Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Why it matters

I suggested the other day that this week's 20th anniversary of the suppression of the Tiananmen protests in Beijing is an extremely important event. I also noted with regret that this importance seems to pass many Chinese by. (Well, not just the Chinese. Many foreigners younger than 30 or 35 are also sadly ignorant of what happened then.)

I believe it's important because it is one of the gravest crimes committed by the Chinese Communist Party against the Chinese people. (And, oh, sure, the crimes of the Mao era were on a far more massive scale; but the night of June 3rd/4th achieved a unique resonance because it was seen live on television all around the world.)

Indeed, it is one of the gravest crimes that can be committed by any government against its people. It breached the fundamental covenant on which all government is based (not all nations are fortunate enough to have this covenant hardwired into their constitutions, but even the harshest dictatorships have to acknowledge it to some degree and at least pay lip service to it most of the time): that the duty of government is to serve the people, protect the people, respect the people (and that the function of the armed forces is to defend the people, not to kill them).

I believe it continues to be important because on that night the CCP fatally compromised its legitimacy as the ruling body in China - it revealed itself as an institution concerned only with perpetuating its own grip on power, demonstrated that it had absolutely no respect for law or for humanity. I don't think it has ever really regained that legitimacy, restored its mandate to govern. (I find there is a strange doublethink in most of the Chinese I know: they quite happily tolerate the continued rule of the CCP because they're doing an OK job of managing the economy [and there is no available alternative]; and yet at the same time many of them express the most withering contempt for the Party.)

It is also important for China's position on the world stage. On that night, China fatally compromised its image in the eyes of every other nation on the planet. It is impossible to trust or respect a nation which can do that to its own people. Now, when China protests its non-aggressive intentions in its foreign policy towards its neighbours, when it touts itself as a "responsible stakeholder" in the international arena, when it makes a claim to leadership in tackling pollution or global warming - nobody takes her very seriously. I'm sorry to say that I don't think anybody really trusts China. China has no credibility - certainly not as a source of any kind of moral leadership in world affairs. China sacrificed that credibility 20 years ago this week, and has never yet come close to winning it back.

This is why, I believe, this anniversary is so important - for the Chinese Communist Party, for the Chinese people, and for the world at large.

Yes, it was "all a long time ago", and China as a country has made unimaginable advances in the intervening years. The tragedy is that the CCP does not seem to have made such progress: it is still locked in a Cold War mindset of absolute authoritarianism - all criticism must be stifled, any error must be denied. Neither the Party nor the country nor the Chinese people will truly be able to move forward until they stop hiding from their recent history. It is time to start acknowledging - and apologising for - what happened in 1989. I believe such a process would benefit the CCP more than anyone else. I do not think that a government or a country that is afraid of truth can sustain itself for very long.


And on a related note, Richard Burger over at the Peking Duck observed last week that even the Chinese who know of the "Tank Man" incident are mostly rather unmoved by it, and suggested that the Chinese conception of a 'hero' is conditioned by the ideal of maintaining a "constructive harmony", that the terrible fear of "instability" makes them unreceptive to the iconography of the "lone rebel" challenging the authority of the government. I think there's a lot of truth in that assessment, but I think it's a very great pity - and testimony to the overwhelming power of the state propaganda here which has again and again lauded 'harmony' as the greatest, just about the only 'good'.

I also think it's a tragically misguided interpretation of what that man and that photograph represent. It was the presence of tanks on the streets that was truly 'destabilising', a violation of the proper 'orderliness' of society - not the ordinary citizen stepping forward to express his disapproval of this. It was the use of military force (and the fact that this use of force was so inept, so uncontrolled) that shattered the "constructive harmony" of the Chinese nation, and drove a wedge between its people and its government. The "Tank Man", with his peaceful and reasoned argument that this outrage should stop, was the one trying to restore harmony - and should thus be applauded for his heroism within the Chinese conception of performing a service to society, as well as within the more Western conception of embodying individualistic idealism and courage. (And let us not forget, either, that the tank driver who declined to run him over - at who knows what cost to himself? - was another hero that day. Many other members of the occupying forces did not show such restraint, such humanity.)

The extraordinary power of this image lies in the contrast of scale - a tiny human figure facing down the massive tank, a whole column of tanks stretching far into the distance - and in the terrifying juxtaposition of the fragility of human flesh and invulnerable, unforgiving metal. A further important resonance comes from the fact that this appeared to be not a premeditated act of defiance, but a purely spontaneous gesture - an ordinary citizen so appalled by what his government was doing that he stepped into the middle of the road and cried, "Enough!" I can't understand how anyone - particularly any citizen of China - can be unmoved by this.

It is another depressing example of the pervasiveness and effectiveness of the propaganda and censorship here that this photograph is so little recognised; and that even when it is, its symbolism is unappreciated. Around the rest of the world, this has become one of the most iconic images of the 20th Century - it has become an inspiration to millions of people battling against injustice, encouraging them to believe that even the most seemingly insuperable odds can eventually be overcome, and that one man can make a difference. Even if the "Tank Man" didn't make much of a difference or for very long at the time, that inspirational legacy will bear fruit all over the world and will be remembered for centuries to come - long after the Chinese Communist Party has withered and died.


fg said...

I thought you would be writing about tomorrow. Good/sad to read about this as always...

I want to ask you and maybe more specifically your secret and the unsurpassable search engine wizz JES a favor. I need accurate book refs for the two following quotes for my forthcoming book. (Title, publisher, date and city.) Can you help? I am up against a deadline and nowhere near a library!

1 There is something inherently comic about the staging of grief once the suspension of belief is suspended. Wilde’s witticism: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing”, comes to mind in this context.

2 Charlie Chaplin, The full quote is: “Life is a tragedy when seen in close up, but a comedy in long-shot”.

JES said...

Froog: Thanks so much for keeping this in the spotlight over the past, well, months, really. (I'd never seen that long shot of Tank Man: unbelievable.) There aren't, I think, many opportunities to say even metaphorically that on a given day we are all citizens of China, but today I truly feel that.

fg: Keep an eye cocked on your email. Both tracked down (although I don't know if the source for the Chaplin will suffice for citation).

Stuart Neville said...

I remember this vividly as a teenager, and thinking how wonderful it was to watch a revolution live on TV, only to be appalled at how it turned out.

There is a strange acceptance of injustice in many, if not most, people. In Northern Ireland, we know the terrible things our politicians have been involved in. Indeed, we know many of our elected representatives were directly and indirectly involved in murder. We know all that. But still we vote for them.

Apathy is one of the saddest and ugliest parts of human nature.

Froog said...

JES, thanks so much for your assistance with fg's cheeky enquiry.

Stuart, thanks for dropping in. Launch day for the book must be drawing near. Best of luck! (I fear you're soon going to be too rich and famous to talk to the likes of us any more.)

I_am_Tulsa said...

Hello, I followed Moorat's link here, and although it may not seem much like an accolade, I can sincerely say that this is THE BEST piece of writing I have EVER read on the Tiananmen protests. Thank you...

Precie said...

I'll simply ditto Stuart.

Also, thanks for sharing what the general Chinese perception of the Tank Man may be. As an American, I would think that of course that man is heroic and iconic, but now I can also understand how a culture not so steeped in individualism and revolution would think otherwise.

gary said...

Wow. I guess any of us who were more than kids at the time feel much this way, but I don't think I've seen anyone else write about this with such passion. Well done.

Froog said...

Thanks for the kind remarks - especially Tulsa's! (I must point out that this is a different 'Tulsa' from the one who used to be a compulsive commenter on here a year or so ago.)

I'm glad to see that these events are not being forgotten around the rest of the world.

I don't think they're really being forgotten here in China - certainly not in Beijing - either. They're just not talked about. I may have one or two more posts about this in a few days.

Froog said...

I can't help feeling that FG's Chaplin quote actually works rather in reverse with the "Tank Man" photographs. There is something strangely comical about the incongruity of his stand against the tank when seen in tighter close-up, particularly in the film footage of the tank driver's frustrated manoeuvring to get past, jinking right then left to try to go around him. But when you see that long shot that I included in last year's 6/4 post on here - one little man facing a column of 20 or more tanks - the tragedy of the situation is just overwhelming.

John said...

What an excellent article, I truly wish I could write like this; alas, it doesn't seem to come easily to me.
Anyway, that aside, I wish I could ram this article, translation and all, into every silly little Chinese person's head I've ever spoken to who wouldn't give the whole terrible event so much as a even a passing concern let alone the deep thought it so rightly needs.