Thursday, 4 June 2009

Pride & Tiananmen

It is a truth almost universally acknowledged, that a society in possession of political prisoners, must be in want of justice and improvement.

However, many people in China do not want to talk about repression and injustice, but only what makes them proud of their country. They are not keen to dwell on the past, least of all events like the Tiananmen incident when, on June 4 1989, hundreds of unarmed civilians in a peaceful protest at the centre of Beijing were killed when the army was sent in. Many others were imprisoned for voicing their demands for democratic reforms. Politicians sympathetic to such demands were removed from office, and in the case of the former Premier Zhao Ziyang, put under house arrest until the day he died.

To ignore atrocities of the past tends to be a recipe for being ill prepared for their recurrence in the future. But talk of the Tiananmen Massacre – especially when coming from foreign political figures who have responsibilities for ensuring their countries’ interests are not eclipsed by China’s – tends to provoke a reaction against what are viewed as attempts to belittle China. Since 1989, many in China would like to believe, their country has moved on. The humiliations heaped on their motherland for much of the 19th and 20th centuries have at long last been eradicated. They are now one of the most powerful nations on earth. Economic strength and military might are joined by achievements such as the spectacular 2008 Olympics hosted by Beijing which fittingly witnessed China topping the medals table for the first time.

Yet with all the indisputable progress, what about basic quality of life issues such as being able to question how the decisions of the powerful in society may affect one and one’s family? Being able to obtain information and contest proposals without having to bribe corrupt officials? Being able to air reservations without fear of being arrested and imprisoned? Why shouldn’t Chinese people be able to do these things?

One answer is that these are Western notions which distort what life should be like for China. It was the spread of such ideas – allegedly alien to Chinese culture – that led students to assemble in Tiananmen Square, demand reforms from their government, and stay defiant in the face of approaching soldiers and tanks, forcing a showdown which could easily have been avoided if they had been more submissive. And it is the persistence of such an outlook that prompts questions about the lack of basic freedom when quiet obedience is the best guarantee of prosperity.

But what has something being Western or non-Western got to do with any of this? Western dictatorships long pioneered repressive measures, ordering troops to fire on their own citizens, and locking civilians up for questioning their government. So China would therefore never adopt such ‘Western’ methods? Western critics of liberal reformists have led the way in condemning them by invoking patriotic sentiments. So China would not substitute ‘anti-American’ by ‘anti-China’ in deploying such ‘Western’ style anti-liberal propaganda?

Ultimately, the Western/non-Western distinction is just a smokescreen. Whether something originated in the West has no bearing on whether it should inherently be adopted or rejected in China or anywhere else in the world. All those who protested in Tiananmen twenty years ago wanted was to have a peaceful system of accountability so there could be a stable and responsive state. China could be justly proud, when that day eventually arrives.

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