June 4 and the Over-Simplifications

Let’s see if the Financial Times will keep the article accessible without registration. If not, the link there, and a short introduction to James Kynge‘s article is there at Danwei.

(…) 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 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. (…)

Kynge also sees more distrust among average Chinese people against foreigners (for reasons of historic imperialism) than in 1989. He attributes that – probably correctly – to a narrative from China’s propaganda: the CCP as the only possible warrantor of Chinese sovereignty, and collective dignity.

It’s probably true that democracy was only one demand out of the huge crowd on Tian An Men Square and elsewhere in China. There were many platforms and voices, and maybe Kynge’s suggestion that the mood in the square points to a great deal of conservatism, side by side with activism, sounds realistic. Demands for stopping corruption, for example, were deeply conservative (and appropriate).

On a seminar on June 4 held in Beijing on May 10, human rights lawyer Teng Biao (滕彪) pointed out that today’s efforts to transform the political system were based on the foundations of the 6-4 movement, but both because of a changed political environment, and because of the existence of the internet, addressed relevant cases such as copyright infringement, last year’s Sanlu milk powder scandal, the Weng’ An County incident one by one, in a much more diverse way, thus promoting the rule of law and human rights.

Even with a changed political environment, it would be hard for activists today to formulate coherent platforms – censorship and an official catalog of vaguely defined paras concerning “subversion” and other causes for prosecution would make that a difficult task.

But certainly, democracy was one of the demands twenty years ago – although it would be difficult to quantify its influence in the movement. And it may be true that the students in the square had only the haziest understanding of western-style democracy. Well – many of them, anyway. And having been there twenty years ago, Mr Kynge probably talked with many of them back then, and bases his judgment on the impressions he gathered.

But the students were not to blame for their lack of understanding of certain “foreign” concepts twenty years ago. Besides, it is still only a minority of the Chinese people who can freely gather information on western-style democracy (why Western?), The uninformed majority is not to blame for that. I got the feeling in the past years that the Chinese leadership does its best to make sure that the majority won’t be able to get a better understanding of the concepts in question these days, either.

Certainly, Mr Kynge isn’t obliged to point that out. But he’s a journalist. He should take issue of censorship.

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