“The brazen cynicism and lack of courage of the governments of democratic countries have been deeply disheartening – whether they know it or not, they live in the shadow of June 4, their actions and decisions trapped in the dialectic events that day set in motion.”
On the night of September 28, 2014, a rumor circulated that the HK police would escalate their use of violence from tear gas to live ammunition. “Scary green men” were seen prowling the streets of Admiralty, where the police had first attacked the people with an hours-long barrage of tear gas canisters. The scary green men were HK police, but we’d never seen their kind before. They looked more like soldiers in their green uniforms, gas masks and boots. They carried rifles, which they pointed in all directions.
In the face of the rumor, Hong Kong Federation of Students and Occupy Central, two of the groups who suddenly found themselves leaders of a sort after tens of thousands of people had spontaneously turned out on the streets earlier that day, called on people to go home. They feared the police would open fire, causing massive injuries, even deaths, and they felt responsible; they wanted people to be safe. Of course, lurking in the back of their minds, hovering over them like a long shadow cast across twenty-five years, was the Tiananmen massacre. They wanted to avoid a second Tiananmen.
Luckily, the people didn’t listen to them, and rather than going home, they not only occupied Admiralty but also Causeway Bay and Mong Kok, initiating occupations that would last longer (seventy-nine days, from September 28 to December 15) than the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989 (fifty days, from April 15 to June 4).
China is a schizophrenic place. On the one hand, it is one of the fastest changing societies in the world. Whole cityscapes are transformed in a matter of years. The economy has grown massively since 1989. The society and culture of today would be largely unrecognizable to someone time-travelling from ’89.
And yet, politically, China is frozen in time; politically, the date today is the same as it has been for twenty-six years: June 4, 1989.
That isn’t to say that there haven’t been political changes or developments since 1989 but that the general mode of governance is in the same paradigm as that of 26 years ago; there has been no substantial political reform or change of any kind. We still live under the “dictatorship of the proletariat” (however corrupt and wealthy they may be).
The level of the Communist Party’s tolerance for open public political discussion (very low) is a good litmus test of change. Sometimes I wake up and look around and think, I must be dreaming: Pu Zhiqiang, Gao Yu, Chen Yunfei, Liu Xiaobo, others are all in prison. They were all participants in the events of April to June 1989. They were young then. And now, twenty-six years later, they’re in prison, all on trumped up if not downright ridiculous charges`1`, this in a country supposedly moving toward rule of law. Pu and Gao were arrested last year around the time of twenty-fifth anniversary of the ’89 demonstrations, Pu after attending a private meeting about events of ‘89, Gao on her way to one. This is a clear sign of being frozen in time: 26 years on, the Communist Party still feels threatened by the most moderate of opinions, the most moderate of efforts to move society in a more rights-respecting, less corrupt direction.
While the political situation has hardly changed, views on the chances of the Communist Party continuing to rule have. The conventional wisdom used to be, This cannot last, an economy and society so rapidly changing, a political system so stuck in the past. But in recent years, much international coverage and punditry has focused on the Communist Party’s ability to adapt, its management of the economy, its fine-tuning of the mechanisms of control, propaganda, censorship. This has leading to very different questions: Is the Communist Party’s brand of neo-authoritarianism sustainable? Does it even offer a new model, especially to developing countries, that competes with democracy?
After Tiananmen, the Communist Party made a coerced and implicit pact with the Chinese people: No political reform, no political freedom, but we will allow you greater economic freedom than you have ever had under our regime. You allow us to stay in power and we allow you to get rich.
In order for this deal to work, China had to have sustained and rapid economic growth. This was a matter that was outside the control of the Communist Party for it entailed integration into the global trading system: China had to sell a lot to the rest of the world. It would have been difficult to impossible for the Communist Party to continue to rule without the neo-liberal globalization that flourished in the nineties; the coincidence was a godsend to the Party.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the number one aiders and abetters of dictatorship in China after Tiananmen have been Western governments’ trade policies, Western corporations and Western consumers. That was not their intention — their intentions, respectively, were to improve their economies and/or do the bidding of their corporations (governments), make a lot of money (corporations), and buy a lot of cheap stuff (consumers) — but that was their effect.
That history leads to another important sense in which we are still living in the June 4 era, and not just here in China, in Hong Kong, but globally: we experience a deep confusion about the relationship between capitalism and democracy, or perhaps a deep ambivalence about which we prefer.
In the early nineties, democracy was seen to be in the ascendancy worldwide. The Soviet empire had just collapsed. The number of countries that were, at least on paper, democracies was increasing rapidly. OK, China was an anomaly, but it was only a matter of time, right?
The nineties was also the time of the ascendancy of the “Washington consensus”, neo-liberal economics, and globalization. The WTO and free-trade agreements deliberately segregated issues of environmental protection and labor rights from trade issues, prioritizing the latter. They pushed free trade; they didn’t push protection of labor and the environment.
There was a lazy and self-serving argument on the part of government leaders in Western countries and their business and finance lobbies that democracy and capitalism of the neo-liberal variety went hand in hand. This led to policies of “engagement” with China; basically, do business with them and they’ll eventually become democratic. Unsurprisingly, these Western leaders and their business and finance allies were far more interested in business than democracy.
And the Communist Party hit the jackpot: China, with its lack of labor rights, relatively well-educated, healthy and disciplined workforce, long coast with many ports, improving infrastructure and huge economy of scale, was well placed to take advantage of neo-liberal globalization. China went from being politically isolated post-Tiananmen to the center of the global economy in a matter of incredibly few years.
Western capitalist countries threw the Communists a lifeline, and not only did the Communists survive, but the Communist Party is the biggest, most powerful, wealthiest dictatorship in the world, with almost unlimited resources, the number one owner of US Treasury securities.
When push came to shove, seemingly almost by default, as if they hadn’t even really considered the matter carefully, Western countries were more interested in capitalism than democracy. This wasn’t really a hard sell to Western electorates: as long as they benefitted as consumers- a plethora of goods at cheap prices made by workers who hadn’t the rights Western workers had in their own countries even as those countries were hemorrhaging good blue collar jobs, they were easily satisfied.
Then, once it got rich from selling the West cheap stuff, the Communist Party had the ingenious stratagem of dangling a “market of one billion people” in front of the eyes of salivating multinational corporations; they and their governments from that point forward became little more than supplicants at the throne of the dragon emperor: We want in, we want in, we’ll do anything to get in. The genius of the Communist Party has been, for the most part, not to let them in while at the same time continuing to hold the promise before them. Having to a large extent saturated Western markets and reached their “growth potential,” these corporations are desperate for new markets.
PEN American Center recently released an excellent report, Censorship and Conscience: Foreign Authors and the Challenge of Chinese Censorship, to coincide with Book Expo America’s annual conference at which a delegation of over 500 publishing industry bigwigs from China lead by Communist Party officials was Guest of Honor. Why? Because the US book industry sees China as the future, and the road to China leads through the Communist Party. One Barnes and Noble’s bookstore in New York where the conference took place was seen (by Xinhua) to have an extensive display by the Chinese delegation in its shop window with Xi Jinping’s little red book (well, it’s actually beige) taking pride of place. World, how low can you go!?
Last year, the Norwegian government became one amongst many to scurry as far as it could from the Dalai Lama. In 1989, the very year of Tiananmen, the Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize. Twenty-five years later, upon invitation, he returned to Norway to commemorate the occasion, but not a single Norwegian government official would meet him. The Norwegian government argued it had to repair the damage to its relationship with China caused by the Nobel Committee having awarded the Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo in 2010 (it was actually caused by the Communist Party’s response to the award). Denmark, which later did the same, hiding from the Dalai Lama, couldn’t have the same excuse.
These are amongst the most democratic countries in the world, and yet they find themselves genuflecting to the will of the world’s biggest dictatorship. World, how low can you go?!
The brazen cynicism and lack of courage of the governments of democratic countries have been deeply disheartening – whether they know it or not, they live in the shadow of June 4, their actions and decisions trapped in the dialectic events that day set in motion. The original logic of “engagement” has been turned on its head: From, We have the economic power to influence their political change, to, “They have the economic power to influence us to display copies of Xi Jinping’s book in our shop windows and fear encountering a Tibetan monk.” Small prices to pay, of course, for rich (hoped-for) economic rewards. How many small prices to pay before they become one big price?
After the 1990s, the Communist Party got lucky in another way. 9/11 lead to a US fixation on fighting Islamist terrorism. The world, it could be said, took its eye off the ball. In the long term, neo-authoritarianism of the sort seen in China and Russia today is a greater threat to democracy, freedom and rights than Islamist political groups. And yet no Western power has seriously focused on that threat. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Chinese Communist dictatorship falls even further down Western powers’ list of imminent threats (with the exception of the Party’s stronger assertion of territorial claims in the South China Sea).
And then the financial crisis hit in 2007, largely caused by the business and finance interests having gained the upper hand in the formulation of Western government policies over the previous fifteen years — again, capitalism triumphing over democracy — especially in the US, the UK and a few other countries.
Apart from economic difficulties, large democratic deficits within Western countries went unaddressed, in the US caused by the huge influence of money in politics and greatly increasing income inequality, in the European Union by the great power of the Commission and the European Central Bank and their distance from and lack of accountability to ordinary citizens as well as the imbalance of power among member states.
In contrast to the nineties democracy boom, over the past decade, indices such as Freedom House’s Freedom of the World report and the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index state unequivocally that democracy is “in decline,” “in retreat.” And we wonder how it came to this.
Around the world, it’s still June 4. June 4 stands for the world’s unfinished business. We got to the edge of global democracy and weren’t able to turn the corner. Due to consumer capitalism and globalization gaining the upper hand over democracy. Due to lack of vision and commitment to democracy on the part of Western countries and many in the supposedly newly emerging democracies (i.e., Russia).
Does China offer a viable model of governance to developing countries? That the question is even asked (and that the authoritarian development model is supported in countries like Ethiopia largely by Western aid) shows how much the world’s changed.
Maybe, instead, we should ask, What would the world look like today if the Chinese empire, like the Soviet empire, had turned that democratic corner in ’89? Or if the West had considered it more important to turn that global democratic corner than to turn China into the world’s workshop? Much of Western punditry, driven by realist thinking in the foreign policy establishment and business and finance thinking in influential publications like The Economist and Financial Times, will guffaw at such naïve thinking: China is richer, the world is richer, history is inexorable and there’s no sense hypothesizing about it. But history is made of decisions. Where we are now is the result of decisions made: the decision to murder people in cold blood on June 4, 1989; the decisions that resulted in neo-liberal globalization; the decisions to “engage” the Communist Party on largely an economic basis (and largely excluding politics). Is there really no way to make the world both richer and more democratic? Is our political imagination really so impoverished as to deal in little more than “the way things are”?
Another legacy of June 4 is the Communist Party’s continuing adamant refusal to recognize the will of the people. How else to interpret the massacre? This might seem obvious, but the refusal to so much as listen (never a great skill of the Party) has essentially caused the Communist Party to lose the peripheries of its empire. Of course, it hasn’t lost them in the formal sense, but the only way it can keep them is through threat and military occupation, for it’s so thoroughly lost “hearts and minds.”
The Communist Party appears constantly taken aback that in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, East Turkestan politics trump economics and people care about other things than money. Quite simply, it’s really made a mess of things in all of these places, even in the narrow terms of its own objective of attaining firm and complete control. It refuses to listen, or even acknowledge an interlocutor and believes the only approach is to take a hardline. Its response to eruptions of discontent in Tibet and East Turkestan has been brutal, basically a combination of military occupation, police state and isolating those areas as much from the rest of the world as possible. With Hong Kong and Taiwan, where it can’t just impose its will by brute force, it simply doesn’t know what to do; it’s at a loss.
The Tiananmen Massacre meant the Communist Party did not have to listen to anyone, and its refusal to even acknowledge issues raised by political adversaries as legitimate must constitute a serious governance limitation of some sort, even in terms of the calculations of realpolitik.
A keystone of the Communist Party’s approach to the demonstrations and massacre is to remove it from history. Accurate accounts are not allowed to appear in published books, school textbooks, the media or on the internet. It’s simply whitewashed.
Enforcement of historical amnesia is a longstanding policy of the Communist Party’s rule: the Cultural Revolution, the Great Famine, the Great Leap Forwards and anti-rightist campaign, the genocides of landlords and Tibetans — you name it, it’s off limits.
In China, a frequent experience of mine is disorientation of a sort verging on vertigo. This is partly caused by the fact that my perception of the country differs so enormously from that of its ruler. It also has to do with what I mentioned at the start of this essay: the schizophrenia of being, on the one hand, one of the fastest-changing societies in the world and, on the other, frozen in time. But it’s also because so many people have such a deep misunderstanding or ignorance of their own country’s history, are so deeply influenced by the official version propagated by the Party. It has often seemed to me that there is something dangerous in this situation: a society whose attention is so often directed to the horrific atrocities committed by Japan but not to those committed by its Communist rulers which in order of magnitude (number of lives lost) and current impact on society dwarf those committed by any other oppressor.
In this sense, the Party’s approach to June 4 is a touchstone indicating the extent to which it will go to perpetuate lies, the extent to which it perceives truth as its enemy.
Arguably, the greatest legacy of June 4 is that we have all contributed to creating a monster: the most powerful dictatorship and one of the largest armies in the world; domestically, a huge “stability maintenance budget” (the Communist Party perceives its own people as one of the greatest, if not the greatest threat to its power) coupled with extensive mechanisms of propaganda and censorship, systematic torture, 95% conviction rates, independent trade unions forbidden; internationally, territorial disputes with many of its neighbors (in particular, in the South China Sea with Japan, Philippines, Vietnam and the borders of occupied Tibet with India).
This is not a pretty picture. This is not where we should be in 2015.
June 4 is not just about justice and rights and freedom, not just about democracy and accountable government, not just about facing history honestly, but also about peace, about how we keep the peace, about the difference between negative and positive peace, and about the future, the sort of society we wish to see and the chances of bringing that about.
It’s time to make a concerted effort to disassemble the monster we have played a part in creating. Not only that, it’s time we clearly realize that decisions made over the past twenty-six years in China and the rest of the world have led to democracy hanging in the balance worldwide. Do we really value democracy, or do we not? And if we do, how do we apply that value, how do we foster, promote, defend, encourage, and support democracy around the world?
Idealism is not fashionable these days. (Cynicism, arguably, is another powerful legacy of June 4, in China and elsewhere — make money and shut up.) But we must have a vision of that better society we wish to see. We must fix our eyes on that prize while at the same time seeing where we’re at, strategizing with savvy how to get from here to there. Of course, the struggle to get there will entail failure again and again and again. But there will also be victories along the way, and perhaps, occasionally, the big victory that sets the course of history in another direction, that helps us to emerge from the June 4 era, from the long shadow events of that day twenty-six years ago have cast.
Thank you to the people of China in 1989 (and people in many other countries around the world time and time again) for reminding us of that.
Kong Tsung-gan (江松澗, @ ) is, by his own description, an “educator / writer / freedom fighter / human rights worker / democracy advocate / full-time parent, paid for none of the above, struggling and failing and persevering at each.”