Roving thoughts and provocations

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China After Tiananmen: Money, Yes; Ideas, No

David Turnley/Corbis
Soldiers and demonstrators at Tiananmen Square, May, 1989

The June Fourth Massacre in Beijing has had remarkable longevity. What happened in and around Tiananmen Square twenty-five years ago this June not only haunts the memories of people who witnessed the events and of friends and families of the victims, but also persists in the minds of people who stood, and still stand, with the attacking side. Deng Xiaoping, the man who said “go” for the final assault on thousands of Chinese citizens protesting peacefully for democracy, has died. But people who today are inside or allied with the political regime responsible for the killing remain acutely aware of it.

They seldom put their awareness into words; indeed, their policy toward massacre-memory is repression. They assign plainclothes police to monitor and control people who have a history of speaking publicly about the massacre. They hire hundreds of thousands of Internet censors, one of whose tasks is to expunge any sign of the massacre from websites and email. Each year, on the “sensitive day” of June 4, they send dozens of police, in uniform as well as in plain clothes, to guard the periphery of Tiananmen Square and prevent “troublemakers” from honoring anybody’s memory. Their official rhetoric holds that “the Chinese people have long ago reached their correct historical verdict on the counterrevolutionary riot.” If the authorities truly believed that “the Chinese people” approved of their killings, however, they would throw open Tiananmen Square every June 4 and watch the masses swarm in to denounce the counterrevolutionaries. That they do the opposite is eloquent testimony of what they really know.

The Chinese government’s use of lethal force was no accident. It was a choice, the result of calculation, and moreover was, from the regime’s point of view—now as well as then—the correct choice. We know from The Tiananmen Papers that people at the top of the Communist Party of China felt that they were facing an existential threat in Spring 1989. Major protests in the streets not only of Beijing but of nearly every provincial capital in China led Vice President Wang Zhen, Prime Minister Li Peng, and others in the ruling circle to conclude that the survival of their regime was at stake.

Tiananmen Square could have been cleared using tear gas, water hoses, or wooden batons. (Batons were the tools of choice when the same square was cleared of another large demonstration, of people protesting Maoist extremism, on April 5, 1976. The clubs were efficient in that case, and few if any lives were lost.) The reason the regime opted for tanks and machine guns in 1989 was that a fearsome display of force could radiate well beyond the time and the place of the immediate repression. Democracy demonstrators in thirty provincial cities around the country could be frightened into retreat. This worked. The Chinese people could be put on notice for years to come that “you had better stay within our bounds, or else!” This, too, worked. The fundamental goal was to preserve and extend the rule of the Communist Party of China. This was achieved.

The fateful decision to order a military crackdown against its own people, however, severely damaged the public image of the regime. In the early 1950s, a large majority of the Chinese people embraced the ideals that Communist language projected in slogans like “serve the people,” and these ideals gave “legitimacy”—to borrow a piece of political-science jargon—to the Party and the ruling elite. The disasters of late Maoism took a heavy toll on that legitimacy, but after Mao died in 1976, and through the 1980s, many Chinese remained hopeful that the Party might finally lead their country toward a better future. (With no real alternative, how else could one hope?) But then the bullets of June Fourth killed this hope once and for all. In the words of Yi Danxuan, a former student leader and now exile who was arrested in Guangzhou in 1989 for organizing peaceful protests there, “the gunshots actually stripped away the lies and the veils that the government had been wearing.” Now Yi saw that the Party’s own power had been its goal all along.

With no more “legitimacy” to be drawn from claims about socialist ideals, where else could the men at the top generate it? Within weeks of the killings, Deng Xiaoping declared that what China needed was “education.” University students were forced to perform rituals of “confessing” their errant thoughts and denouncing the counterrevolutionary rioters at Tiananmen. These were superficial exercises. But Deng’s longer-term project of stimulating nationalism and “educating” the Chinese population turned out to be very effective. In textbooks, museums, and all of the official media, “Party” and “country” were fused and patriotism meant “loving” the hybrid result. China’s hosting of the Olympics in 2008 was a “great victory of the Party.” Foreign criticism of Beijing was no longer “anti-Communist” but now “anti-Chinese.” Historic and contemporary conflicts with Japan, the US, and “splittists” in Taiwan and Tibet were exaggerated in order to demonstrate a need for clear lines between hostile adversaries and the beloved Party-country. The success of these and other efforts at “education” has allowed the regime to use nationalism as one of the ways it can redefine its legitimacy.

The other way has been money: the pursuit, acquisition, and display of wealth have come to dominate people’s motives. (The language of socialist idealism survives, but as a veneer only.) For many people material living standards have risen considerably, and Western analysts have correctly noted how this rise has bolstered the regime’s post-1989 legitimacy. The same analysts err, though, when they repeat the Communist Party’s claim that it “has lifted hundreds of millions from poverty.”

Here is how the boom in China’s economy actually came about: during the Mao era, the Chinese people were unfree in all aspects of their lives except the most mundane. After Mao’s death in 1976, and even more clearly after the massacre in 1989, Deng Xiaoping relented and told the Chinese people, essentially, that they were still under wraps in the areas of politics, religion, and other matters of “thought,” but in money-making were now free to go all-out. So they did—as would anyone when given only one channel for the application of personal energies. They worked hard—at low pay, for long hours, without unions, without workman’s compensation laws, without the protections of a free press or independent courts, and without even legal status in the cities where they worked. Moreover, there were hundreds of millions of them and they worked year after year. Is it strange that they produced enormous wealth? The fine details of the picture are of course more complex than this, but its overall shape is hardly a mystery or a “miracle.”

In 1985 Deng Xiaoping began using the phrase “let one part of the population get rich first.” That happened, and, not surprisingly, the ones who got rich first were almost always the politically well-connected. Access to political power meant better access to resources as well as better positions from which to practice graft, and the wealth of the elite began to skyrocket in the mid-1990s. Income inequality in China grew until it surpassed that of countries in the capitalist West and was exceeded only by some underdeveloped countries in Africa and South America. In popular oral culture, and later on the Internet, jokes, ditties, and “slippery jingles” (shunkouliu) consistently reflected strong resentment of the wealth of the elite as well as of the unjust means by which the wealth was perceived to have been gained. But such views, like other free discussion of civic values, did not—and today still cannot—happen in the official media, where references to equality, democracy, constitutionalism, unauthorized religion, and many other topics that are essential to such a discussion are monitored and often banned.

The Tiananmen massacre, as if having a will of its own, seems to come back to undermine whatever the regime claims as its legitimacy. In 1989 it killed the “socialist idealism” claim once and for all; then, when Deng shifted to nationalism, stressing that the Party and people are one, it was impossible not to recall when the Party and the people were on opposite ends of machine guns. So the regime still needs to list massacre-memory as one of the kinds of thought that most needs to be erased. It uses both push and pull to do this. “Push” includes warnings and threats, and—for the recalcitrant—computer and cell-phone confiscation, passport denial, employment loss, bank-account seizure, and the like, and—for the truly stubborn—house arrest or prison. “Pull” includes “invitations to tea” at which one hears smiling reminders that a better life is available to people who stop talking about massacres; advice that it is still not too late to make this kind of adjustment; comparisons with others who are materially better off for having made just that decision; offers of food, travel, employment, and other emoluments (larger if one cooperates by reporting on others); and counsel that it is best not to reveal the content of all this friendly tea-talk to anyone else.

Gianni Giansanti/Sygma/Corbis
Italian fashion designer Valentino at Tiananmen Square, May, 1992

The “pull” tactics have been especially effective in the culture of the money-making and materialism that has pervaded Chinese society in recent times. The emphasis on money, in combination with authoritarian limits on open discussion of other principles, has led to a poverty in the society’s public values. Vaclav Havel wrote about the “post-totalitarian” condition as one in which a pervasive web of official lies comes to constitute a sort of second version of daily life. Echoing Havel, the Tiananmen student leader Shen Tong observes that “the reality of living in a police state” is that “you live in a huge public lie.” The scholar and fellow Tiananmen leader Wang Dan, in explaining the behavior of people who, from no real fault of their own, become inured to lies over time, finds that they “lie subconsciously.” China’s celebration of money-making does make it different from Havel’s Czechoslovakia, but hardly better. Far from melting the artificiality (as the theories of optimistic Western politicians have held that it would), the money craze in some ways has worsened it.

The new moneyed classes in China behave as if they are groping to figure out how “new moneyed classes” are supposed to behave. During the Mao years, there was a caricature that helped everyone to understand what bourgeois profligacy looked like—food, drink, sex, shiny shoes, spiffy watches, slick cars, and so on. All evil. After Mao, in the era of “getting rich is glorious,” people have looked for guidelines about how to behave with money, and the bourgeois caricature is ready at hand—shiny shoes, spiffy watches, slick cars—now valued positively, not negatively. Wealthy Chinese cavort in Bali and Paris, where they lead the world in purchases of luxury items like Chanel perfumes and Luis Vuitton handbags.

“Materialism” may not be exactly the right word for this new elite subculture, because it need not involve actual material. “Appearance-ism” might be a better term. The final aim of a person’s activity is not a Luis Vuitton bag but the display of a such a genuine bag (not fake, like many back home). If the display works, the bag was but its vehicle. What counts is the surface. Hope for China is visible in the fact that, as this subculture has spread, so has satire of it. An effusion of oral and online jokes in recent years has focused on fakes: fake milk, fake liquor, fake antiques, fake photos, fake history, fake singing at Olympics ceremonies, and much more—even a fake lion in a zoo (a big dog in disguise). The Chinese fiction writer Yu Hua has quipped that the only thing you can know to be real is a fake fake.

Nearly all the satire, though, is private or, if public, anonymous. Very few people risk principled objection in public. The regime calls this “dissidence,” and the costs of dissidence are high. People find it smarter to lie low, perhaps fulminating in private but not rocking any boats in public. Dissidents are viewed, even sometimes by their own families, as somewhat odd, and as poor calculators of their own best interests. Friends and neighbors keep them at a distance—far less because they disagree with their ideas (as the regime likes to claim), but out of fear of absorbing their taint. When Wang Dan went to visit his father’s hometown after he became known as a dissident, people guarded the entrances to their villages to make sure he didn’t come too near.

Some Chinese accept the regime’s lies while others only pretend to, but with passing time this distinction becomes less and less important. In either case people’s self-interest is protected and they fit into “normal” society. In the end, as Rowena He puts it in Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China, China is left with “a generation that cannot even imagine a society whose youth would sacrifice themselves for ideals.”

At a deeper level, though, Chinese people (like any) do not feel secure in a system built on lies. The wealthy send their money abroad—and their children, too, for education. In 2013 several surveys and reports showed sharp increases in the plans of whole families, especially among the wealthy, to emigrate, and there is no reason to think that poorer people would not follow this trend if they had the means.

We cannot say that the ethical deterioration in China today is due to the 1989 massacre alone. The cynicism generated by the artificiality of official language has its roots in the 1957 Anti-Rightist Movement and in the Great Leap famine years of 1959-62. Mao Zedong, much more than Deng Xiaoping, is responsible for what the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has called the “psychic disasters deep within us,” that cause people “to walk with a quickened pace and to see with lifeless eyes,” as if having “nowhere to go, and nowhere to hide.” Still, the 1989 massacre was a turning point. Without it, Deng Xiaoping’s formula for the Chinese people of “money, yes; ideas, no”—a policy that laid the foundation for so much of what we see in China today—would not have wrought its effects. The massacre also laid the foundation of fear—a deep, seldom explicitly mentioned, but accustomed dread—on which the intimidation of the populace has rested ever since.

A few weeks ago, Mario Vargas Llosa, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, wrote that:

It is hard not to feel a great deal of sadness at the backwardness totalitarianism has imposed on China, Russia and Cuba. Any social progress communism may have brought these societies is dwarfed by the civic, cultural, and political retardation it caused, and the remaining obstacles standing in the way of these countries taking full advantage of their resources and reaching a modernity that encompasses democratic ideals, the rule of law, and liberty. It’s clear that the old communist model is dead and buried, but it is taking these societies plenty of time and sacrifice to shake off its ghost.

When Deng Xiaoping announced after the 1989 massacre that the Chinese people needed “education,” and when his government launched a systematic effort to extinguish their political longings and to mold them into “patriotic” subjects focused on nationalism and money, he could have tipped his cap to Bertolt Brecht, who wrote: “The people have lost the confidence of the government; the government has decided to dissolve the people and to appoint another one.” In the long run it seems doubtful that the regime’s strategy can succeed, although the mounting costs of trying, not only for China but for the world as a whole, could be fearsome indeed.


Adapted from Perry Link’s foreword to Rowena He’s Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China, which will be published this week by Palgrave Macmillan.

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