Sunday, April 19, 2009

20 Years Since Tiananmen Square

Twenty years ago this week began the protests that culminated in the Tiananmen Square massacre. While initially student and intellectual in nature, they eventually encompassed vast sections of Chinese society. This importantly included segments of the peasantry and the emerging urban working class, the later best represented by the formation of the Workers Autonomous Federation - active in many cities at that time.

What happened in crushing these protests, was nothing less than a government turning against its own people. There was the wholesale arrest of tens of thousands, and murder of hundreds, or possibly thousands, of civilians. Multiple divisions of the Army were called in to retake the city of Beijing.

The crackdown proved to Western capital that the government in China was willing to do anything to maintain control, and that China was a safe place to invest.

20 years later, quite a bit has changed in China. It is much wealthier, especially in sections of the traditional merchant class. But it is still an autocratic government resting on a foundation of repression. This autocracy is justified by Western Beijing apologists as understandable, based upon their crude stereotypes of the Chinese people. These stereotypes include notions that the Chinese are uniform, lack individuality, and value an imposed social order over freedom. The apologists say, either loudly or quietly - some people don't really want democracy, and authoritarianism is OK for them.

But time and time again, humans have shown that not to be the case. Autocratic governments are unable to withstand crisis without mass repression, or imploding, because people ultimately don't want to live that way.


Eddie Cheng said...

You might find it interesting that at my blog, Standoff at Tiananmen, I am presenting a daily chronology as how that movement unfolded twenty years ago, plus many other related resources including my recently published book.

Purple said...

Thanks - great research and information.

Thomas said...

I have a Chinese wife and many Chinese friends and colleagues. I can assure you that nearly all of them are reasonably happy with their government ("reasonably happy", not "truly happy").

It's hard for a Westerner to understand. My take is:

Part of it is pragmatism (as in: we can't change it anyway, so why try?), part is government propaganda influencing their opinion ("everyone knows that democracy is a nice idea in theory, but doesn't really work in practice..."), and part is a reluctance to "rock the boat" when things are going reasonably well (I've lost count of the number of times I've heard that "We Chinese cannot take any more chaos! We've had enough of it to last several centuries!").

Purple said...

I obviously know more than a few mainland Chinese people too. I suspect, from a different social and professional class - but perhaps not.

One point is that the government is not going to be able to withstand a sustained economic crisis, because growth is the only source of their status.

Thanks for your comment.

Thomas said...

Hi Purple,

just curious: The PRC Chinese you know, which "class" do they belong to, and do they live in the US or in China?

I find it striking that (in my experience at least) there is a huge generation gap: The 40+ generation is rather critical (and many of those that have gone to settle here in Germany have done so because they were involved in Tiananmen etc. and got severely disillusioned with the system therafter), whereas the younger ones (university students and young professionals) have this knee-jerk patriotism of the sort "Whoever is against the Chinese government is against China!" and apart from that are totally apolitical.

Purple said...

I have a good number of friends throughout China, and through that have noticed substantial generational and class differences in perspective. This was particularly noticeable during the rocket launch/spacewalk after the Olympics, for instance.

I've noticed what you mention in mainland university students and professional level people, but they are a small minority out of country with a billion + people. However, they are the people Westerners are most likely to run into - since they have the best opportunities to study or work overseas.

In a similar way, people living in China (and many overseas countries) usually only meet well educated, and well off Westerners (usually tourists or business people), and that distorts their view of the U.S.

Thomas said...

Yes, I fully agree.