Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Remembering Tiananmen (or not): One crime you don't want to be caught committing in China today is "picking quarrels"


To prevent any commemoration of the anniversary, the government has, according to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, an activist group, "detained, disappeared or summoned" dozens of lawyers, activists, artists, and journalists. Unlike in past years, this sweep -- the largest round of detentions in China since the Arab Spring -- has targeted not only attempts at public protests but also memorials in private homes. The lawyer Pu Zhiqiang and four others who attended a private meeting to commemorate the crackdown were detained under a newly expansive violation known as "picking quarrels." In anticipation of the anniversary, the government has also disrupted Google searches and access to Gmail, and has blocked additional foreign news sites, such as the Chinese-language edition of the Wall Street Journal. [Emphasis added]
-- The New Yorker's Evan Osnos, in "Tiananmen
at Twenty-five: 'Victory Over Memory'

by Ken

We've already had Jonathan Mirksy's vivid NYRB remembrance of and reflection upon the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989, "Tiananmen:How Wrong We Were" from which I extrapolated the practical application: "Does anyone think functionaries (like NYC ex-Mayor Mike) in 'Western democracies' didn't learn the lessons of Tiananmen?" Now that the 25th anniversary of the massacre itself is upon us, well, there's more remembering but a whole lot more forgetting.

The New Yorker's Evan Osnos, who was chief of the Chicago Tribune's Beijing bureau before joining the magazine as China correspondent in 2008, weighs in with "Tiananmen at Twenty-five: 'Victory Over Memory'." (The "News Desk" team has also assembled a slide show.) Evan begins by chronicling the troubled history of the Chinese Communist Party's very own personal History of the Chinese Communist Party. A first volume, covering only the period 1921-49, which is to say through the revolution that brought the CCP to power, seems to have occasioned a minimum of fuss prior to its publication in 2002. "Its authors," Evan notes, "had the luxury of hewing to a narrative of birth, growth, and triumph."

After 1949, however, "history gets dicier."
Volume 2, on the period from 1949 to 1978, had to tiptoe through a chronological minefield of purges, famine, policy disasters, and other awkward artifacts of history that many living officials would prefer to leave unexamined. The volume, a thousand and seventy-four pages long, was edited for sixteen years. It needed four major rewrites. It was vetted and scrubbed by sixty-four different government and Party agencies, and then received line edits from the most powerful families mentioned in its pages.

By the time it was released, in 2011, only one of the original three editors, Shi Zhongquan, had lived long enough to see it in print. “Writing history is not easy,” he said to the journalist Andrew Higgins. For all of the editors’ labors, the reception from independent scholars was not flattering; the official history explained that, once Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward drove the nation into famine, he “worked hard to correct” the mistakes, a judgment that a Dutch scholar called a “barefaced lie.”
And that, remember, took the CCP only to 1978. The as-yet-unwritten Volume 3 would appear to be on a collision course with 1989 and "the bloody crackdown that ended the demonstrations at Tiananmen Square," which Evan describes as "an event that has turned out to be among the most thoroughly and systematically suppressed memories in the history of official histories."

Not that those events went undocumeted. Way back when, Evan recalls, "There were so many eyewitness accounts that, as Louisa Lim writes in her new book, The People’s Republic of Amnesia, 'publishing houses worldwide were rejecting them, citing the saturation of the market.' "

"Today," Evan writes, "technology and globalism are prying open the private, economic, and social lives of China’s people." But not when it comes to "matters of politics and history," which the CCP has subjected to a ruthless and comprehensive effort of forgetting. "The more inconvenient the arguments, the more the Party vows to obscure them." And one powerful tool for that obscuring has been emphasis on "broader gains in human development," alongside which the events of 1989 may be reduced to a mere glitch in the March of Progress.
In the government’s only official acknowledgement of the anniversary, the Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said, “In the last three decades and more of reform and opening up, China’s enormous achievements in social and economic development have received worldwide attention. The building of democracy and the rule of law have continued to be perfected.”
By now, an onlooker might think, "the building of democracy and the rule of law" have been so far perfected that there must be hardly any room left for further perfecting.

Actually, the CCP does have a position on the uprising of 1989, basically the same as one Evan heard on the 19th anniversary of Tiananmen from Liu Yang, "a graduate student in environmental engineering at Stanford, who grew up in China." As Evan reported in a July 2008 New Yorker "Letter from China," "Angry Youth: The new generation's neocon nationalists," Liu Yang's view of the uprising was: "If June 4th had succeeded, China would be worse and worse, not better."

"The Party, of course, agrees," Evan writes, "but it does not have enough confidence in the position to expose it to public debate."
The Party may be proud of insuring stability, but Tiananmen Square has become unmentionable. Members of the military who took part in putting down the demonstrations were given souvenir watches with a picture of the Gate of Heavenly Peace and inscribed with the words “June 89 to Commemorate the Quelling of the Turmoil.” But today military leaders who have risen into the senior ranks of political leadership have scrubbed their involvement in the incident from their official biographies. As Zhang Gang, a former policy adviser to the Beijing leadership, told the Telegraph this week, “They say they saved the Party and the country. So how come no one wants to be associated with it, to remember it or to take credit for this supposed triumph?”
Which highlights the (potential) lurking weakness of the regime's strategy of enforced forgetting.
By staying silent on the events of Tiananmen Square instead of making a case that it was a mistake in the rise of a nation, Party leaders have not succeeded in effacing it from history. They have simply ceded the subject to their opponents, and, year by year, Tiananmen is discovered and rediscovered by young people, for whom it is a stark measure of the gap between China’s official and unofficial histories.

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