Murphy's Law: Things To Forget In China


December 17, 2018: In China, the government is cracking down on another threatening political movement; radical communists. While communism is still taught in universities and the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) is the largest (and only legal) political organization in China, early 20th century communism (as pioneered by the Russian Bolshevik’s) is no longer considered acceptable in China. Because of that students of Communism agitating for the return of labor unions is seen as a threat to the CCP. Actually, real labor unions never established much of a foothold in China but communist ideology honors the idea while insisting that any communist government incorporates the same benefits of a labor union and sees to it that worker welfare is looked after. The reality is quite the opposite but the histories of communism studied in Chinese universities do not acknowledge that fact.

The more dedicated Chinese students of communism (still a subject of unquestioning study at all levels of education) have noted that a growing number of Chinese workers have serious grievances that are not being addressed by the government and are advocating for the legalization and establishment of independent labor unions. These outspoken (and now outlawed) students often invoke the memory of Mao Zedong, the founder of the Chinese communist state and still officially honored by the government, but not because Mao Zedong had any kind thoughts about labor unions but because it regularly crushed all opposition.

This is reminiscent of what happened in the Soviet Union towards the end, where there were several jokes about members of ruling families discussing their continued high-living standards until the most elderly kinfolk, who remember why and how the original 1917 revolution broke out, ask “but what if the Reds (communists) come back?” In China, the Reds are trying to do that and they are getting the same reception that the earlier democracy advocates did.

China has gone through a lot of political changes since the 1911 revolt the ended the monarchy but did not replace the emperor and his bureaucracy with anything much different. After four decades of civil war and fighting Japanese invaders the communists took control and what they established quickly evolved into a hereditary aristocracy. By 2017 China had returned to the “emperor for life” model as Xi Jinping persuaded the Chinese leadership to accept the restoration of lifetime tenure for the supreme leader, instead of the five-year term system adopted after the disastrous lifetime rule of the first communist emperor (Mao Zedong) in 1976. Mao was a better rebel leader than emperor and his 18 years of misrule killed over fifty million Chinese and made an anemic economy even weaker. After Mao, there was reorganization rather than chaos and among the many practical reforms instituted was a market economy that could thrive under the rule of a communist police state. This is what the Italian and German models of radical socialism were. Yet Mao was never officially disgraced for his failures. After all, he was the founder of communist China and it was admitted that he made a few mistakes but was otherwise to be forever honored for what he had accomplished. Not everyone in China agrees with that assessment but everyone seems to understand that disagreeing is dangerous and ultimately futile.

But then came 1989-91 and the legend of Mao and communism came under further attack. The new wealthier and wiser Chinese rulers sought answers to why all those communist police states in East Europe just evaporated, replaced by various degrees of democracy and free market economies. Chinese leaders are still unsure what the most important lessons for China are to be learned from all that. Some of the lessons were obvious. For example, a communist command economy cannot compete with a free market economy. Or at least no one has figured out how to do it. But creating a market economy proved easier than repairing the damage decades of communist rule had inflicted. In addition to the corruption (the free market economy grew in part by simply bribing disruptive communist officials to get out of the way), there was the growing pollution of both water and the air. All that economic growth produced more pollution which Western democracies were quicker to clean up. Western politicians who got in the way of that were unable to get reelected. In a communist police state bad news could be kept out of the news for a while but with the capital suffering some of the worst air pollution in the world, the pollution became a major issue and it is still a long way from being fixed.

The collapse of European communist governments in 1989 also had a popular response in China. In June 1989 this culminated in the Chinese military savagely suppressing the main (and most reported on by world media) pro-democracy demonstration in China. All this took place in Beijing, the capital, in Tiananmen Square. The Chinese also sought to erase all this pro-democracy activity from Chinese history books. But Western intelligence agencies collected numerous eye-witness accounts of the massacre itself, including the use of troops who were largely illiterate and known to be particularly loyal to the communist government. The Chinese government went to extreme lengths to suppress any data on how many actually died. The official number was 300 while Chinese Red Cross initially released estimates of 2,700 dead but later withdrew that. It turned out that during the massacre Chinese ambulances and other medical personnel were turned away and some of those who got through and did not leave quickly enough were massacred as well. British and American intelligence estimates were of over 10,000 dead and 40,000 wounded. These were not unclassified until 2014. The British data indicates the number of dead was somewhat higher and Chinese officials who spoke to British diplomatic personnel indicated that the government was not seeking an official number, even if highly classified but the number regularly used by Chinese officials was “at least 10,000.”

In addition to casualty figures, there were a lot of details on how the attack was carried out, including the use of promises (quickly broken) to allow demonstrators (including survivors of the first round of killing) to leave. The troops apparently had orders to kill all civilians in the square and destroy the bodies where they fell. This included crushing the dead using armored vehicles, burning those remains and flushing those remains down storm drains. The area was sealed off for over a month so the cleanup could be thorough.

After the June 4 massacre, the Chinese government enacted a growing number of measures to erase the June 1989 demonstrations (there were over 400 different demonstrations across the country with millions of Chinese participating) from popular memory. Martial law was imposed on the capital until 1990 to make it easier to hunt down survivors and terrorize anyone inclined to discuss the massacre.

The censorship effort continues. A good example occurred in 2015 when Hong Kong was the scene of over 100,000 people gathering to commemorate the 26th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Hong Kong residents have more freedoms because of a 1990s deal with Britain to leave their prosperous colony intact. Thus Chinese in Hong Kong never forgot Tiananmen. This spontaneous uprising in 2015 scared Chinese officials a great deal as they saw it as potentially a Chinese version of the 1989 collapse of communist rule in East Europe that occurred by the end of 1989. Every year at this time Chinese Internet censors are noticeably more active in a continuing effort to keep any news of the 1989 uprising from the Chinese public. Any discussion of the savage crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators has been banned since 1989. The government effort has been successful at keeping most Chinese from knowing the details or caring much about it. However many Chinese are aware that something happened. There are so many nasty aspects of Chinese history that Chinese are dimly aware of but not particularly curious about. In China, there is a lot to forget and good reasons for doing so. Yet there are still disputes over what aspects of the past are worth reconsidering and perhaps reworking. At the moment the imperial past rebranded to accommodate modern tastes. The emperors were famous, or infamous, for energetically purging unwanted ideas and those who backed them. That was never entirely successful and many of those old ideas keep reappearing. And, as in the past, the most visible of those advocating these dangerous ideas are being arrested or otherwise disappearing from public view. The government does not want another Tiananmen Square, nor does it want the return of Russian style communism (as misinterpreted by Mao) or Chinese students of communism trying to practice what they are preached. In China, you learn which things are simply not done or you risk disappearing and being, literally and figuratively, erase. The last thing the CCP wants is for the old fashioned reds to come back.


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