June 4th, 1989 was by most accounts a dark day in history, when protests that have lasted several months ended abruptly by force. Regardless of the exact circumstances, what is known is that the a division of PLA troops marched into the square with tanks and combat gear and opened fire. The aftermath, if one is to refrain from commenting on the exact details, is that Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader of China at the time, continued to hold on to power and ensure that China’s economic transformation would be complete without political turmoil.
The ‘official’ narrative given by the Chinese government has been panned by just about everywhere you could read the news from outside of China ever since. The story is always more or less the same: the protesters were peaceful, they were mostly students, they wanted democracy and political change, the death toll is actually much higher than official accounts, etc. In more recent years, as the children of my children grow up to become adults, the narrative shifts slightly to how the Chinese government is hiding historical ‘truth’ from its young, thereby erasing its history.
All of this seems altruistic: people in Western, liberal countries lament the Chinese government’s ‘brutal oppression’ of its people, and wish that such an oppressive regime could somehow change or be removed (probably the latter) so that China’s people can be free of tyranny. There is always an implicit drive to separate China’s ruling regime and its people with the underlying assumption and implication that most people in China disagree with the regime and would like to topple it if they didn’t fear for their lives. More importantly, that this belief is fueled by a desire among China’s majority to embrace western ideals of liberalism and democracy; that is, China’s people wants to be just like the west, but a cold and unrelenting regime is preventing them from doing so.
This is basically wrong.
First, the accusation of ignorance; that the ‘Chinese people’ has somehow largely forgotten about the tragedy that was Tiananmen Square. True, probably most Chinese people don’t really care about what happened in 1989 and most certainly most young people don’t care much for it neither. Let me ask this: if you ask a typical young person in Canada or the USA, say people born after 1985, what happened politically in 1989, will most of them be able to give an answer? Probably a majority can’t even tell you who the president of the USA or the prime minister of Canada were at the time (it’s George HW Bush and Brian Mulroney respectively, by the way). Most people don’t care much for history, and no country’s education system can claim they’re doing spectacularly well on this issue. Soon most people will have forgotten almost entirely about World War II. This ‘ignorance’ is not a crime either on the part of the state or on the people. Having been to China recently, I know that through VPN’s you can access anything you want on the internet. If people wanted to know, they would know; just that most people genuinely don’t care even after they know.
Now why should this be the case? Why should such a momentous event leave such a small mark on the overall psyche of an entire people? Because contrary to the belief propagated by all western media outlets every year, 1989 was not a mistake; it was exactly the right decision more or less (although if the PLA had access to riot gear instead of using real weapons, it would have been better for sure). There is even an event very close chronologically to Tiananmen Square to make a clear comparison: and that of course is the fall of the Soviet Union. Undoubtedly, the Soviet Union’s collapse was considered a major victory of the West. Indeed, the Cold War has been won! While it is a victory for the West, it most certainly was not a victory for the Russians. Indeed, twenty-five years later, Russia is now looking to reclaim its former glory after post-Soviet Union Russia floundered both politically and economically. If the 1989 protests were ‘successful’, China would be in the same situation or worse.
That’s why China has largely forgiven the violence that occurred in 1989, because by choosing stability and economic development, the nation has achieved the most profound period of economic growth in human history. China will soon have the world’s largest middle class and will soon also have become the world’s most formidable economic force. This would have been denied to us if 1989 had a different outcome.
So, Chinese people aren’t brainwashed. They aren’t ignorant. They know what happened and they know it was for the best. Western liberalization and democracy as a system of government do not represent the only ideals in politics. China’s rise as a world power in the 21st century is inevitable, and it will almost surely not be another copy of a typical ‘western’ state. China’s rise in both political and economic prominence will redefine the scope international politics.
The 25th anniversary of the June 4th Incident will be remembered in the west as a painful reminder of the continued existence of an oppressive regime trying to whitewash history. The 50th anniversary of the June 4th Incident may be remembered in the world as a celebration of how when a nation stays true to its goals and ideals, even at a great human cost, greatness may be achieved.