China’s Biggest Taboos: The Three Ts

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This month marks the 26th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, reminding us that despite its economic awakening, China’s intellectual coma continues. Almost upon arrival in China, one is counseled not to discuss the three Ts — Taiwan, Tibet, and Tiananmen. So when I found myself asking Chinese friends, and often perfect strangers, about these matters, I of course soon grew used to hearing the same replies. Tibet belongs to China. Taiwan belongs to China. A visiting friend from Taipei once told me every time locals heard his accent, they were sure to let him know he wasn’t from another country.

“In Taiwan some support sovereignty and some support Beijing and some favor the status quo,” he said. “But here, there’s no difference of opinion. None!”

I shared the old General Patton platitude, “If everybody is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking,” and realized that in China, it isn’t a platitude. I also recalled to him the Talmudic phrase ipcha mistabra or “the opposite is true,” an affected way of saying “on the contrary” when speaking Hebrew (affected because it’s Aramaic), which points to the value of Devil’s advocacy. Namely, sometimes the Devil is right. Tibetan independence strikes a different chord, often evoking the same derision with which many Americans view Texan independence. In addition to being separatists Tibetans are, unlike their Texan counterparts, apostates. With respect to the Party faith, they are infidels; unbelievers in the China Dream.

Yet strangest of all is Tiananmen, a name associated more with the square itself than the massacre, which is known in Chinese as “June 4.” It began in 1986 when Princeton astrophysics professor Fang Lizhi started speaking about human rights at universities in China. Former General Secretary Hu Yaobang died three years later, providing the kindling for the renewed flame of protests that began to burn that April. Hu was a man whose politics had rested at the bleeding edge of Chinese statecraft. He opposed out of hand any policy that hurt Tibetans and sought to broker peace with the Dalai Lama, who turned him down. He worked to improve relations with the Japanese, limit censorship, improve transparency, and end single-candidate elections. The beginning of the end came when his anti-corruption campaign netted the children of several high-ranking officials, and was furthered along when Deng instructed him to punish Fang Lizhi in 1986 and Hu refused. He was forced to resign for being too lenient with protestors, and when he died in 1989, he was remembered.

The first people to gather at Tiananmen did so in memory of Hu. After their numbers grew, Premier Li Peng released the famous April 26 editorial in Peoples Daily, citing a “conspiracy” to “plunge the whole country into chaos.” This was fat on the fire. The state declared martial law on May 20 and Li called the protestors “terrorists” in a June 1 report. The protests continued until the savage counterstroke days later. Death toll estimates vary. The U.S. National Security Agency calculated 180 to 500, while The New York Times reported 300 to 1,000. Amnesty International agreed with the later, saying it was several hundred to 1,000. And yet, despite such horror, it’s not uncommon to meet Chinese who know next to nothing about the event or have never heard of Tank Man.

The damnatio memoriae put upon him and the event has worked beautifully. These days even private commemorations lead to arrest, while Chinese politicians, including those abroad, continue to justify the atrocity. In a 2000 interview with Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes, Jiang Zemin went so far as to suggest that the government was tolerant, saying with a straight face, “We fully respect every citizen’s right to freely express his wishes and desires.” Regarding Tank Man, Jiang pointed out that “the tank stopped and did not run the young man down.” He added, “We have always been working to improve our system of democracy. But we could not possibly allow people with ulterior motives to use the students to overthrow the government under the pretext of democracy and freedom.” So let’s see, because the government wants democracy, it killed the people asking for it because they didn’t really want it?

This, by the way, is the same argument used to justify crimes against Tibetans, Uyghurs, Falun Gong, artists, journalists, and the nation’s only Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who is currently languishing in prison. They are persecuted, incarcerated, tortured and killed “for security reasons,” a thought-terminating cliché that’s every bit as vapid as “God moves in a mysterious way” or “support our troops.” What it really means is that the Party is more important than the people. Pointing to a newspaper headline that read “all our efforts are for Mao,” Hu Yaobang once told his son, “everything we do should be for the people, not for Mao.” This should be clear, yet the government still represses the memory of June 4, dodging the tangled question of responsibility. Time is running thin. Chinese are beginning to take their own measure, and as they grow in size and appetite, and their shackles feel ever tighter, they are realizing they deserve more than what they are rationed.

Remembering June 4 needn’t spark conflict anyway. The real danger lies in a people too constrained by a Party that’s too free. As Francis Fukuyama observes, rule of law is important in China not only for “commercial purposes” but for “survival of the leadership.” He writes, “Rulers try to evade the law if they can, but at a certain point, they realize that it’s safer for them if they actually have rules rather than just arbitrary struggle for power.”

The government’s blinkered hope is that if the economy leads, the people will follow. The problem is that money brings a taste for the good life, whereas lack of freedom takes the flavor out of living. As Mario Vargas Llosa told a group of Shanghai students in 2011, an “authoritarian government […] poisons the less political activities […] corrupting and degrading them.” In other words, no amount of gold can make a gilded cage feel free.

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