25th Anniversary Reflections on 1989: Relevance, Realpolitik, and Violence.



First, some links:

I’ve been rethinking Tiananmen / 6.4 a bit recently and I’ve come to three opinions.

The first is that Tiananmen is not important for or in China. The ‘amnesia’ campaign worked – it as as forgotten and ignored as China’s invasion of Vietnam a few years earlier. What I see increasingly looks like the rest of the world trying to keep the issue on life support 25 years later. We want it to be important, relevant and remembered but we have mostly failed. We’re telling a different story of China than 80% of Chinese are telling themselves. This has implications that I don’t think most people – including myself – fully appreciate.

Nuancing this is that 6/4 is now part and parcel of the structure of CCP governance today. 1989 was the high water mark for a lot of freedoms in China. But what does it mean when this means nothing to a public at large, when they’re unaware – intentionally or otherwise – that something this big is secretly woven into the fabric of society? Is the tapestry or what’s behind it more ‘important’ and ‘relevant’? These things have become ‘just so’ and the causes mostly forgotten – perhaps even by a new generation of CCP leadership.

Second, I’m increasingly of the opinion that the idea 6/4 was meant to be a fear-instilling gory spectacle is misplaced. While Li Peng and Deng Xiaoping are morally culpable for the orders they gave, I’ve never seen a convincing case that what happened wasn’t simply the result of poor training, lack of non-lethal weapons, and poor C3I (command, control, communications, and intelligence). The most likely scenario is that an amatuer-ish PLA entered a fog with poorly thought-through orders and turned Beijing into a warzone.

I’m convinced that if CCP leaders could go back in time they would have done things differently. There was no political gain in things getting so ugly. This is further evidenced by the ‘amnesia’ campaign – why try so hard to have the public forget if the point was to horrify and scare them into complacency? Remember Machiavelli’s dictum: it’s best to be fear and loved, but always bad to be hated. 6/4 made them hated. This is to say that beyond whatever moral issues exists, massacres are never a wise move for autocrats – and autocrats themselves are aware of this. 

Finally, I think we’re entering a dangerous time where the cost of aggression is cheapening. Autocrats and tyrants understand this better than anyone. Protests can now be safely and quietly dismantled and deflected with non-lethal weapons and crowd control training. This has two implications: the evil of men like Li Peng is now better masked when it comes to internal struggle. They have not been defanged but given new and better weapons. In foreign affairs, I think we also see this in the Crimea and China’s ‘cabbage strategy’ in the South China Sea.

The ‘other means’ of politics is just as violent as before in the sense of using force to get one’s way – it’s just less bloody. This isn’t a good thing. What made wars and massacres increasingly rare, and diplomacy and dialogue more common, was the costs that came with carnage. Today, squares are cleared, islands are taken, and entire provinces annexed without a shot being fired now. This is a new development and I think we’ll be seeing how far these boundaries can be pushed. Before, aggressive governments would actually have to do battle with their people or other governments to do these things.

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