Thursday


The photograph above of Tiananmen Square in 1989 is from Carl Bildt's Tweet on the anniversary.

The photograph above of Tiananmen Square in 1989 is from Carl Bildt’s Tweet on the anniversary.

Today marks the 26th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre. In the past year it almost looked like similar sights would be repeated in Hong Kong, as the “Umbrella Revolution” protesters showed an early resolve and seemed to be making some headway. But the regime in Beijing kept its cool and a certain patience, and simply waited out the protesters. Perhaps the protesters will return, but they will have a difficult time regaining the historical momentum of the moment. It would take another incident of some significance to spark further unrest in Hong Kong. The Chinese state has both the patience and the economic momentum to dictate its version of events. Hence the importance of maintaining the June 4th incident in living memory.

Just yesterday I was talking to a Chinese friend and I opined that, with the growth of the Chinese economy and Chinese citizens working all over the world, the government might have increasing difficulty in maintaining its regime of control over information within the Chinese mainland. I was told that it was not difficult to make the transition between what you can say in China and what you can’t say in China, in comparison of the relative freedom of Chinese to say whatever they think when outside mainland China. One simply assumes the appropriate persona when in China. As a westerner, I have a difficult time accepting this, but the way in which it was described to me was perfectly authentic and I have no reason to doubt it.

Over the past weeks and months there have been many signs of China’s continued assumption of the role of a “responsible stakeholder” in the global community, with the initial success of gaining the cooperation of other nation-states in the fledgling Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Financial Times last Tuesday noted, “…the IMF’s decision later this year about whether to include China in the basket of currencies from which it makes up its special-drawing-rights will be keenly watched.” (“What Fifa tells us about global power” by Gideon Rachman) The very idea of a global reserve currency that is not fully convertible and fully floating strikes me as nothing short of bizarre — since the value of the currency is not then determined by the markets, its value must be established politically — but that just goes to show you what economic power can achieve. And all of this takes place against the background of China’s ongoing land reclamation on small islands in the South China Sea, which is a source of significant tension. But the tension has not derailed the business deals.

If China’s grand strategy (or, rather, the grand strategy of the Chinese communist party) is to make China a global superpower with both hard power (military power projection capability) and soft power (social and cultural prestige), and to do so while retaining the communist party’s absolute grip on power (presumably assuming the legitimacy of that grip on power), one must acknowledge that this strategy has been on track successfully for decades. Assume, for purposes of argument, that this grand strategy continues successfully on track. I have to wonder if the Chinese communist party has a plan to eventually allow the history of the Tiananmen massacre to be known, once subsequent events have sufficiently changed the meaning of that the event (by “proving” that the party was “right” because their policies led to the success of China, therefore their massacre should be excused as understandable in the service of a greater good), or is the memory of the Tiananmen massacre to be forever sequestered? Since the Chinese leadership has proved their ability to think big over the long term, I would guess that there must be internal documents that deal explicitly with this question, though I don’t suppose this internal debate will ever become public knowledge.

I have read many times, from many different sources, that young party members are set to study the lessons of the fall of dictators and one-party states elsewhere in the world. Perhaps they also study damaging historical revelations as carefully, and have developed a plan to manage knowledge of the Tiananmen massacre at some time in the future. It is not terribly difficult to imagine China attempting to use the soft power of the great many Confucius Institute franchises it has sponsored (480 worldwide at latest count) to slowly and gradually shape the discourse around China and the biggest PR disaster in the history of the Chinese communist party, paving the way to eventually opening a discussion of Tiananmen entirely on Chinese terms. I suppose that’s what I would do, if I was a member of the Standing Committee of the Central Politburo. But, again, I am a westerner and am liable to utterly misjudge Chinese motivations. I will, however, continue to wonder about their long game in relation to Tiananmen, and to look for signs in the tea leaves that will betray that game.

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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

2014 Tiananmen and the Right to be Forgotten

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A Dream Deferred

4 June 2013

Tuesday


Tiananmen square

There is a quite well-known poem by Langston Hughes titled “Harlem.” Here it is:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Today I was talking to a friend about the anniversary of the June 4 incident, which we Westerners refer to as the Tienanmen massacre, or some similar title. My friend is Chinese, was living in China at the time, and was part of the movement for democracy. To hear about the hopes that the Chinese people had at the time for a democratic China was quite moving, and it immediately reminded me of the Langston Hughes poem, since my friend said to me that everyone who lived through the June 4 incident had their dream destroyed.

For an entire generation of Chinese, democratic governance was and has been a dream deferred. And perhaps more than a generation: one of the consequences of the Tienanmen massacre was that the military and hard-line factions of the Chinese Communist Party consolidated and extended their control, while those elements of Chinese society who were sympathetic to the democracy protesters had their careers destroyed and lost all influence in the Chinese government — more dreams deferred. In other words, the consequences of the June 4 incident were to shift the whole of Chinese society in the direction of hardliners.

In the intervening decades Chinese society has changed dramatically, and the Communist party monopoly on power has allowed, if not encouraged, every kind of change except political change. It is the oft-observed social contract of China that you can do almost anything you like, as long as you don’t question one-party rule in the country. But this so-called “social contract” is a one-sided contract enforced by the Chinese communist party’s stranglehold on power, and it is aided and abetted by the “Princelings” who found themselves all the more firmly entrenched in power as the result of the consequences of 4 June 1989.

The segue from political and military power of the generation that accompanied Mao to power to the next generation of their children, who have exploited their connections to become rich and powerful, points to a China that has made the transition directly from communist dictatorship to crony capitalism, bypassing a democratic stage of development. There have been many articles in recent years about the high life of the upper echelons of the Chinese Communist Party, and how the Princelings — children of older, influential communist party members — have taken wealth and power for themselves. An article in Foreign Policy called this “The End of the Chinese Dream” — more dreams deferred.

In my post Crony Capitalism: Macro-Parasitism under Industrialization I speculated that crony capitalism may well be the mature form that capitalism takes in industrial-technological civilization. If, unfortunately, I am right in this, the defeat of the dream of a democratic China on 4 June 1989 may mean that China has assumed the politico-economic structure that it will maintain into the foreseeable future — more dreams deferred.

How long can a dream be deferred and still remain viable, that is to say, still retain its power to inspire? When does a dream pass from deferment to destruction?

There is a political scientist — I can’t remember who it is as I am writing this — who has divided up political movements according to when in the future they locate the ideal society (i.e., utopia). Reformists see the ideal society as in the distant future, so there is no reason to do anything radical or drastic: concentrate on incremental reforms in the present, and in the fullness of time, when we are ready for it, we will have a more just and equitable social order. The radical on the contrary, in pursuit of revolution, thinks that the ideal society is just around the corner, and if we will just do x, y, and z right now we can have the ideal society tomorrow.

Talking to my Chinese friend today, and discussing the almost millenarian expectation of a democratic China, I immediate thought of this revolutionary ideal of a new society right around the corner, since my friend said to me that they felt that a democratic China was not merely a possibility, but was so close to being a reality — almost within their grasp. I also thought of the radicalism of the French Revolution, and Wordworth’s famous evocation of this time:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!

The dream of the French Revolution issued in the nightmare of The Terror, and of course many who opposed the protesters for democracy in China did so because this is the path of development they feared: a collapse of civil society followed by years if not decades of chaos and instability. Many former communist officials who participated in the Tienanmen crack down were quite explicit about this (which is something I wrote about in Twenty-one years since Tiananmen).

To invoke yet another western poem to describe the situation in China, Chinese democracy remains the road not taken. We will never know what China and the world would have looked like if democracy had triumphed in China in 1989. We don’t know what kind of lesson China would have given to the world: an example to follow, or a warning of what to avoid. Instead, the leaders of China gave the world a very different lesson, and a very different China.

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Saturday


the-goddess-of-democracy-in-tiananmen-square

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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Friday


Today it is twenty-one years since the Tiananmen Square massacre. Like a few memorable place names, it has joined the select litany of spaces closely associated with a certain date and a certain event: Katyn, Auschwitz, Srebrinica, Hiroshima. It is sufficient for me simply to say, “Tiananmen,” and, where information is not systematically suppressed by the powers that be, everyone will know to what I refer.

The images of 04 June 1989 are as familiar as the name, and I used many of these iconic images last year in Anniversary of a Massacre. But there is a sense in which these images are too familiar. Because of the CPC’s rigorous censorship, images and information are difficult to come by. Thus we see the same images over and over again, and we become too familiar with them. Our familiarity prevents us to seeing how shocking they are.

It was therefore with considerable interest that I looked at a remarkable series of thirty large black and white images that have been published on China Gate, a forum for Chinese Americans. I have never seen these pictures previously. I have copied and reduced a few of these images and added them here; I urge the reader to follow the above link and see all thirty pictures full size. Though I cannot read the text, I am told that these pictures were taken in Beijing on 05 June 1989. The massacre had happened the night before. The next morning, a different group of soldiers, who had no knowledge of what happened the previous night, went into the Beijing. Civilians tried to stop them by telling them about the bloodshed the night before. Many officers ordered their vehicles to be abandoned and gave up their mission. Later these tanks were burned by civilians.

There was an interesting story on the BBC, Tiananmen leader’s ‘diary’ revealed, describing the publication of Li Peng’s diary kept during the events of 1989. According to the BBC story, Li Peng wrote, “I would rather sacrifice my own life and that of my family to prevent China from going through a tragedy like the Cultural Revolution.” If this is true, it gives us a fascinating window into the thinking of the CPC’s elite leaders. The fear was not of democracy per se, but of the potential chaos that might come from a root-and-branch reform of China’s political system. This could be mere ex post facto justification by Li Peng, but it might also be an authentic sentiment. The dimensions of the Cultural Revolution are little understood in the West, like the scale of violence during the partition of India, the other great civilization of Asia. This revelation of Li Peng in itself could be the topic of a long post, if not of a book.

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Note added Tuesday 23 July 2019: Li Peng passed away at the age of 90 on 22 July 2019, cf. Li Peng: Former Chinese premier known as ‘Butcher of Beijing’ dies at 90

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Google in China

14 January 2010

Thursday


In today’s Financial Times there were more than a half dozen stories on Google’s decision to cease its censorship of search results from within China. It was almost as big of a story as the earthquake in Haiti. There was an editorial, several commentaries, and a large story on the second page with bright color graphics.

The legacy of Mao Zedong can only with difficulty be reconciled with the emerging age of information technology.

There seem to be primarily two positions on this issue:

1) Google, being one of the rare western companies to achieve a significant market share in China (forty percent, or so), was on the verge of surrendering this valuable market share for purely idealistic reasons (after already having caved in to Chinese authorities as the initial condition of operating in the country), or

2) that China’s internet might become an enormous intranet, with the implication being that China would develop an internal (and somewhat backward) internet, a second tier internet, that would keep China permanently in the second (if not the third) tier of industrialized nation-states.

I was interested to find myself personally affected by Google’s ending of its Chinese censorship. A post that I wrote to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, Anniversary of a Massacre, which had previously received an average of less than twenty hits per day, suddenly spiked and yesterday received more than a thousand hits. This is more hits than all the content on my blog usually receives in total, and so this spike in hits to my Tiananmen massacre piece showed up as a very noticeable spike in overall hits to my blog.

On the right you can clearly see the spike in traffic caused by the end of Google censorship in China.

Today’s hits have already declined significantly from yesterday’s highs, so it would seem that there is no special hunger among the Chinese for my particular take on the “June 4 Incident” (probably they were only looking at the pictures) nor for my commentary on any other matters, but it was interesting to see the spike in hits yesterday. The statistics provided by WordPress don’t allow you to see where the hits one’s blog receive are coming from, but my other posts retained their average traffic, so the addition of another three hundred million or so internet users did not affect them to any degree.

A poor screenshot in which you can make out the 1,065 hits to Anniversary of a Massacre.

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NOTE: I returned to this topic in Google in China, Again.

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