That time of year again. I remember my rage back in 1989. It was the first time I ever watched CNN, and I was glued to the TV set although I knew next to nothing about China at the time. I remember my shock at Bush I’s “punishment” of the dictators with blood on their hands – some all but meaningless sanctions. The man who stood up against the tank, the stranger who entered all of our living rooms and shook the conscience of the world. The moment of hope, when it seemed to so many of us that the students were really going to make a difference and force their corrupt leaders to reform. No one imagined the idealistic young men and women would be greeted with live ammunition, shot dead in the streets like animals.
Nearly 20 years later it seems so far away, so distant. But not at all forgotten. At least not for me. Talking with my Chinese friends in Beijing, it also seems so irrelevant, something they would rather not acknowledge let alone dwell upon. I only really began to understand the Chinese perspective on the tragedy five years ago when I held an extensive conversation with an actual demonstrator. His words sounded so strange to me. He had gone to demonstrate, to actively protest against his government, and now he looks upon the massacre as a practical and necessary business decision. Painful to make at the time but ultimately good for the country. And I believe it’s safe to say that his opinion is in line with that of most young Chinese people today. There is almost a sense of gratitude for what the government did, saving them from the anarchy that consumed Russia in its rush to democratize. Preserving the harmony that allowed the economic miracle to rise to undreamed of height. Surely it was all for the best, and your heart has to go out to the poor officials forced to make such a difficult decision.
I understand his argument, and I understand why my Chinese colleagues across the board tow the line on this topic. Many months ago I gave up hope of having a rational discussion with them on topics like this. The last time I tried was about two weeks ago, when I argued with a beloved colleague about whether Mao had been good for China or bad. When I recited the litany of his sins, which are nearly as bountiful as Hitler’s, I got the tape recorded message that still, he was good for China. You know, seventy percent and all that. At least now I understand why she says that.
If you read my other posts on Tiananmen Square, you’ll know I don’t see the students as angels. Nothing is ever that simple. Nor were the party’s players all devils. Forces inside the party were grating against each other and…well, no sense in restating what most of us know. For me, the bottom line was that the party showed us just how ruthless and obsessed with self-preservation they were, not that there was ever much doubt. And for that, I can never forgive them, even if their own people can. I see what they are doing today, stopping parents who lost children to the Sichuan earthquake from demonstrating, and I remind myself that for all the steps forward, theirs is still an authoritarian government that can easily morph into a totalitarian police state when it feels threatened. The script is so similar; all of our hopes were raised when we saw the relative media transparency the state was allowing in the earthquake’s coverage. It didn’t take long to bring us all back down to earth.
And so we can wring our hands and complain and blog and point out the hypocrisy and the two-facedness and the outright badness. But as long as the Chinese people refuse to call the government to account or even to acknowledge its selfish intentions, like my friend who insists Mao was a net plus for China, meaningful political reform will remain minimal and painfully slow. Some uplifting spurts forward, some painful setbacks. It’s gotten better, as the cliche goes, but let’s not fool ourselves: if a similar threat were to arise now or in the future, those in power would be willing to replay the ‘incident” all over again. Reluctantly, for sure, but in the end it would be “the best thing for China.”
I’m in America for my last vacation before the fall. I know I’ve disappointed a lot of readers with the sparse posting, and no one is more depressed than I am at the inanity of some of the recent comment threads. I simply feel I have no choice. A lot of emails have gone unanswered and a lot of topics I’ve been dying to post about have gone unwritten. That’s the best I can do for now, and it won’t get better until the autumn. Let me just close by saying my work has involved me in the relief efforts for the children displaced and orphaned by the earthquake, and no matter how the government may have infuriate me in recent days, and no matter how frustrated I feel with Chinese friends who refuse to see the world as i do, the rush to help and sacrifice and give has been one of the most inspiring and moving things I’ve ever seen. As usual with China, a flood of contrary emotions collide, from tearful joy at the selflessness and generosity of the people to anger and impatience at the cruelty of some in the government to indignation over the corruption that allowed the schools to crumble. Each of these emotions is equally legitimate, and one does not invalidate the other.
Update: And let’s not forget, the TSM remains the most taboo subject in China. And for good reason.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.