Putting Words Into Dead Mouths


Over the past week, many international media outlets have seen fit to commemorate the events of 4 June 1989 in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square (China Daily and Xinhua, excepted, of course). Much of that coverage reads as hagiography of pro-Western student forces and as demonisation of Communist authorities, drawing on the narrative that became adopted at the time, and which has since become a commonly accepted "fact".

However, as Dan Edwards has helped show with his recent newmatilda.com articles from Beijing, this narrative is no more than a caricature, and reflects our limited view of China, just as other underexposed aspects of the story reflect a more complex reality. That same tight focus has been on display here in Hong Kong too: the anniversary was commemorated by a march and a candlelight vigil (organised by a group here whose webpage was coincidentally not accessible last week) which were together framed as a continuing call for "democracy and freedom", and as a memorial to those who died fighting for those ideals.

Of course, nobody can reasonably deny that there was a bloody crackdown. Exactly what was being cracked down on, however, was not as clear-cut as is usually made out.

To understand this in more depth, a little explanation of China is needed. While often referred to as "Communist China" (with a nominally Communist party in charge), since the ascent of Deng Xiaoping around 30 years ago China has been about as communist as North Korea has been a people’s democratic republic. Deng began the effort to give China the shape it has today: a trading giant and global centre of light and heavy industry, with growing wealth and influence on the world stage. Deng was famously pragmatic in his method: "It doesn’t matter if a cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice" — and had no qualms about instituting reforms we more commonly associate with capitalism.

A decade of these reforms led to the protests that have become iconic here and around the world. But what exactly sparked them? Had the students protesting in the square been given an inch and were they attempting to take a mile? Had they sampled the delights only the market can offer and demanded more? Well, actually, no.

In fact, the students’ demands — as a movement — were broad rather than focussed, as are the demands of Hong Kongers now. Significant among these demands were an end to corruption and a better deal for students and graduates — both, in the context of the times, very worthy aims. From some too, there was a push to implement Western-style liberal democracy, although their view of that type of system was often, by their own admission, naïve.

But the students were far from the only group involved in the protests. In fact, while it’s hard to be certain of figures for each stage of the unrest, it is likely that the students were outnumbered by a strong, militant trade union movement — it had already alarmed the government the year before — which joined the protests during May and grew in power and stature throughout.

The Beijing Workers Autonomous Federation was new and it was certainly interested in making a statement. Its members campaigned loudly for their demands, denouncing Deng and the rising "dictatorial bureaucracy". And what was their key demand? The one thing that has been underreported ever since: the rollback of capitalist reforms.

The workers were seeing increasing income inequality in China’s growing industrial sector, as well as top-down authoritarianism from managers who, as party cadres, had previously made decisions on the basis of mutual participation in the industrial power structure. By some accounts, the new system was so critical to the government’s plans for a new China that the workers’ eventual treatment by the military was harsher even than the students’.

This is not a new angle — it was known even on the 10th anniversary of the massacre and was covered by independent  media at the time (see here, here, and here).

More recently, this motivation was explored in Naomi Klein’s 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine. Klein’s citation of New Left intellectual and 1989 organiser Wang Hui is unambiguous:

"What ignited the protests, [Wang] recalls, was popular discontent in the face of Deng’s ‘revolutionary’ economic changes, which were lowering wages, raising prices and causing ‘a crisis of layoffs and unemployment’ … ‘These changes were the catalyst for the 1989 social mobilisation.’"

And now, on the 20th anniversary, no less an authority than China veteran James Kynge wrote the same as a kind of mea culpa in the Financial Times:

"The truth is that the students in the square had only the haziest understanding of western-style democracy. To the extent that the protests were directed at abuses of an existing system by an emerging elite, they were motivated more by outrage at the betrayal of socialist ideals than by aspirations for a new system. The mood in the square was at least as much conservative as it was activist."

None of this is to denigrate the actions of thousands of brave students, but the point is clear: if we could amalgamate their demands, the students, workers and others might be said to have protested to demand a kind of social democracy — not for the unfettered capitalism our media seems to believe everybody wants. Of course, it is not surprising that the events of that year were reported through a lens that refracted stories into freedom and capitalism on one hand and "leftist" repression on the other. The simple dichotomy presented in that formulation is, after all, very easy to digest.

And so China slowed its political reform and sped its economic reform. Now, 20 years later, this "authoritarian capitalism" has given China the global clout and the national wealth Deng imagined — but it has not brought democracy or freedom. As for other nations, such as South Africa, discussion focuses on the importance of political reform while the crucial role of economic freedom receives little attention. Meanwhile, we’re seeing more tension between the urban political classes — who will supposedly tolerate the CCP’s rule as long as their own status is safe — and the rural underprivileged, who are the majority, and who are angry at being left behind.

China, whatever else it may be, is a large society with a broad spectrum of opinion and many possible futures. And which future will manifest, of course, no one can say. Perhaps these dichotomies between rich and poor, urban and rural, are themselves too simple — just more caricatures of a complex and multifaceted nation. But let us at least attempt to understand what it was that the dead died for, rather than using their sacrifice to validate our Western political and economic system. We serve them poorly by perpetuating such comfortable myths.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.