There’s been a lot in the news over the last day or so regarding the 25 year anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown of June 1989. Many pro-democracy students were killed or injured as the CCP launched a brutal response to the lengthy protests and hunger strikes.
The event is well known in the west, mostly due to the famous ‘Tank man’ photograph, but the anniversary will pass unmarked by the mainstream Chinese media.
Unsurprisingly, there has been an up-scaling of censorship and increases in firewall security (The blocking of Google and Google Services for example) on the mainland, even some surprising actions such as temporarily turning off the electricity on one Shanghai University Campus, presumably to limit students ability to encounter foreign articles.
However, upon reading a lot of the comment and opinion pieces about this anniversary I realised that there is a hell of a lot of over-simplification going on.
Some people claim that nobody knows anything about the events in Tiananmen Square in China. That is completely untrue. Most education people know that, at the very least, something bad happened in Beijing in 1989. Other know about the events in great detail.
Other people are claiming that those people who know are perhaps ignorant, apathetic or, worse, passively supportive due to the perceived lack of action. This is a gross oversimplification of the situation that presents itself today, 25 years from the event.
I’ve seen many comments, often from westerners, calling for revolution in the face of China’s current social and political issues. I see theatrical confusion over the Chinese people’s supposed inability to thwart their evil government. Sometimes even belittlement or seriously questionable comments about racial political apathy or ignorance. I find this to be pretty hypocritical coming from a bunch of Americans and Brits who’s governments have lied, spied on and ignored them time and time again with nothing approaching a revolutionary response. Of course, simply because we have not revolted doesn’t mean that we can’t suggest others ought to. But how much of this sort of talk is the result of attempting to make an informed decision? There’s more than an inappreciable amount of anticipatory voyeurism to some of these comments I’ve seen. As long as it’s not on my doorstep it’s ok right? But wouldn’t it be great to watch a real revolution on BBC News 24! That’d be a right laugh, I could even write some #revolution tweets to show my support!
The censorship here is terrible. A lack of free press and free speech is truly desperate; of all the things in the world to revolt about these are some of the better ones surely! Democracy certainly is what the people of China need in my opinion (Although I’ve heard that some political scientists think there’re some problems with having a democracy containing 1.5 billion people which doesn’t sound like an unreasonable concern). However, calling for a revolution elsewhere is very easy to do but the reality is not so black and white.
I think to myself, if these commenters received a knock on their door from a neighbour who handed them a rifle and said “You know what? Fuck the NSA and the spying. Fuck going to war on false pretences. Let’s overthrow these bastards!” would they do it? Is it quite that simple? Even for your greatest ideals and your most valued rights I think in reality this situation is not romantic. It is down-right horrifying.
Maybe some people would jump at the opportunity to engage in this sort of activity! I think, though, for the average person that’s a terrifying prospect and wishing to avoid such an event is not a demonstration of ignorance, cowardess or apathy.
To involve yourself in a conflict, the positive effects of which you’d like never see even if they did come out, to the detriment of the rest of your life and the lives of your family. That’s not an easy thing to do, although it’s an easy thing to recommend with gusto and vigour on some online forum. The Chinese have had experience of what happens when you try to fight the CCP. Maybe the British Conservative Party would roll over to such a revolution, perhaps taking refuge beside a nearby moat. The CCP would not.
Would I do it? Should people do this? I’m not a pacifist, sometimes violence is justified. I don’t suggest I have any answers to the problems here. Much less do I suggest that I fully understand them.
But the one thing I think it’s incredibly important to avoid is oversimplifying in the manner that seems omnipresent online today.
Revolution is very sexy. There’s a certain romanticism to the idea of revolution which leads to an awful lot of armchair revolutionaries posting online and elsewhere about the need for the Chinese to overthrow their government and forcibly implement a democracy.
I’m not suggesting that revolution is not the answer. I simply don’t know. But what I do know is an awful lot of the people suggesting this have not the slightest inclination of what the lives of average Chinese people are like and also no idea what a violent revolution would entail. Of course, neither do I! Which is precisely why I’m not about to suggest some magical solution to the issues.
We know nothing of revolution or of overthrowing governments. But, you know who do know a lot about social and political instability?
Just take a look at the last 100 years of Chinese history. Contained in those years are inordinate amounts of suffering, instability, social unrest and political upheaval.
This is a point that was clarified to me recently by a friend of mine and is something that I think I underestimated. The average Chinese person, particularly an individual with children, values stability. They probably value stability over and above a free press, democracy etc and don’t feel inclined to throw away their job and their families future over issues of censorship.
Perhaps they should. Maybe the answer is, in fact, for a generation or two to sacrifice themselves for the greater future. I’ve always felt that there are certain ideals and certain notions of freedom are key and that we shouldn’t rest until we have those privileges. I often felt that it’d be worth sacrificing stability and economic gain in order to be able to offer those rights to everyone.
But, with this viewpoint, perhaps I am looking at things on such a macro scale that I’m being unrealistic. It’s one thing to feel this way, ideologically, but it’s another to act upon that ideal. Does that make me a hypocrite? I don’t know what I’d do in that situation myself. I can’t claim to know what’s right.
If I put myself in the shoes of a Chinese person right now I simply cannot imagine wanting to throw the country back into unrest.
Although not booming anymore, the economy is still strong. Quality of life for the average person is improving dramatically. Sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters are living, generally, much more comfortable and free lives than their parents and grandparents. People are getting richer, more education and freer in terms of travel and, despite the censorship, information.
The government can’t stop everything, they can’t censor everything. I’ll publish this right now with a VPN that costs me next to nothing and is available to anyone who wants it. Using this I can read about anything I want. It’s not difficult.
Issues of censorship and limits on political discussion are, from my experience, exaggerated online. Often, again, by those who seem to simply look at China as an opportunity to demonstrate how many passages of ‘1984’ they can quote online. It’s. Not. That. Simple.
Quoting ‘1984’ is not an argument! Yes we all disagree with censorship, we all want free speech and freedom of the press to be available in China. And, of course, the CCP has been involved in some terrible things. Even today it perpetrates crimes upon it’s people that seem, objectively, unforgivable. Does that warrant revolution? Perhaps. Or perhaps there is a route, too, through reform. (Some of the recent reforms that have been made, particularly against corruption inside the government, have been seen as a step in the right direction).
Actions the government takes, such as the firewall and blocking Google, seem to be a case of just making the information that bit less accessible. As such only those with an interest will find it and read it. These people would have found a way one way or another so they’re not the targets. What the government don’t want is this sort of news finding its way into the general media and widely used social platforms. Hence all these outlets and platforms are government controlled and therefore the information doesn’t spread. If you want to know you can know pretty easily. You can even discuss these things, no problem. The censorship simply stops those who aren’t too bothered from finding out.
Political apathy is not a good thing. But then, once again, I put myself in parental shoes here and I find myself thinking that I, too, would probably just wish to hold on tight and ride out the economic boom. Reap the benefits. Inevitably there will come a time for change. Talk of democracy is ripe but the urge is for reform not revolution. Few people here want to revert to huge unrest and, god forbid, a civil war.
It’s not sexy and it doesn’t provide a great spectacle for us outsiders. But it is not an attitude that is necessarily indicative of ignorance, naivety or brainwashing.
I just sat down and wrote this, I had to get it out. The majority of people are smart enough to realise that this situation is incredibly complicated. China is a very unusual country in an unusual situation and thus the answers to its problems are not immediately forthcoming. But anniversaries of terrible events, such as today’s remembrance of the crackdown in Beijing, tend to bring all the revisionists, bigots and champagne revolutionaries out of the woodwork and into one giant whirlwind of insane absolutism and simplification.
I’m an outsider here. I’m not informed enough to make any suggestions as to how these problems should be solved. My gut feeling is that revolution here is not the answer. Perhaps 25 years ago it was the answer. That day the government committed a terrible crime against its people and it is not something that should be forgiven, nor will it be I feel. What would be romantic would be justice. How glorious to overthrow the party that perpetrated those ills and install a fresh start! But also how terrible would the road to that fresh start be. And how unstable the future from that point. Even those protesters 25 years ago had internal conflict. Power struggles, ideological clashes. Who’s to say whatever took over would be any better? Perhaps what is best, for the average person, is that the economic boom is riden out and then a movement towards reform is encouraged. The best economic situation for China to arrive at is the installation of a strong middle class. A middle class with the financial freedom and political awareness, perhaps, to lead gradual reforms which, I have no doubt, are ultimately in China’s best interests.
In conclusion: this shit is complex.