Tiananmen and the erasure of history

tags: Tiananmen Square

Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of history and education at New York University. A former Peace Corps volunteer and high school teacher, Zimmerman is the author of Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory and three other books.

I owe my job — and much else — to Neil Postman, the pioneering communications scholar who hired me nearly two decades ago. And I've been thinking a lot about Neil over the past few weeks, as we near the 25th anniversary of the murders in Tiananmen Square.

On June 4, 1989, Chinese soldiers gunned down at least 241 protesters in the square. We don't know if the death toll was more than that, as many witnesses insist, because the government has never allowed a full investigation of the incident. But we do know that China has enjoyed one of the most remarkable economic booms in world history since that time, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.

So the Chinese have much more access to consumer goods and especially to entertainment, which Postman feared would dull people into political passivity. In Neil's most famous book, "Amusing Ourselves to Death," he contrasted George Orwell — the gloomy prophet of state violence and propaganda — with Aldous Huxley, who worried that rulers would control citizens via pleasure rather than pain. Neil thought Huxley was right: We had more to fear from the velvet glove of consumerism than from the hard fist of totalitarianism.

In contemporary China, though, they go hand in hand. Young people in China's growing middle class have become accustomed to a level of affluence unimaginable in 1989. They love their iPods and smartphones, and they generally avoid discussing anything controversial — like the Tiananmen episode — that might jeopardize their chances to earn, spend and acquire.

But the government also employs falsehood and terror to blot out memory of the massacre, which is simply omitted from most high school history textbooks. College texts denounce the protests as a foreign-controlled plot to crush Chinese socialism. They also praise the patience and heroism of the attacking soldiers, who allegedly opened fire in self-defense...

... "Jon, politics is hard." Neil once told me. "Buying stuff is a lot more fun." China's rulers are banking on the same thing. But if fun doesn't work, there's always a gun behind it. That's the real lesson of Tiananmen, from 1989 to today.

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