Ian Buruma: The ghosts of Tiananmen

Roundup: Talking About History

[A new edition of Ian Buruma’s “Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing” (Atlantic) is published on 1st June.]

Ten years after the Tiananmen massacre of 1989 I wrote a book, Bad Elements, about the fate of the protesters, dissidents and free-spirited Chinese who had wanted to change their country. Much had changed in those ten years, and even more has changed since. New buildings, ever taller, ever bigger, have made cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing virtually unrecognisable to anyone who has been away for longer than six months. Old neighbourhoods disappear overnight, to be replaced by high rises, shopping malls and theme parks, sometimes replicating in miniature, or in painted concrete, razed ancient landmarks. This isn’t just a matter of economic growth; it is a transformation.

So was I wrong to detect a whiff of decay in the authoritarian one-party state when I travelled in the People’s Republic of China ten years ago? Was I misguided in my belief that the dissident “bad elements” still mattered? It is not hard to find educated, prosperous citizens in the wealthier coastal regions who will say so. The foreign traveller in China today will often be told, sometimes in excellent English, that the country is not yet ready for the freedoms my dissidents demanded. China is too big, one hears, too large, too old, the Chinese masses are too uneducated, in fact, China is just too damned complicated for democracy to take root. The whip-hand of authoritarian rule is still essential to keep chaos at bay and enable prosperity. Democracy is a luxury to be enjoyed after wealth and education; first food and shelter, then, possibly, freedom.

An alternative argument comes down to pretty much the same thing, but has a more patriotic ring. It claims that China already has a kind of democracy; a Chinese democracy in line with native traditions, a quasi-Confucian system where wise and benevolent rulers act, as if by osmosis, according to the wishes of the people. And the people, instead of indulging in selfish demands for rights—which suit the westerner, but are alien to the Chinese—sacrifice their private interests for the good of a great nation with 6,000 years of history.

These arguments will be expressed, usually with great conviction, while one’s attention is drawn to those tall, glitzy buildings, and those malls stuffed with the luxuries of the modern world. Look at what China has achieved in 20 years! Don’t the figures speak for themselves? So why should it matter what such voices in the wilderness as Wei Jingsheng, who spent 14 years in prison before being exiled to the US, still say about the lack of democracy in China? Or former student leaders of the Tiananmen demonstrations, some of whom now have business careers in the west. After all, their voices are no longer much heard in China. Those born around 1989 have barely heard of the protests, let alone of people who played prominent roles back then. Parents won’t talk about it lest their children get into trouble. And the children have other things to worry about, like getting ahead in the exciting but often brutal world of authoritarian capitalism.

Critics point out that the exiled dissidents are out of touch with contemporary China. Since they no longer live there, and most are not even allowed to go back for family visits, memories are all they have left of the country they once sought to change. It is true that China has moved on since Tiananmen. But this doesn’t mean that dissidents have disappeared. New people have emerged, lawyers who bravely take on sensitive cases of corruption, environmental damage, or workers’ rights. There is even some room on the internet, or in scholarly journals, for serious discussions about democratic theory, as long as the supremacy of the Communist party is not directly challenged. Commercial newspapers report on scandals, news of which travels fast through cyberspace. In a one-party state, such scandals can be the closest thing to political reporting, since crime and politics are sometimes close relations...

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