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The Specter of June Fourth

If yesterday was typical, about 1,400 children in Africa died of malaria. It is a preventable, treatable disease, and the young victims lost their lives through no faults of their own. Why it is that human beings accept a fact like this as an unremarkable daily event, whereas one murder can grab a headline, is an awkward question. And it raises related questions: Why, for example, should Rowena He and the people she interviews in her new book, Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China, worry so much about a single massacre that happened in Beijing twenty-five years ago? No one knows exactly how many lives of democracy advocates were snuffed out by tanks and machine guns on the fateful night of June 3-4, 1989, but the number was almost certainly lower than that of yesterday’s deaths from malaria.

The specter of the “June Fourth massacre” has had remarkable longevity. It not only haunts the memories of people who witnessed the events and of friends and families of the victims, but persists also in the minds of people who stood, and still stand, with the Chinese state. Deng Xiaoping, the man who said “go” for the final assault, has passed away, 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. It is their actions that show us how the memory remains very much with them. They assign plainclothes officers to monitor and control people who have a history of speaking publicly about the massacre. They hire hundreds of thousands of Internet police, one of whose tasks is to expunge any reference to 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 civilian clothes, to guard the periphery of Tiananmen Square (the site of the demonstrations that triggered the massacre) in order to prevent “troublemakers” from honoring anybody’s memory. Their official rhetoric holds that the Chinese people have long ago reached their “correct historical conclusion ” on the “counterrevolutionary riot.” The awkwardness of such jargon is sign enough of its artificiality, but the surer evidence that the authorities know their claims are hollow lies in their actions. If they truly believed that “the Chinese people” approved of their killings, they would throw Tiananmen Square open every June 4 and watch the masses swarm in to denounce the counterrevolutionaries. That they do the opposite is eloquent testimony about what they really know.

In short, there are some very good reasons why a massacre twenty-five years ago matters, even if the number killed is smaller than in other disasters. These particular killings had to do with the fate of a nation. They were an important turning point for a society of more than a billion people.

We know from The Tiananmen Papers—a compilation of government documents on the events that led to the June Fourth crackdown—that people at the top of the Communist Party of China felt that they were facing a mortal threat in the spring of 1989. Major protests in the streets not only of Beijing but of nearly every provincial capital in China led Wang Zhen, Li Peng, and others in the ruling circles to conclude that the survival of their regime was at stake.

Western apologists for that regime sometimes use the words “tragedy” or “mistake” in their accounts of the killing, but these words reflect a misconception. The 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. Tiananmen Square could have been cleared using tear gas, water hoses, or wooden batons. (Batons were the tools of choice when the 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 a power 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 to 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 tactic did cost the regime severely in terms of its public image, however. This point needs some context. 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 provided the “legitimacy,” to borrow a piece of political-science jargon, for 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 more reasonable future. (With no real alternative, how else could one hope?) As of 1989, the Party’s legitimacy still rested in considerable measure on this kind of enduring hope, but then the bullets of June Fourth killed it once and for all. In the words of Yi Danxuan, a student activist from Guangzhou featured in Rowena He’s book, “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 priority all along.

The massacre therefore created a puzzle for Deng Xiaoping and the other men at the top. With no more “legitimacy” to be drawn from claims about socialist ideals, where else could they generate it? Within weeks of the killings, Deng 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 that had little real meaning. But Deng’s longer-term project of stimulating nationalism and “educating” the Chinese population in the formula Party = country turned out to be very effective. In textbooks, museums, and all of the media, “Party” and “country” fused and patriotism—literally “love country” in Chinese—meant “loving” the hybrid result. China’s hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympics was a “great victory of the Party.” Foreign criticism of Beijing was no longer “anti-communist” but now “anti-Chinese.” Conflicts with Japan, the U.S., 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. Memories of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, in which scores of thousands of Chinese were butchered by Japanese troops, were revived (Mao, for reasons relating to his own political power, had suppressed public memory of Nanjing) in order to provide a pool of emotion from which to pump regime-support as needed—although this tactic had to be calibrated, since emotions so strong could be volatile.

The success of these and other efforts allowed the regime to re-define the bases of its legitimacy as nationalism and money-making. (The language of socialist idealism survives, but as a veneer only.) Its new self-presentation allows the regime no escape, however, from the reach of the massacre. As if with a will of its own, the massacre seems to come back to undermine whatever the regime tries. In 1989, it delivered a coup de grâce to the old claims to legitimacy on socialist grounds. Now, when legitimacy rests on the claims that the Party and the people are one, memory of the massacre—when the Party shot bullets at the people—is perhaps the starkest of possible evidence that the Party and the people are not one.

So the regime still needs to include these memories among the kinds of thought that need to be erased from people’s minds. It uses both push and pull tactics to do this. Push includes warnings, threats, and—for the recalcitrant—computer and cell-phone confiscation, as well as passport denial, employment loss, bank-account seizure, and—for the truly stubborn—house arrest or prison. Pull includes “invitations to tea”—a standard term in the lexicon of people whom the police try to control—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 in life; comparisons with others who are materially better off for having made just that decision; offers of food, travel, employment, and other emoluments (grander 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.

The pull tactics have been especially effective in the context of the money-making and materialism that has pervaded Chinese society in recent times. Material wealth has become the country’s overriding public value, and its pursuit, acquisition, and display have come to dominate people’s motives. 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.” What has actually happened since 1989 is more nearly the reverse: it has been the Chinese people, doing hard work at low wages, who have done the heavy lifting—benefitting themselves, to be sure, but in the process catapulting the elite to much more wealth and a few of them to spectacular opulence.

In outline, here is how the boom in China’s economy 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. 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 exceeded that of countries in the capitalist West and fell short only of 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 any other free discussion of civic values, were not—and today still cannot be—represented 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 emphasis on money, in combination with authoritarian limits on open discussion of other values, 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, Shen Tong, a student leader at the 1989 protests, observes that “the reality of living in a police state” is that “you live in a huge public lie.” Another 1989 student leader, Wang Dan, finds that people become inured to lies over time and begin to “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, film, fiction, and political campaign posters created 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 but now valued positively, not negatively. Moneyed Chinese cavort in Bali and Paris, where they lead the world in purchases of luxury items like Chanel perfumes and Luis Vuitton handbags. The purpose of buying handbags (as elsewhere in the world) is not to carry things but to own a genuine name-brand handbag—not fake, like many back home—and to be able to show others that one does own the straight-from-Paris item. The traveler might buy extra bags to sell at a profit back in China—a smart way to subsidize the original travel to Paris. Re-selling the bags is chic, going to Paris is chic, the bags themselves are chic. But do these chic ones feel solid inside? Or are they too busy showing, competing, running—while at another level vaguely sensing (afraid to stop for a square look) that they are running on air?

“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 bag but the display of a bag. 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, sometimes even 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 from disagreement with their ideas (as the regime likes to claim) than 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—but then, if he did show up, would hide him.

Some in the populace accept the regime’s lies while others only pretend to, but as time passes 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, 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 people) do not feel secure living in long-term cynicism and unpredictability. 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.

Reasons for wanting to emigrate are several. Cleaner air, economic and educational opportunity, and family traditions that go back many decades (especially among farmers in south China) are all factors. But there are also some deep-seated preferences about society and government that people act upon even if, for obvious reasons, they would rather not articulate them. Does a future in China really hold out the promise of happiness, even for families that have wealth and power? Emigration as political statement has, in fact, an ancient pedigree in China. In the Mencius, China’s original classic of political philosophy, compiled around 300 BCE, the virtue of kings is measured by the numbers of people who gravitate to their lands. Tyrants see their populations flow elsewhere. People like Rowena He, who want the best for China—who love it in the true sense, not the Communist “patriotic” sense—wish it would regain a Mencian magnetism.

Noting the key role of Deng Xiaoping’s policies following the 1989 massacre, He writes that:

Deng’s policies over the years have led to a booming economy, higher average living standards, and a more prominent place for China in the world, but have also engendered enormous wealth inequality, massive corruption, persistent environmental problems, profound popular cynicism and erosion of public trust, massive expenditure on “stability maintenance,” and new signs of belligerence accompanying China’s international rise.

Words like these have brought her a shower of invective on the Internet from defenders of today’s regime. The commenters likely include both the paid and the unpaid varieties, but they are uniform on one point: they avoid the substance of what she writes, opting instead for personal attack of the most puerile and intellectually vacuous kind. She is “anti-China,” “sells her people to buy her future,” is “a whore for foreigners,” and so on. I inflate nothing here. In dozens of examples that I have seen, their analysis goes no deeper than this, and indeed few of the phrases are any more lengthy. What the comments actually report is only that the opponents of Rowena He have no answer to her.

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 1959-1962. 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 does stand out as 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 deeply impacted, seldom explicitly mentioned, but highly effective dull dread—on which the pacification of the populace has rested ever since.

How will this end? We do not know, of course. The Communist Party’s techniques of control have been effective, and its push to reinvent pre-modern authoritarianism in a stable twenty-first-century version has considerable momentum. In broad perspective it seems doubtful that the effort can succeed, although the costs of witnessing the aggressive thrust, not only for China but for the world as a whole, could be fearsome indeed.

Mario Vargas Llosa, winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature, wrote in early 2014 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.

Vargas Llosa’s comments point up an irony that is locked into the structure of China’s state-sponsored “patriotism.” Ostensibly aimed to bolster the pride of Chinese people everywhere, this “patriotism” asks for adulation of China’s authoritarian regime, which it takes as the country’s symbol; simultaneously, though, that same regime, by its behavior, is the leading cause of China’s loss of face in the eyes of the world. Imagine how much better Chinese people would feel, how much more unburdened and optimistic, if they could turn to the world and offer—together with everything else they have to offer—an open, law-abiding, and democratic modern government.

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.” Will the post-massacre Deng plan, extended by his successors, continue to work? Will the Chinese people, thirty years from now, still be content to be what the Deng plan has appointed them to be? This might happen and it might not. In any case the stakes are huge, even as huge as deaths of African children from malaria.