap Forward was genocidal in scope, and perhaps also in intent. And, similarly, the Cultural Revolution was genocidal in scope, if not in intent. (Though in so far as the Cultural Revolution was a systematic attempt at the extirpation of traditional Chinese civilization it could be called cultural genocide.)

But, I think that even with an event of the scale of the Great Leap Forward (or the Cultural Revolution), few people would be willing to call it an atrocity. The fact that I think many people would hesitate to call the Great Leap Forward (much less the Tiananmen massacre) an atrocity, points to important and deep moral intuitions. But I cannot at this time give any kind of exposition of this. I will have to think about it more.

The easy thing to do would be to say that the Great Leap Forward was internal to China, the deaths were not well reported in the Western press at the time, and it was authentically undertaken by the Chinese leadership without any intent to destroy a generation, though that’s what the practical consequences of this “industrial” policy were. In this case, the easy answer might be partially right, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. To give an exposition of the moral intuitions involved one needs to know more about the lives, ideas, and intentions of the agents involved, and I don’t have the background knowledge I would need to enter in to such an analysis.

Here is a philosophical problem that would require an imposing effort of empirical research to even approach an adequate answer. But such an empirical-philosophical inquiry into the Great Leap Forward would, in turn, give one the background to make a reasonable inquiry into whether or not the Tiananmen massacre was an atrocity. One might well spend a lifetime on such an inquiry.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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