After the Massacres

A historian of contemporary China who is considering the events of three years ago, of ten years ago, of twenty years ago, must feel dizzy: each time, it is the same story, the plot is identical—one needs only to change the names of a few characters. The grim merry-go-round leads nowhere; it merely spins, ever more squeaky and rickety; the bloody contraption can only crush with increasing brutality a populace thirsting for freedom.

World opinion was revolted by the Peking massacres of June 1989. Our age, which should be quite blasé in the matter of atrocities, discovered a new dimension to horror as it watched this seemingly unprecedented phenomenon:1 a government that declares war on its own people, and unleashes an army of murderers against the peaceful and defenseless crowds of its own capital city.

The massacres stunned the world—and yet they should not have surprised anyone.2 The butchers of Peking are entitled to feel genuine puzzlement in the face of the indignation expressed by international opinion. Why should foreigners suddenly change their attitude toward them? What was so new in the June atrocities—which, after all, were still performed on a fairly modest scale, when compared with similar operations previously carried out by this same regime?

In fact, it is not the nature of Chinese communism that took a drastic turn for the worse in June; simply, it is the accuracy of Western perceptions that suddenly improved. Well before they took power, the Communists considered murder as a basic political device—and I mean murder in its most diverse forms: individual or collective, methodical or random, public or secret, aimed at dissidents to uproot opposition, or aimed at innocents to cow everybody. This method had already been vigorously implemented twenty years before the establishment of the so-called “People’s” republic. (For instance, the notorious massacres of Futian took place in 1930.)

At its beginning, the Chinese Communist movement was fired with genuine revolutionary ideals; it sought social justice passionately and succeeded in mobilizing the generosity and courage of a moral and intellectual elite. From the very start, however, it carried within itself the seeds of its eventual corruption; the Communists always believed that mankind mattered more than man. In the eyes of the Party leaders individual lives were merely a raw material in abundant supply—cheap, disposable, and easily replaceable. Therefore, quite naturally, they came to consider that the exercise of terror was synonymous with the exercise of power. If, from time to time, a Communist government could not kill its citizens, how would you expect it to govern?

Mr. William Hinton, the well-known author of several books on contemporary China, was in Peking at the time of the massacres. I read in the newspapers that he strongly denounced these atrocities. One can only share his indignation—but at the same time, the way in which he expressed his feelings seems to betray a remarkable (yet typical) confusion of ideas. He said that the leaders who ordered the massacres “are…

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