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Political situation in China - 在中国政治局

West miscasts Tiananmen protesters

Political situation in China - 在中国政治局, satisfied 21%

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About the massacre in central Beijing that followed weeks of demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989, which I covered as part of a team of Reuters reporters, I cannot help feeling troubled. 

Of course it was a brutal and harrowing time, but that isn’t the reason for my disquiet. I’m concerned because I don’t think we – the western media – got the narrative of those days quite right.

People say journalism is merely a first, rough draft of history. But the problem here is that this draft appears to have been canonised, passing largely unedited into popular conscience.

The powerful iconography of those days – the serene polystyrene statue of the “Goddess of Democracy” looking towards the Forbidden City, the defiant student standing in front of a column of tanks – supports a clear dichotomy between good and evil, freedom and repression, democracy and dictatorship. In a world of moral fluidity, Tiananmen is an anchor, a gratifyingly fixed reference for our judgments of others.

But is it? I don’t deny the atrocity of the event, nor the repression after it. In common with other Beijing-based journalists, I had Chinese friends who were locked up or tortured in the aftermath.

I do question, however, the western media’s basic assertion that the demonstrations had been “pro-democracy”. Even now, a raft of editorials commemorating the event’s 20th anniversary repeat the mantra that the students were “demanding democracy”.

The reality was less coherent, as shown in Beijing Coma, a recent novel by Ma Jian, a Chinese writer who experienced the demonstrations first hand. By interweaving individual motives and broad themes, Ma shows that the movement never adhered to tidy definitions. It was, above all, the unburdening of the hopes of a generation easing itself free of the strictures left from Chairman Mao’s rule.

Almost everything fell within its scope: campaigns against corruption, nepotism, inflation, police brutality, bureaucracy, official privilege, media censorship, human rights abuses, cramped student dormitories and the smothering of democratic urges. But to say the demonstrations were to “demand democracy” is an oversimplification.

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 mo. e 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.


By James Kynge

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