The twentieth anniversary

I have, as it turns out, very little to say that I didn’t say five years ago, but I’ll reproduce it under the fold. Reading this year’s crop of remembrances, and Philip Cunningham’s first-person history, I don’t think my views have changed all that much, except that I see the movement more in the context of the decades before — periodic reformist movements which invariably met with repression whether or not the reforms were eventually pursued — and it’s much less shocking to me now than it was then. Still tragic. And the history since has been, by comparison, oddly quiet.

Still (Mis)Remembering Tiananmen

Nicholas Kristof is proclaiming the death of Communism in China and the victory of the Tiananmen protestors. But the death of communism wasn’t the point of the Tiananmen protests, nor is communism in China as dead as Kristof would like to think.

As stirring as the ’89 protests, as tragic as their end, they were relatively moderate in their demands (which makes their vicious suppression perhaps more poignant, that so little was asked). They wanted a more open political process, by which they mostly meant less cronyism and cliques and more egalitarian meritocracy. They wanted an environment in which political speech would be more free, mostly so that they could critique and improve the state, not create alternatives to it. They saw themselves as loyal citizens, their demands as a call for higher and better standards of leadership and their suppression as a deep betrayal, not a foreseeable conflict. They were not a call for economic reform or anti-communist, and they were not democrats. We didn’t really realize it at the time, of course.

Nor is communism dead in China: the public education system, through which the vast majority of Chinese children pass, is still ideologically communist, though the specifics of the curriculum have evolved as the political mandates have changed. The Tiananmen massacres were carried out by troops brought into Beijing from rural areas less sympathetic to political dissent, and the divide between urban and rural remains more than a difference of economic mode. The Chinese who are not significantly benefiting from economic liberalization — because of job losses in state enterprises, loss of health benefits, difficulty shifting to new market modes — or who are doing no worse but who see their neighbors (or neighboring regions) doing radically better have a ready-made critique of capitalist development which still rings true. “Everything the communists said about communism was a lie,” goes the new Russian proverb, “but everything the communists said about capitalism was true.” The Chinese government still pays lip service to communism and still has trouble justifying its cuts when capitalist development is still a long way from “lifting all boats.” If serious trouble breaks out in China, I believe that one of the potential rallying points could be “Communist” (or Socialist) “Renewal.”

I have a particularly strong tie to the Tiananmen Massacres. It is not only one of the most dramatic historical events to which I was witness (via TV, yes) it was one of the defining moments of my career as an historian, and as a participant in public discourse. It happened the summer after my college graduation, and the drama of the protests was something I felt deeply. I identified with the protesters, as did my friends. I also discovered that the logic of history was not necessarily the logic of humanity (or is it the other way around?) because a day or so before the tanks rolled I told a friend (as an expert on things Asian, of course) that the government did not dare crack down because of the international attention and the likely international backlash against the use of violence. That was a lesson I’ve carried with me since.

My first public writing was a direct outgrowth of Tiananmen. Six months after the event, a memorial event was held at Harvard University (complete with a candlelight vigil I remember as very, very cold) which included speakers from the movement itself, longtime Chinese activists, scholars and others. It turned out to be rather tense and dramatic evening. As with so many interesting events, the news coverage of it the next day in the Harvard Crimson was shallow and sensational (for some reason, I can’t find the original article in their archive, I’m afraid). I wrote my first letter to a newspaper that day. I had no idea how long a letter to the editor should be, so I wrote everything that I wanted to say, and dropped it off at the office. I got a call, I think the next day, asking if they could run my piece (absent the introductory paragraph chastising the original article) as an op-ed. THEY DID, and it occupied about half of a page! A friend described it as “dripping with humanity.” He meant it, and I took it, as a compliment, and I’ve been speaking out ever since. I’ve since learned the art of writing a short letter, and it’s still one of the best ways I’ve found to relieve productively some of the stress of modern life. Blogging’s fun, too.

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