Tuesday


In geostrategic circles it is common to speak of China as an island, even though China is very much a part of the Eurasian landmass. China is isolated from its civilizational neighbors by mountain ranges and deserts and an ocean. These barriers have not been absolute, but these have been effective in isolating China and limiting Chinese interaction with other Old World civilizations. The less often recognized flip side of an insular China surrounded by mountains, deserts, and an ocean is that of Chinese unity. Chinese insularity and Chinese unity are two sides of the same coin; China’s geographical barriers both isolate and unify the region.

The idea of Chinese unity has a deep history in geostrategic thought, both in China and elsewhere in Eurasia and the world. Chinese civilization seems to have had its origins in the Yellow River Valley during the Neolithic, and it has been continuously Chinese civilization more-or-less since that time. There is direct line of descent from these earliest origins of civilization in East Asia to the China of today. And while the idea diffusion of Chinese civilization populated East Asia with other civilizations, related to China by descent with modification, few of these other civilizations had a profound reflexive influence upon Chinese civilization, even as they came to maturity and become regional powers. Moreover, when China has not been unified — as during the period of Warring States or the Taiping Rebellion — this has been regarded as an historical aberration.

Chinese unity is a far greater and much older imperative than any one Chinese regime, including the communist iteration of China as the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Chinese communists are as keen on Chinese unity as any Chinese emperor of the past (much as general secretaries of the communist party in the Soviet Union were as keen on Russian imperialism as was any Tsar). Any great disruption within China threatens Chinese unity, and so is perceived as an existential threat to one of the core strategic imperatives of Chinese civilization. Another way of stating this is Martin Jacques’ contention that China is a “civilization-state” that derives its legitimacy from the continuity of its civilization (cf. Civilization-States and Their Attempted Extirpation).

At the recent 18th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Chinese General Wei Fenghe, State Councilor and Minister of National Defense, PRC, gave a speech largely focused on Taiwan and the South China Sea. Taiwan perfectly exemplifies the Chinese concern for Chinese unity. It has been seventy years since the Chinese Nationalists fled to Taiwan, and Mao was forced to accept their control of Taiwan because he did not possess the resources to follow the Nationalists across the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan has been a de facto independent nation-state since that time, but China has not forgotten Taiwan, and remains intent on re-asserting political control over the island.

After General Wei Fenghe’s speech he was asked questions, and he surprised many in the audience by explicitly answering a question about Tiananmen — the “June Fourth Incident” (天安門事件) — of which he was quoted as saying:

“Everybody is concerned about Tiananmen after 30 years,” Wei said on Sunday. “Throughout the 30 years, China under the Communist Party has undergone many changes — do you think the government was wrong with the handling of June Fourth? There was a conclusion to that incident. The government was decisive in stopping the turbulence.”

Turbulence threatens Chinese unity and stability, and as such it constitutes not merely a threat to the PRC or the ruling communist party, it constitutes a threat to Chinese civilization. Contrast this to Thomas Jefferson’s well known claim that, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.” Jefferson descended from the tradition of European civilization, which was always at war with itself, and never unified. And if you trace western civilization to its origins in Mesopotamia and Anatolia (cf. The Seriation of Western Civilization) it is obvious that western civilization has a different relationship to its origins than does Chinese civilization.

China’s grand strategy is dictated by these core concerns for continuity, stability, and unity, and China is willing to play the long game in order to secure these grand strategic goals. China has been mostly content to employ persuasion to this end, and this was the motivation for the “one country, two systems” policy that was supposed to assuage concerns in Hong Kong about its reunification with the Chinese mainland. For optimists, the success of “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong would persuade Taiwan to voluntarily accept a similar deal for itself. But China also plays the long game in Hong Kong, and it has been steadily wearing away at the autonomy of Hong Kong, so that the “two systems” of the “one country” come ever closer to coinciding.

The Chinese mainland implicitly offers to Hong Kong and Taiwan the opportunity to hitch their wagons to a star, as the large and growing Chinese economy represents the possibility of great wealth for all who get on board (but at the cost of what Rufus Fears called “national freedom”). Now that China feels its growing strength, both economically and militarily, we hear much less about “one country, two systems” and much more about the core strategic concerns of continuity, stability, and unity. China can now afford to be more direct about its grand strategy.

Thirty years’ on, the Tiananmen Square massacre is now perceived as being safely distant in the past so that it can be acknowledged by Chinese military leaders, who have moved on to other concerns. There will be no official commemorations in mainland China, but the Chinese government may eventually become sufficiently confident of its position and its view of Chinese history that it can acknowledge the incident and place it in a context that they believe contributes to the narrative of the ability of the Chinese leadership class to ensure the strategic imperatives of Chinese continuity, stability, and unity.

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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

2015 Tiananmen and Chinese Grand Strategy

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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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Grand Strategy Annex

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Wednesday


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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?

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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


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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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Grand Strategy Annex

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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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Grand Strategy Annex

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