Nations are defined not only by what they remember, but by what they forget. What does this tell us about modern China?
Is it possible to construct an ethical foreign policy? The realist school of thinking which believes nations only have interests – usually economic - does not concern itself with such notions. They fairly point out that the risks of hypocrisy in formulating ethics on a national scale will eventually catch a government out. Whether we like it or not, however, the actions we take both speak of our values and help to fashion them.
In November 2015, David Cameron hailed a ‘golden era’ in relations between the UK and China, following a State visit by the Chinese President Xi Jinping. Trade deals worth more than £30bn were made possible. After being left in the cold by Beijing for several years following a meeting with the Dalai Lama, the Prime Minister wanted to fashion a new relationship with this century’s coming power. The Obama administration was not amused. They were not alone.
Those who baulk at the mention of human rights when British politicians meet the leaders of nations which are less scrupulous about practising them tend to describe their critics as immature, indulging in student politics. When talking about China, people would do well to read The People’s Republic of Amnesia by Louisa Lim (OUP, 2015) about the years since the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989. Hard-bitten realists dismiss talk of this trauma as living in the past; China has moved on and the incident is being put into a smaller historical perspective as time passes. The evidence suggests otherwise.
Lim builds a strong case for seeing Tiananmen as the pivotal event by which to interpret all that has meaningfully happened since. This was not the first threat to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), there had been demonstrations in the years leading up to 1989 and Tiananmen itself was only part of the picture. After the massacre, there were defiant protests elsewhere, most notably in Chengdu, which received little international coverage but which would not have escaped the attention of the authorities.
The CCP, in rigorously censoring talk of Tiananmen in public, on social media and in the education system – where it is usually depicted as an anti-patriotic, foreign-inspired plot – has largely extinguished its memory in Chinese society. Older people who remember it are reluctant to speak of it if questioned (as Louisa Lim has found) and most young people do not know about it at all. The burying of this story has dimmed the nation’s moral conscience.
National policy changed in two particular ways after what is neutrally called the June 4th incident. The first was the pursuit of an aggressively materialistic agenda. The State loosened controls to make business and the acquisition of wealth a much easier task. This might be unexceptional in other contexts, but there was an underlying menace: that people would not be allowed to agitate for other freedoms. Thus China today pursues a different model of capitalism, the so-called Beijing consensus, which permits people to get as rich as they can, provided they do not push for more democracy. Make money; don’t ask questions.
The problem with a closed system where people are not free to challenge the actions of others is that corruption, driven by human greed, begins to take root. Membership of the CCP, and especially familial links to senior leadership, afford myriad opportunities to become wealthy, sometimes fabulously so. Those with no such connections and no voice lose out. Cronyism eats at the health of a public when no light is shone on the mess it has made. Across the country, poor people lose their land to the first well-connected property developer in town.
The CCP may by its actions have lifted more people out of poverty more quickly than at any time in history – credit where it is due – but it has come at a malign cost which will one day have to be paid. People are unlikely to stand for its rule in perpetuity; what then?
The other way national policy altered after Tiananmen was to stoke nationalism as a way of giving the tarnished CCP a new legitimacy among the people. This has been expressed most starkly against the Japanese, with whom the Chinese have understandable grievances. As China expands it will exert its new power more assertively – something we are seeing in the South China Sea. The risk to the CCP is that it may have unleashed a force it cannot contain in the long run, which is of concern to other nations and especially its neighbours.
Chinese people, ravaged in the twentieth century in so many ways, deserve better than this. Those who express moral conscience at great personal risk – not least the fearless Mothers of Tiananmen – invite a more nuanced national relationship with the CCP by other nations. Attention to this asks other governments to imagine a day when the CCP no longer rules. What do they want to do and say now which will reflect well in an enduring post-CCP settlement? Realists should craft a dialogue with the Chinese which demonstrates a commitment to their welfare.
All regimes are transitory. How we construct systems should pay heed to this biblical theme. The CCP has claimed a power over creation which it does not merit. Governments honour God, in a limited yet meaningful way, when they embrace transience not just in their own life but in the systems of others. This is not just good ethics, it is good politics too.
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