Soon it will be time to mark the 21st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 1989. By 5 June, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army had “cleared” that part of Beijing of protesters who had gathered there for close to two months. Cleared in this context has a chilling significance: hundreds of Chinese citizens were gunned down during this turbulent phase of modern China’s history.
Loss of life at the hands of their rulers is nothing new for the Chinese. In that sense, there is continuity in that country’s history of more than 2,000 years. Marxists may declaim that 1949 marked a break with the past; Tiananmen reaffirmed ancient continuities.
How does one interpret that sad event? One way to look at that massacre would be to cry hoarse about a “bloodthirsty communist dictatorship”. That does not say much or add anything to our understanding. The other way, alluded to above, would be to look at continuities in Chinese history and place the response of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1989 in that context.
The fact is that the CCP is a legatee of all the uncertainties and humiliations of that past. The party is also a bearer of almost 2,000 years of unbroken absolutism. The CCP, however, chooses to ignore the latter and emphasize the former view. China’s internal weaknesses, due to political disorder and the faction-ridden nature of the polity, led to its degrading overlordship by colonial powers such as Britain. The Opium Wars of the 19th century and the brutal occupation by the Japanese in the 20th are held as two examples of that weakness. Hence political freedom is equated with political disorder. Ironically, the Chinese idea of a solid, unified, political establishment is of Meiji provenance. The Japanese formula “rich nation, strong army” has been borrowed to overcome Chinese frailties.
A future born out of such insecurity is bound to be unhappy, politically at least. The CCP’s strategy is to make sure that prosperity spreads to as high a number of citizens as possible. The hope is that a positive economic future will ensure a measure of loyalty to the party or maybe even forget the absence of basic freedoms. Tiananmen was only one milestone on that long road.
The Tiananmen Square massacre: a bloody landmark or a forgotten episode? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org