Posted by: Brian | June 15, 2009

Tiananmen Square, 20 Years Later

A little over two weeks ago, after settling down in one of my favorite cafes (read: has wifi) in Kunming, I discovered that I couldn’t access Twitter or Flickr. China had blocked them and a handful of other social networking sites in a preemptive effort to prevent anyone in China from inciting protests or civil unrest over the Tianamen Square Massacre, the 20th anniversary of which was coming up on June 4th.

Such a date brings to mind several questions for your moderately-aware citizen of the western hemisphere. Were there any demonstrations? Did people get arrested? What is the state of democracy in China?  It might be better to check as to whether or not democracy even exists here in the first place.

This isn’t a post of me whining about unfettered access to the internet, or my rights, or anything of that. I’ve done plenty of it already on my tech blog. Rather, I’d like to offer my viewpoint on the events (or non-events) of the past two weeks. The effort the Chinese government put into minimizing people’s abilities to communicate seems to have been largely unnecessary. Sure, there were some small demonstrations, and I’m told that one brave journalist even went so far as to directly discuss the event, but the only noteworthy thing was that the government allowed these things to occur without severe consequence.

If not a fight for democracy, what then? Why has much of the outcry over that event faded away? Where is the outrage over hundreds of government-sanctioned deaths, the calls for accountability? They’re in jail, to be perfectly honest. Many of the protesters and those involved in the tragedy were summarily locked up and never released. The lucky ones are now under a modified form of house arrest, as the government closely watches to make sure they don’t try to pull anything. In fact, the only place in China where a large percentage of the population is still vocally upset over the events of June 4, 1989 is Hong Kong (HK’s chief executive was recently publicly rebuked for saying that he felt the people of Hong Kong no longer cared about Tiananmen Square).

It also doesn’t help that today’s youth has little to no idea what happened twenty years ago. Chinese history courses conveniently exclude it from their lesson plans; students are banned from studying the subject. All most of them know is that there were some protests a while back, and most of them seem to think that the protests simply lost steam.

Without a doubt, quality of life has vastly improved in China since that time, and the country is more open to international influence now then ever before. A desire for democracy and the right to vote has been replaced by explosive consumerism and the right to have fun. The CCP has cleverly reinvented itself as lenient and progressive by giving its citizens every part of Western culture – except the important parts. Buy all the fashionable clothing and mp3 players you want, they say, so long as you don’t ask for government or social reform. The sad part is that it’s working. Most of the people I’ve talked to don’t see any need for change – they’re perfectly happy with things the way they are.

Additionally, the public’s anger simply isn’t focused on the CCP anymore. Currently en vogue is the exposure and punishment of corrupt local officials – certainly a worthwhile practice, laudable even, but it has something of a “can’t see the forest for the trees” flavor to it. The public is content to go on its witch hunt, fighting individuals rather than the system that creates them, and the CCP is more than happy to let them. Better to empathize and fake outrage over a few small, unimportant individuals than find the accusing finger pointed at themselves.

There are two characters that you see a lot in China – 人民, Renmin. It means the people; the people’s university, the people’s square, the people’s currency. How ironic, then, that the government of the People’s Republic of China is anything but that – the people’s.

I’m not trying to advocate democracy as the end-all, be-all system of government. The United States isn’t a paragon of virtue, and few of its citizens are genuinely more concerned with ideological matters than material gain.   I don’t pretend to have any sort of moral high ground in this matter. I merely wish to express sadness that the people of China came close to achieving something twenty years ago, and are so far away from that same goal today. Consider this a my own small remembrance of that terrible event, and my hope that China someday achieves what so many of its own people died trying to accomplish.


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