By Perry Link
The June Fourth Massacre in Beijing has had remarkable longevity. What happened in and around Tiananmen Square twenty-five years ago this June not only haunts the memories of people who witnessed the events and of friends and families of the victims, but also persists in the minds of people who stood, and still stand, with the attacking side. Deng Xiaoping, the man who said “go” for the final assault on thousands of Chinese citizens protesting peacefully for democracy, has died. 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. They assign plainclothes police to monitor and control people who have a history of speaking publicly about the massacre. They hire hundreds of thousands of Internet censors, one of whose tasks is to expunge any sign of 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 plain clothes, to guard the periphery of Tiananmen Square and prevent “troublemakers” from honoring anybody’s memory. Their official rhetoric holds that “the Chinese people have long ago reached their correct historical verdict on the counterrevolutionary riot.” If the authorities truly believed that “the Chinese people” approved of their killings, however, they would throw open Tiananmen Square every June 4 and watch the masses swarm in to denounce the counterrevolutionaries. That they do the opposite is eloquent testimony of what they really know.
The Chinese government’s 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. We know from The Tiananmen Papers that people at the top of the Communist Party of China felt that they were facing an existential threat in Spring 1989. Major protests in the streets not only of Beijing but of nearly every provincial capital in China led Vice President Wang Zhen, Prime Minister Li Peng, and others in the ruling circle to conclude that the survival of their regime was at stake.
Tiananmen Square could have been cleared using tear gas, water hoses, or wooden batons. (Batons were the tools of choice when the same 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 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 that “you had better 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 fateful decision to order a military crackdown against its own people, however, severely damaged the public image of the regime. 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 gave “legitimacy”—to borrow a piece of political-science jargon—to the Party and 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 better future. (With no real alternative, how else could one hope?) But then the bullets of June Fourth killed this hope once and for all. In the words of Yi Danxuan, a former student leader and now exile who was arrested in Guangzhou in 1989 for organizing peaceful protests there, “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 goal all along.
With no more “legitimacy” to be drawn from claims about socialist ideals, where else could the men at the top generate it? Within weeks of the killings, Deng Xiaoping 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. But Deng’s longer-term project of stimulating nationalism and “educating” the Chinese population turned out to be very effective. In textbooks, museums, and all of the official media, “Party” and “country” were fused and patriotism meant “loving” the hybrid result. China’s hosting of the Olympics in 2008 was a “great victory of the Party.” Foreign criticism of Beijing was no longer “anti-Communist” but now “anti-Chinese.” Historic and contemporary conflicts with Japan, the US, 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. The success of these and other efforts at “education” has allowed the regime to use nationalism as one of the ways it can redefine its legitimacy.
The other way has been money: the pursuit, acquisition, and display of wealth have come to dominate people’s motives. (The language of socialist idealism survives, but as a veneer only.) 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.”
Here is how the boom in China’s economy actually 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. Moreover, 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.”