Today is the 20th anniversary of the massacre in Tiananmen Square. In the early morning hours of June 4th 1989, thousands of unarmed students and workers were shot down or crushed by Red Army troops and tanks sent in by the Communist Party to destroy a movement that had for the previous two months, captured the world’s imagination. A famous image – of one man standing defiantly in the face of a column of tanks – came to define the courage of the protesters, and the utter hopelessness of their cause.
Like a cancelled TV show, the Tiananmen protests are only mistily remembered these days, and by relatively few. Not only has the massacre been expunged from the collective memory and official records in China – even at the time, the parents of those killed were not able to mourn their children – it has also vanished from the agenda of an outside world eager to reap the rewards that the China trade ( and tourism ) has to offer. The silence of history has been bought, wholesale. Domestically, a booming Chinese economy has functioned as a social safety valve, defusing the raw sense of injustice that underlay the 1989 protests. With far less justification, the international community got over its revulsion, in record time.
As the Nation points out here, the West has tended to portray the Tiananmen protests as a campaign for democracy, interpreted as a drive for multi-party elections along the lines of Western social democracy. In fact, the nationalism – patriotism, even – of the protests was one of its most striking features :
Many [outsiders] still think protesting students were the main victims of the massacre, even though the majority of the dead were workers who had turned out to support the educated youths…
The students did celebrate the virtues of minzhu (democracy), but they spent even more energy denouncing corruption. And while their outlook was cosmopolitan, they were intensely patriotic. They presented themselves as carrying forward a longstanding Chinese tradition: that of intellectuals speaking out against selfish officials whose actions were harming the nation.
In addition, the students’ grievances were not all purely political. They complained about the party’s interferences in their private lives and about its failure to make good on economic promises. (Wuer Kaixi, a leader of the student movement, noted that a desire to be able to buy Nike shoes and other consumer goods was among the things that inspired members of his generation to act)…
During 1989, the social and economic situation in China had been extremely bleak. In the Australian newspaper this week, its China correspondent Michael Sainsbury sets the context for Tiananmen:
Ten years after Deng Xiaoping had flung open the country’s doors to the world, China had rampant inflation beyond 20 per cent, joblessness was on the rise and the corruption that has become such a blight on China’s extraordinary economic achievements was becoming unbearable. Market reforms had brought with them no change in the authoritarian state or improvements in legal avenues of redress.
“We didn’t really know what we wanted,” Beijing based lawyer Pu Zhiqang admitted to The Australian.
Former Chinese Communist Party Secretary–General and Premier Zhao Ziyang wrote in his just-released posthumous memoirs that corruption and frustration at the pace of reform were the main drivers behind the protests.
That context – of corruption and economic insecurity – is why Tiananmen Square still haunts China and the Communist Party leadership today, and why it enforces a state of social amnesia about the event. However, the restless spirit behind the protests – ie, the dissatisfaction with social inequality, and with how greed, corruption and authoritarian control have become entrenched as substitutes for the rule of law – can only be kept at bay so long as the economy continues to deliver sufficient goods for enough people, such that an uneasy public order can be maintained. As Sainsbury points out, some have likened the Communist Party’s situation to a seal atop a slippery ball. He prefers the image of a juggler still keeping everything aloft, no matter how many new balls are added.
Ma Jian, in a brilliant essay on Monday in the Guardian, put it this way:
The Chinese have made a Faustian pact with the government, agreeing to forsake demands for political and intellectual freedom in exchange for more material comfort. They live prosperous lives in which any expression of pain is forbidden. When I talk to young Chinese about 1989, I am invariably accused of spreading false rumours and being a traitor to my nation; when I bring up the subject with my old friends, most of them laugh scornfully, as if those events are now irrelevant. But I know that behind this show of derision or apathy lies real fear. Everyone knows that attempts to break the Tiananmen taboo can still destroy a person’s life and the lives of their families. The authorities, for their part, may have a monopoly of the nation’s resources, but they can never fully control the nation’s soul, and every day they live in terror that the intricate stack of lies they have constructed will collapse.
The word’ democracy’ as the Australian reports, plays a prominent role these days in Communist Party propaganda. Routinely, the word tends to be taken as a code not for political choice, but for the trade-off that Ma Jian writes about so eloquently : a degree of material comfort ( and the hope at least, for massive wealth) against the potential for social chaos.
Today’s Chinese government is therefore doubly fortunate. Internally, its performance is measured by the Chinese public against the bloody, repressed bad dreams of Mao-ism and Tiananmen. Externally, it is defended ( with the same patriotism that motivated the victims of Tiananmen ) against the criticisms of what is seen to be a hostile and envious outside world. As one 26-year-old Beijinger told Michael Sainsbury of the events in Tiananmen Square, which occurred when he was six : “I know it was bad but most people really don’t know, and the government has done plenty of good things since then.”
Among those ‘good things’ of course, China has even signed a free trade deal with New Zealand. We have been more than willing to forgive and forget. Until at least, the next Tiananmen makes us remember again, for a while….because for everyone concerned, China is just a dream, only fitfully encountered.
The substance of the police complaint against Richard Worth is a matter between him, the Police, his accuser and Worth’s family. The structural issues regarding the handling of the affair are utterly legitimate issues for Labour leader Phil Goff to raise. Basically, these come down to three points. One, that Key had known since the previous Tuesday that allegations of a criminal nature against Worth were being investigated by the Police. Key delayed taking action for a week. One can only conclude this was anutterly cynical decision not to allow a scandal to divert attention from the Budget.
Secondly, there is the little matter of accountability. Regardless of whether a criminal case will finally be made, Worth had been shown remarkable leniency by Key over the past few months. This has been in stark contrast to the strong messages about accountability that National had sent out in opposition when Labour Ministers had transgressed and subsequently, in government. When it comes to public servants, the National caucus is very quick to issue demands that ‘heads must roll.” Not so ihowever, when it is one of their own. All this year, Worth has appeared to benefit from a series of ‘final’ warnings and been on ‘final notice’ – which in his case, seemed to mean only ‘until next time.’
While the details of the Police investigation remain unknown, the question of whether there may be a pattern of behaviour here is a legitimate one for Goff to raise – particularly when the previous incident which Goff had brought to Key’s attention would seem to contain elements of sleazy behaviour in relation to a job application, and the current criminal investigation appears to involve a woman. Newsflash to National ministers : any imagined ‘droit de seigneur’ rights expired quite a few centuries ago.
The third dubious element has been Key’s fumbling of the events yesterday morning, when the fact of a Police investigation became public. After first disclosing the bare facts and saying there would be no further comment – ie, he would let the Police investigation proceed without political intrusion – Key then, two hours later, virtually prejudged aspects of the affair, by commenting further that if Worth hadn’t resigned as Minister, Key would have sacked him, and further indicated that perhaps Worth should consider his future within the caucus, and as an MP.
At every point, Key has either delayed taking action – for months, over Worth’s well publicized lapses of judgement – and then when action became inescapable, he delayed again lest the affair should overshadow the Budget coverage. Having promised not to comment publicly ( apparently,lest that should taint the Police investigation) he then proceeded to do so.
In other words, this has been a tawdry disaster, abysmally handled. Yet earlier today, RNZ’s Morning Report – in the shape of the dubious duo of Richard Prebble and Richard Griffin, with Sean Plunkett playing softball – not only sang Key’s praises ( “ with aplomb’ was how Griffin felt Key had handled events) but depicted Goff as the prime villain and most likely loser of the entire affair. Desperate stuff.
The current issue on the Nation website contains some fascinating clips – out-takes really – from Tuesday, when a network television crew spent the entire day with Barack Obama and his staff.
We get to see in the out-takes a chaotic visit by Obama to buy a hamburger. There is panic and excitement in the ‘hood as the presidential motorcade swings into the burger forecourt. But among the chitchat in the back of the limousine, Obama also conveys some pretty astute reasons for why he doesn’t watch the cable news shows very often.
In his view, they’re like… the World Wrestling Federation. Everyone has a role to play, Obama explains, and they ham it up accordingly. Pat Buchanan vs Chris Matthews. A genuine encounter ? Not really. More like a WWF pantomine, Obama is suggesting, with everyone in costume, and energetically mugging for the cameras. Yep, it is not hard to imagine our own mainstream media filling much the same array of hero and villain roles on cue, on the hour.
What’s more, Obama suggests offhandedly, …the demands of the news cycle mean that the news action gets sped up, to the point where it finally gets emptied of believable reality, or point. Man, if this guy ever gets tired of being President, he will make one hell of a media critic.
Oh, and just in case anyone from John Key’s office has seen the footage and imagines setting up similar verite footage of A Day in the Life of the PM, forget it. Watching Obama, it is simply horrendous to begin thinking of our own leader in such relatively unstructured territory. Don’t go there.