Today is the 25-year anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre. On June 4th, 1989, hundreds of demonstrators were killed by Chinese army troops in Beijing, after drawn out protests. As I write this text, a stone’s throw from Tiananmen Square, the silence with regards to the massacre is striking.
The Chinese government appears determined not to recognise the June 4th events as an error. Its approach continues to be one of absolute censorship of any discussion on what it refers to as the Tiananmen “incident”. The term “liusi,” which literally means “six-four” and refers to the date of the massacre, is censored on the Chinese Internet, as are at least one hundred other terms associated with it. In anticipation of this year’s anniversary, there has been a series of unusually harsh clamp-downs and arrests – a sure sign that President Xi Jinping is not the softer leader that many hoped for before he came to power over a year ago.
In light of such crack-downs, many scholars, policy makers and segments of the public in the US, Europe and elsewhere understandably worry that increasing Chinese international influence will bring with it disregard for liberties and rights that they cherish. In response to the official Chinese silence and denial, a range of voices have been raised, denouncing what happened around June 4th - as well as the Chinese government’s stance on it since - as a scandal. This is an understandable reaction, but it may also be more about preserving a sense of who we in the West are than it is about promoting justice in China.
One of the crucial things about scandals and other exceptional events – massacres, human rights violations, explosions of violence – is, as Chinese scholar Rey Chow once pointed out, that commentators in “the West” can project them onto the “Other country” China. By denouncing the events as scandalous, those who react to Tiananmen provide a large dose of political morality reinjected on a world scale. When we adopt the moralistic position of denunciation, we participate in the work of purging and reviving moral order. By pointing our fingers to some other time and place where unacceptable violence was taking place, we all too easy become blind to all the other violence that went on 25 years ago, and that continues to go on – not only in China, but also in the West. What is more, we forget that our cameras made it possible to track down and kill protesters. We forget that much of the protests were not about democracy, but about inflation and unemployment brought about by China’s opening up to a more westernised financial system, on our recommendation. In the twisting of meaning that results, the mauled bodies of protesters that littered the back streets around Tiananmen Square in 1989, and the burning bodies of Tibetan monks self-immolating in protest against government repression today, are a gift from the Chinese government to Western democracy. In this way, brutal Chinese oppression of its dissidents still serves as a stimulant to Western liberal democracy.
As I write this text, on the eve of the anniversary, business goes on as usual here in Beijing and Tiananmen Square is quiet. So is the Chinese government, about the violence it has committed and commits. And so are most of us in the West, about our own complicity in this violence.
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Dr Astrid Nordin teaches on our BA International Relations programme.
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