Tiananmen and the Right to be Forgotten

4 June 2014



There is a spectre haunting China — the spectre of Tiananmen. It is now a quarter century since the June 4 incident, as it is known among the Chinese. The Chinese government is concerned that the symbolic significance of 25 years since the carnage in Tiananmen Square will mean the resurfacing of memories that the communist party of China has diligently sought to suppress and conceal. Within China, they have been largely successful, but they have not exorcised the spectre of Tiananmen, which haunts public consciousness even as it is carefully expunged. Can a nation forget? Ought a nation to forget? To put the question in a new light, does a nation have the right to forget? Does China have the right to forget the Tiananmen massacre?


There has been a great deal of attention recently focused on what is now called “the right to be forgotten,” as the result of a European Court of Justice ruling that has forced the search engine Google to give individuals the opportunity to petition for the removal of links that connect their names with events in their past. This present discussion of a right to be forgotten may be only the tip of an iceberg of future conflicts between privacy and transparency. It is to be expected that different societies will take different paths in attempting to negotiate some kind of workable compromise between privacy and transparency, as we can already see in this court ruling Europe going in one direction — a direction that will not necessarily be followed by other politically open societies.


The Chinese communist party that presided over the Tiananmen massacre would certainly like the event to disappear from public consciousness, and to pretend as though it never happened, and the near stranglehold that the communist party exercises over society means that it is largely successful within the geographical extent of China. But outside China, and even in Hong Kong and Taiwan, the memory does not fade away as the communist party hopes, but remains, held in a kind of memory trust for the day when all Chinese can know the truth of Chinese history. A hundred years from now, when the communist party no longer rules China, and the the details of its repression are a fading memory that no one will want to remember, Tiananmen will continue to be the “defining act” of modern Chinese history, as it has been identified by Bao Tong (as reported in the recent book People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited by Louisa Lim).


The right to be forgotten could be understood as an implementation of the right to privacy, but it is also suggestive of the kind of control of history routinely practiced by totalitarian societies, and most notoriously by Stalin, who had individuals who had fallen out of favor excised from history books and painted out of pictures and photographs, so that it was as though the individual had never existed at all. It has been suggested that this extreme control of history was intended to send a message to dissidents or potential dissidents of the pointlessness of any political action taken against the state, because the state could effectively make them disappear from history, and their act of defiance would ultimately have no meaning at all.


Many have observed that there is no right to privacy written into the US Constitution, and some have proposed an amendment to the Constitution that would secure such a legal right to privacy. I found one such proposed amendment, worded as follows:

“Each person has the right to privacy, including the right to keep personal information private; to communicate with others privately; and to make decisions concerning his or her body.”

But a nation-state is not a person, not an individual, and while advocates of the nation-state and the system of international anarchy that prevails among nation-states claim on the behalf of the nation-state supra-personal rights, I think that the moral intuitions that predominate in our time deny to political entities — in principle, if not always in practice — the kind of rights that persons have, or ought to have, and I further suspect that among those who advocate a right to privacy or a right to be forgotten, than they would not likely extend this right to political entities.


Few would argue that the individual deserves greater consideration when it comes to privacy than a political entity. This idea has already been incorporated into law. In libel and slander cases, individuals considered private citizens are viewed in a different light by the courts than public figures such as politicians and celebrities, and I am sure that at least one of the motivations on behalf of the “right to be forgotten” is the idea that private citizens deserve a certain anonymity and a higher level of protection. Nevertheless, the opportunities for abuse of the right to be forgotten are so obvious, and so apparently easily exploited, that it is at least questionable whether a right to be forgotten can be considered an implementation of one aspect of a right to privacy (which latter, as noted above, does not itself have legal standing in most nation-states).


I think that the worry that individuals will be dogged by a past on the internet that they would rather forget is overstated. We hear about the egregious cases in which individuals lose their jobs because of off-color photographs from years before, but the media emphasis that falls upon these cases tends to obscure how social networks actually function. On most online social networks, individuals post a vast amount of material, the vast bulk of which is rapidly pushed into the past by new posts piling up on top of them. Most things are forgotten quite quickly, and it takes a real effort to locate some post from the past amid the sheer amount of material.


The exception to this rapid receding even of the recent past is what has come to be called the Streisand Effect: when the attempt to suppress information results in the wider dissemination of the same information. In other words, it is often the attempt to suppress information that creates a situation in which a right to be forgotten becomes an issue. If an individual or a nation-state did not try to sanitize its past, much of these past would naturally fall into obscurity and would eventually be forgotten.


The institutional memories of nation-states guarantee, on the one hand, that many things will not be forgotten, while on the other hand the equally institutional suppression of events, or versions of events, can become something like an imperative to forget, that buries in the silent grave of the past all that the institution and its agents do not want on the conscience of the nation-state. Nietzsche once wrote that, “My memory says, ‘I have done this.’ My pride says, ‘I could not have done this.’ Soon my memory yields.” This, I think, is equally true for nation-state and for individuals.


It is this imperative to forget, to put behind that which is a burden to the conscience of the individual or the institution, that provokes the opposite reaction — the moral demand that a memory not be forgotten, and this is why one of the most familiar political slogans is, “Never forget.” There is a Wikipedia article on “Never forget,” calling it, “a political slogan used to urge commemoration and remembrance for national tragedies,” and noting that, “It is often used in conjunction with ‘never again’.” Both of these slogans are as appropriate for Tiananmen as for any other national tragedy one might care to name.


In Twenty-one years since Tiananmen I mentioned the then-recently published diary of Li Peng, who compared Tiananmen to the Cultural Revolution, and justified the Tiananmen crackdown as necessary to avoid another tragedy of Chinese history on the scale of the Cultural Revolution. Thus for Li Peng, the massacre at Tiananmen on 04 June 1989 was itself undertaken in the spirit of “Never again.” During the Cultural Revolution, China has scarcely more government than Somalia has today; the state during the Cultural Revolution was essentially represented by roving bands of Red Guards who killed and destroyed virtually at will. The attitude of Li Peng and other communist leaders who ordered the massacre was, “Never forget” the Cultural Revolution, and never allow it to happen again. In their eagerness to avoid another national tragedy, they created another national tragedy that in its turn has become a focus of the imperative to never forget.


The emergence of the memory of Tiananmen as an imperative to never forget, no less than the imperative to never forget the Cultural Revolution, poses a problem for the authority of the Chinese communist party, and the party has taken the familiar Stalinist path of attempting to control institutional memory. Rather, however, than the brutal amnesia of Stalinist Russia, when disgraced party members were painted out of heroic celebrations on communist triumph with a certain awkwardness so as to remind the people that individuals can be forgotten and written out of history, the Chinese have approached the problem of controlling history as a pervasive low-level intervention.


An article in the Wall Street Journal, Tiananmen Crackdown Shaped China’s Iron-Fisted Approach to Dissent, describes the method of the Chinese police for dealing with dissidents:

“In taking down Mr. Zhang, police applied a well-honed, layered strategy to nip opposition in the bud. His moves were carefully tracked online and in real life. He was apprehended just before the Chinese New Year, when it was less likely to attract attention, and then quietly released into a life of isolation. ‘These are strategies that have been used over and over again,’ says Maya Wang, Asia researcher with Human Rights Watch. ‘Tiananmen also started small. The government has to be on the lookout for sparks… They’ve been working on this for 25 years’.”

The skittishness of Chinese authorities entails a low threshold for intervention, meaning that the state feels it must act on the smallest suspicion of dissent. It is this skittishness that led to the suppression of a movement as apparently innocuous as Falun Gong.


We all know that tyrants and dictators eviscerate civil society, leaving nothing to a people but the dictator himself, or his cronies, so that the people are utterly reliant on the state for all things; here there is no alternative to the one, universal institution of dictatorship. While China’s economic opening to the world has been so dramatic that there has been a tendency to view Beijing’s totalitarianism as a perhaps kinder and gentler totalitarianism, in actual fact the low threshold for dissidence in the wake of Tiananmen has meant systematically dismantling and deconstructing any and all spontaneous institutions of civil society, wrecking any promising social movement that might serve as an alternative focus for social organization not dictated by the communist party.


This evisceration of civil society, at all levels and across all institutions, may well mean yet another “Never forget, never again” moment will define China’s future history. Without robust institutions of civil society outside the exclusive control of China’s communist party, weathering the coming storms of history will not be easy, and the communist party of China is building into its rule a kind of brittleness that will not serve either itself for the people of China when the country experiences the kind of strategic shocks that are inevitable in the long term history of a nation-state.


In the meantime, the Chinese communist party will continue to assert its right to forget its own unpleasant past, and to defend this right by policing its own amnesia. This, again, incorporates a kind of brittleness into the rule of the party, even a kind of schizophrenia in actively seeking to suppress not only a memory, but also public consciousness of the meaning of China’s modern history.

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Previous posts on Tiananmen Anniversaries:

2009 Anniversary of a Massacre

2010 Twenty-one years since Tiananmen

2011 Was the Tiananmen massacre an atrocity?

2013 A Dream Deferred

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Grand Strategy Annex

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