We generally think of the Chinese Communist Party’s approach to the events of 1989 as enforced forgetting: a state-sponsored project of amnesia.
This is undoubtedly true, yet the Party’s approach to 1989 extends beyond just forgetting the unforgettable to a growing impulse to justify the unjustifiable and legitimize the irreparably illegitimate: the decision by senior leaders of the Chinese Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army to gun down innocent civilians on the streets of the nation’s capital on the evening of June 3 and 4, 1989.
On the one hand, the Party tells us that nothing worth remembering happened in Peking in June 1989. And yet, on the other hand, if anything did actually happen, what the People’s Liberation Army did put China on the correct path of stability and prosperity.
This narrative requires a reframing of the events of 1989 from the ruthless suppression of a nascent civil society by a corrupt aristocracy willing to do anything to stay in power to an origin myth for China’s reform-era economic miracle: this myth tells us that only by taking “resolute measures” in 1989 is China able to have the “stability” and “prosperity” that it enjoys today.
Origin myths reliably narrate not only the beginning of the world, but also the introduction of sin into the world: the two are after all inseparable insofar as such imperfection is necessary for the very existence of humanity.
Take, for example, the story of Adam and Eve, who by eating from the tree of knowledge introduced sin into the world: yet it is of course only by the introduction of such “sin” that the entire history of humanity unfolded, such that those who believe this myth owe their existence precisely to this sin.
A similar logic is apparent in the origin story of China’s “economic miracle.” The massacre of civilians in the streets of the nation’s capital in 1989 incorporated an unshakeable evil into the core of the regime’s power. And yet, the Party tell us, it was only by the introduction of this apparent evil that the stable and prosperous China that one knows (or at least imagines) today is able to exist: as if deep within the laws of economics there was some sort of secret conversion formula between human blood spilled and GDP growth.
The haunting specter of “anti-China forces” and their deployment of “instability” to “hinder China’s rise” forces citizens trapped within this discourse to make a fundamentally false choice between running over innocent civilians with tanks or allowing China to collapse into chaos: I call this a false choice because anyone outside of this discourse can see that the economic growth of the past three decades is not in fact derived from this violence. The current dip in GDP, after all, will not be resolved by driving a few more tanks down Chang’an Avenue.
While it is impossible to know what the majority of people in China actually think about such matters on account of the numbing mix of indoctrination and surveillance that the Chinese Communist Party sees as its number one governance priority, I can say from experience that this narrative has a certain receptive (albeit also admittedly captive) audience in China today.
Scratch the surface of a regime-supporting nationalist questioning the Tiananmen Massacre by nitpicking about whether anyone in fact died on Tiananmen Square (short answer: yes, they did), and one will suddenly find a nationalist who sees it as his or her solemn patriotic duty to find excuses for the massacre of compatriots: a very curious form of nationalism, one might note.
The Chinese Communist Party thankfully abandoned its earlier failed project of redistributing wealth to realize a communist utopia, a project which led in reality to a leveling redistribution of poverty.
Yet it has not and indeed cannot abandon its far more insidious project of ideologically redistributing guilt for its crimes in 1989, by convincing people that the better-off lives that they lead today could only be built on the foundation of these crimes, such that people willingly buy into this cruelty: sympathy for and memorialization of the dead, a bond with one’s fellow countrymen and countrywomen killed in the most horrific of circumstances, are thereby imagined as an insidious foreign plot.
The result of this discursive construction would appear to be an endlessly self-reproducing cycle of one-party rule: any form of dissent is immediately othered as a threat, and even the most horrid measures deployed to crush that dissent is legitimized in the service of the “collective good” of stability and prosperity.
And this is indeed how this cycle has functioned thus far. There is however no guarantee that this is how it will function in the future. The model’s weak point can be found in the simple fact that gunning down people in the streets is actually not a very effective way of handling complex social and political problems, of which China has many.
Despite its self-congratulatory narratives about stability, the CCP’s stability enforcement silences frank discussion of pressing issues. Such repression reliably produces a superficial image of stability, but below the surface, the issues reliably remain present, unresolved, and festering: the cover-up of COVID-19 in Wuhan, the concentration camp system in Xinjiang, and the escalating destruction of Hong Kong, for example, have all proceeded in accordance with this stability-minded model, and all have produced far more problems than they have resolved.
Peking has thus perfected the ideological legitimation of one-party rule, to the point that many citizens actually buy into its bloody origin myth of the need for resolute measures to ensure “stability” and their prosperity.
Yet we must not confuse such ideological legitimation with actual legitimacy, which is something that a one-party state can never achieve in today’s world. Any government that would like to build a foundation for social stability and lasting rule, after all, would be well-advised to seek out more sustainable paths for conflict resolution than extreme violence.
Today, on the thirty-second anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre, the Chinese Communist Party believes that its strength lies in having built a model that does not require the exploration of political alternatives: ironically, I propose that this belief in its own strength will end up being the system’s greatest and most likely fatal weakness.
(Kevin Carrico is Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies at Monash University and the author of the forthcoming Two Systems Two Countries: A Nationalist Guide to Hong Kong)
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