When soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army opened fire on protestors at Tiananmen Square thirty years ago today, Western observers were quick to predict that the regime of the Chinese Communist Party would soon implode.
Who could blame them? Like with the Arab Spring protests of early 2011, it seemed at the time that an unstoppable tide of freedom and vitality was sweeping over the world. On the same day as the Tiananmen Square massacre, Solidarity stormed to victory in Poland’s legislative election, setting the stage for the fall of Communism in that country. Mass demonstrations were underway in Hungary, and revolutions would soon sweep over the entirety of the Eastern Bloc.
Yet now, thirty years later, the CCP is not only still in power, but it is seemingly stronger than ever before. The Party’s efforts to erase the June Fourth Incident (as the Tiananmen Square event is known in the mainland) from public memory means that few people within the country know that it even occurred. A CBS correspondent in Beijing recently attempted to show the picture to recent passersby, none of whom could identify the picture or where it was taken. The country’s professional censors need to be taught about what really happened in 1989 on the first week of their job.
So complete is the CCP’s hold over history that some Chinese who actually know about Tiananmen question why does knowing about the event even matter. Louisa Lim, author of The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited, relates an anecdote in the New York Times:
I was giving a talk about Tiananmen Square’s legacy at an Australian university about two years ago when a young Chinese student put up her hand during the question-and-answer session. “Why do we have to look back to this time in history?” She asked. “Why do you think it will be helpful to current and nowadays China, especially to our young generation? Do you think it could be harmful to what the Chinese government calls the harmonious society?”
Pro-democracy advocates in the West and elsewhere are probably spooked by that particular line of questioning. It demonstrates, in Lim’s words, that Chinese students are “deftly sidestepping [their] government’s act of violence against its own people, while internalizing Beijing’s view that social stability trumps everything else.” If China’s next generation, the leaders of tomorrow, hold representative democracy at low esteem when compared to the benefits wrought by their own managerialist political system, is that not an indicator that the virtues of liberal democracy are not as universal as the West’s own leaders and experts proclaim? Is there perhaps something to the notion that a society should value tangible socio-economic progress, modernization, and a (generally) stable political system of governance over all else—even if at times it means building that society on a foundation of blood?
The Foundations of Societies
Certainly, the CCP can demonstrate it has delivered results—and then some. The New York Times’ columnist Nicholas Kristof, in his own reflection of the anniversary of Tiananmen (made all the more noteworthy by the fact that he was present in Beijing on that date), writes that:
It is indisputably true that China has dazzled economically, and critics like me should be humbled that life expectancy is today longer in Beijing (82 years) than in Washington, D.C. (77 years). The 10 percent most disadvantaged Shanghai 15-year-olds score better in math than the 10 percent more privileged 15-year-olds in America.
China is not like the old Soviet Union, which both impoverished and repressed people. Rather, China has saved lives, built universities at a rate of one a week and lifted more people out of poverty than any other country in human history…
But—and this is a big “but”—Kristof concludes the paragraph by arguing that “it is deeply human, as one protestor put it in 1989, to seek not just rice but also rights.” It is salient point that is not lost upon authoritarian nations: if one provides the people with bread (or rice) to the point they no longer physically hunger, they will begin going further to secure their own material well-being. They will begin to seek rights, freedoms, and accountability in society. For people long to live in not just in an effective society, but a good and fair one. And at that point, driven by such desires, they will begin to look at the foundations of their political order, seeking to find goodness in it—and standing aghast if they find something else.
To put it in Dostoevsky’s words in that great Russian novel, The Brothers Karamazov:
“Tell me straight out, I call on you—answer me: imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, that same child who was beating her chest with her little fist, and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears—would you agree to be the architect on such conditions? Tell me the truth.”
"No, I would not agree," Alyosha said softly.
"And can you admit the idea that the people for whom you are building would agree to accept their happiness on the unjustified blood of a tortured child, and having accepted it, to remain forever happy?"
"No, I cannot admit it.”
What Dostoevsky is arguing is that any truly just society in which people reside in happily and are freed must be grounded in truth. This eventually comes down to the truth of love, compassion, tolerance and forgiveness.
If this sounds rather like traditional Christian argumentation, it’s because it is. But what is modern liberal and democratic society if not a secularized version of Christianity, complete with its compulsory drive to unite humanity? The aforementioned Christian principles are the same as those that form the basis of a virtuous democratic society: love and compassion for one’s neighbor; tolerance for others, even if they hold differing opinions or beliefs; and forgiveness for those who err.
Xi Jinping and Modern China
This brings us back to modern China under the CPP, which is understandably rather sensitive about its own past. The Party knows that—despite having successfully delivered possibly the greatest economic and, yes, humanitarian success story in modern human history—it built itself on the suffering and deprivation of the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and other instances of politically-motivated human abuses.
This is precisely the sort of legacy that will come under question and criticism when China’s own citizens, now materially well-off enough to afford the greater search for meaning in their lives, turn inwards and examine their own society. The fact that a not insubstantial number of them have been educated abroad and now hold some notion or another of Western democratic society isn’t helpful either. The Party and its members realize that, if they are to survive this future questioning, then they will have to not only close ranks but also go further and demonstrate, for all to see, that its method of doing things is the best and most reliable way of delivering the greater good for the majority of people it rules over.
We cannot know for sure if this is what CCP luminaries, including Chinese president Xi Jinping, are thinking about—particularly on today of all days. But there are hints that they are.
Back in 2013, upon ascending to the position of General Secretary of the Party’s Central Committee, Xi gave a behind-closed-doors speech entitled “Uphold and Develop Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.” The exact content of the original speech is likely to remain unknown for a long time, but a (officially approved) version of the speech was published two months ago by the CPP’s primary political theory periodical, Qiushi.
Tanner Greer has done us a service in translating the speech and publishing it on Palladium Magazine’s website, along with a rather insightful introductory commentary on the speech itself. He notes the curiously religiously-flavored language that Xi (or, at least, Qiushi’s editors) chose to employ, and that the speech itself betrays the worry that is gnawing China’s leader:
One of the most striking aspects of this speech is the language Xi Jinping invokes: party members must have “faith” (xìnyǎng) in the eventual victory of socialism; proper communists must be “devout” (qiánchéng) in their work; and Party members must be prepared to “sacrifice” (xīshēng) everything, up to their own blood, for revolutionary “ideals that reach higher than heaven” (gémìng lǐxiǎng gāo yú tiān).
Behind this religiously charged language is a man deeply worried that the cadres of his generation are not prepared to make the sort of sacrifices their parents and grandparents did for China’s revolutionary cause. Xi’s verdict is that such people do not have enough faith in the “eventual demise of capitalism and the ultimate victory of socialism.” Their “views lack a firm grounding in historical materialism,” leading them to doubt that “socialism is bound to win.” This has practical consequences. The cadre without communist convictions will act “hedonistically” and “self-interestedly.” Worst of all, he might begin to believe “false arguments that we should abandon socialism” altogether.