The Day After

  by A. E. Clark

From Zhongnanhai, the stately and well-guarded leadership compound in central Beijing, you can almost hear the sighs of relief. The police, too, doubtless welcome an end to their overtime; network administrators can now lift some blocks, and a few detainees can be released. It didn't go badly at all. In future years this will only get easier, as eye-witnesses die out, new needs crowd in, and the world moves on.

From the other side—amid all the personal reflections and documentary retrospectives, many of them excellent and fascinating—there is a tinge of melancholy. “The world must not forget,” they say. But the world will forget; it always does.

Both these perspectives place the drama of 1989 in the past. I would assign it a more complicated place in time, as befits an aborted inception. To determine that place, we need to distill the essence of what happened. At Tiananmen in 1949, as he substituted one autocracy for another, Mao Zedong told the Chinese people that they had stood up. In the same place forty years later, they actually did stand up—or began to.

During seven dizzying weeks in the spring of 1989, this society showed a capacity which many thought it lacked: the capacity for self-organization and self-determination. Vast, unsanctioned, and persistent assemblies occurred in many cities, leaders emerged who were not appointed from above, and groups with different social roles and interests engaged in unscripted public negotiations: this was an evolutionary leap in a land long marked by what Adshead calls “the triumph of state over society.”

The violence carried out under martial law was but the first salvo—a dose of shock and awe—in a counterattack by an elite that claimed to think, speak, and decide for the people. The Party attacked the burgeoning inclination of the people to think, speak, and decide for themselves, and the Party won. Yet despite the regime's tighter grip on power, it could not extinguish the impulse to self-organization, which can loosely be called “civil society.” The contradiction that came to a head in 1989 can no longer manifest itself as it did then, because an enlarged security apparatus nips most stirrings of civil society in the bud. But the contradiction persists and is intensifying.

There are fundamental reasons why it is intensifying. In all human society there is a yin-and-yang polarity between order and freedom, regimentation and autonomy, centralization and decentralization. Different conditions cause a people to gravitate toward one pole or the other, and at any time various influences can be found pushing in opposite directions. Some general tendencies can nevertheless be identified. A grave external threat is favorable to authoritarianism. Likewise, if a society has limited technologies and natural resources whose exploitation requires large-scale coordination of unskilled labor, it will most likely be ordered in a static, centralized, top-down way, as ancient Egypt was. On the other hand, where there is dynamic change, easy communication, and widely distributed human capital, a more flexible organization of society tends to emerge and prove adaptive. What was once commanded is now more likely to be negotiated.

The broad lines of European history illustrate this development, which contributed to the preeminence of European civilization in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By embracing (in his pursuit of prosperity) the decentralized signaling and allocation role of markets, Deng Xiaoping implicitly acknowledged this—up to a point. That point had been marked ten years earlier, when Wei Jingsheng had urged Deng to adopt “the fifth modernization,” democracy—and Deng had sent Wei to prison. Deng would have Mr. Science without Mr. Democracy.

This is the first reason the regime's conflict with civil society has intensified since 1989: as a human system grows more complex and dynamic, it has greater need for decentralization. It strains the mental net of any dirigiste design and requires a freer interplay of its organic energies. Deng's acceleration of economic development is rightly seen as a masterstroke, since it opened an innocuous channel for individual striving and allayed the economic frustrations that had stoked the ferment of 1989. But, longer-term, it would greatly complicate the task of control.

To take one example: recognizing that a modern economy requires a functioning legal profession and that China had lacked one since the Anti-Rightist Campaign, Deng made the reestablishment of legal education a high priority. He was right: the economy needed law and lawyers. But law, to Chinese like the grandmother of Ye Fu, was about more than mergers and acquisitions, and it was definitely more than a tool of control. In “Tomb Lantern,” Ye Fu recalls that when he was a boy she suggested he might someday study law: “Maybe she didn't completely understand what the Law was that her father had studied, but she believed there was a need for genuine Law to be upheld in this world.” Within a few years, the Chinese Constitution (whose sonorous enumeration of rights had long been safely ignored) was now being quoted by some of these new lawyers to prod and reproach the State. Early in the new millennium, some who ventured to defend rights (weiquan) became influential spokesmen for civil society and began to promote a concept of citizenship that discomfited the dictatorship. I said these developments complicated the task of control; they did not make it impossible. If economic development feeds the pressures for greater individual and community autonomy, it also provides resources with which the Center can hold back those pressures. The management of the Internet, whose arrival in China was once expected to usher in freedom of speech, is an instructive example. But the building up of pressure and counterpressure without dialogue creates strains whose effects, though subtle, are profound.

There is another reason why the contradictions have intensfied since 1989: a loss of identification. From the beginning, the heartfelt bond between the Party and the People has been a mainstay of Communist rhetoric, and without such unity it's difficult—absent a crisis—to justify the Party's monopoly on power. This is why the authorities have worked so hard to erase the memory of the massacre. But even without that memory, the Party has come to be perceived as a privileged and abusive class. Among the Ferrari crashes, “My Dad is Li Gang”-moments, luxury wristwatches, and harems of mistresses, this anecdote is my favorite. The Party of Revolution has morphed into the ancien régime. One recalls Orwell's parable:

… and out came Napoleon himself, majestically upright, casting haughty glances from side to side, and with his dogs gambolling round him.

He carried a whip in his trotter.

Civil society brings forth structures and spokesmen that respond to their community's needs or are soon replaced by others that do. The elite, by contrast, regards the great unwashed with fear and loathing, as dramatized at the banquet in Chapter 29 of Hu Fayun's Such Is This World. To be accepted rather than endured, the paternalistic model of traditional Chinese governance requires at least a perception of benevolence. That is long gone.

The Party's estrangement from the people thus enhances the attractiveness and moral authority of civil society, but that is not all. In addition to lacking a natural affinity that would make them care, they may be so well-insulated that they do not need to care whether their decisions do damage, even irreparable damage, to the people at large. When it transpired that both the residences and offices of the Party elite were equipped with state-of-the-art air filters, and that there were organic farms whose produce was available only to officials and their families, I began to see China's environmental crisis in a new light. Even more striking was the revelation that officials had suppressed reports of contaminated baby-milk, and had delayed a recall, in order to avoid negative publicity during the 2008 Olympics. Though some of the businessmen involved in the contamination have been punished severely, there is no record of a reprimand for the officials who chose to let the poisonings continue for more than a month after they could have been stopped. Indeed, the chair of “the high-level working group” responsible at that time for Olympic preparations is now the President of China, and many harbor the hope that his selective punishment of corruption will reconcile the people to his Party. The father who launched an online campaign for food safety after his child was poisoned, and who as a result was sentenced to one year of re-education through labor, has been unavailable for comment.

The tension between an autocratic regime and the civil society which is struggling to be born is not abating. It says much that even after a years-long military buildup, the budget for “stability maintenance” exceeds that of the armed forces. There is no reason to expect this tension to be resolved soon. The Party lacks neither the means nor the will to isolate the few who dare work for change, and if necessary it can always boost its domestic support by starting a war. What the Party lacks is the integrity and accountability to remove the need for change or even slow the speed at which that need grows more urgent.

For me, therefore, the Tiananmen anniversary is as much about understanding the present as about remembering the past. A generation that does not know the Tank Man is experiencing its own form of alienation: keep an eye on the Ant Tribe. No matter how closely monitored and restrained, the Chinese people will continue to chafe under a ruling class that skims and squanders the fruits of their toil, permits them the intellectual independence of kindergartners, and ruthlessly excises their natural leaders. Some of them are perceptive and articulate about this reality. Thanks to them, new images and words have joined the Tank Man in history's treasure-house: a handcuffed legal scholar whispering eloquently behind bars, an indomitable artist sculpting a marble surveillance camera, and even a little-known idealist (who remembers 1989 and is now imprisoned for the third time) addressing a verse to the policeman who came to his door:

I've committed no crime […]
Yet you made it clear
My freedom needs your management.

Even should it succeed in erasing the memory of Tiananmen, the regime remains in an unenviable position: while people gain the experience, the resources, and the desire to work out their own solutions to the challenges facing their society, the Party-state's insistence on imposing its will increasingly has no other plausible rationale than protecting the privileges of the few at the expense of the many. “Unnatural deeds / Do breed unnatural troubles.” There may come a time when the men in suits wax nostalgic on this anniversary, wistfully recalling a day when their problems were so easy to solve.

June 5, 2014
Dobbs Ferry

The opinions expressed in this piece are mine alone, and should not be imputed to authors published by Ragged Banner Press.