The views and opinions expressed on this site and blog posts (excluding comments on blog posts left by others) are entirely my own and do not represent those of any employer or organization with whom I am currently or previously have been associated.
Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.
Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.
As history records it, for two months leading up to this week, thousands of young Chinese college students and their supporters camped out in Tiananmen Square publicly advocating for greater political freedom and rights before the Chinese authorities, led by Deng Ziaping and Li Peng, ordered the army to crush the “rebellion” in the early hours of June 4, 1989. An estimated 2,000 Chinese died in the crackdown.
CBS New’s news-magazine show Sunday Morning recently did a segment on the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square and examined what led to the protests, how it ended, and the modern legacy of the events of 20 years ago (about 6 minutes long):
The take-home message is that 20 years after turning on their own citizens, China’s leaders have implemented many of the students’ original demands and have eased up on their control over the lives of ordinary citizens. Unfortunately, the changes that have taken place do not include greater political democracy nor many of the freedoms that we in the U.S. take for granted, such as freedom of the press.
Instead, the changes since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests have steered Chinese toward a greater sense of nationalism (reaching a fever pitch at times) poised to rail against anything perceived to be anti-Chinese, an almost obsessive drive to make money and become rich (frequently at the expense of consumer safety), and perhaps most important, unquestioned acceptance of the communist regime’s authority and power.
In other words, the goals of the Tiananmen Square student protesters 20 years ago still remain largely unfulfilled and their efforts towards modernizing China toward a more democratic and humane society are still ongoing.
As part of this blog’s mission of making academic research and data more easily accessible, understandable, and applicable to a wider audience and to practical, everyday social issues, I highlight new sociological books about Asians/Asian Americans and other racial/ethnic groups as I hear about them. As always, please remember that I highlight them for informational purposes only and do not necessarily endorse their entire content or arguments.
China has been in the news for several issues recently including the Summer Olympics, human rights abuses, faulty and dangerous consumer goods, etc. But for those who remember, 1989 was a monumental year for China. In the spring of that year, thousands of college students and their supporters camped out in Tiananmen Square, demonstrating for political reform and increased individual freedoms. After a tense two weeks, on June 4, 1989, the communist government finally sent in troops to crush what it perceived to be a “rebellion.”
Most estimates are that in the crackdown, over a thousand Chinese protesters were killed by government troops. Several of the student leaders were ultimately imprisoned, executed, or just disappeared while a few were able to flee China and gain asylum in other countries. One of the most indelible images from the Tienanmen Square events was the picture of the “tank man” — a lone Chinese man who stood down a line of tanks and who came to symbolize the courage of individuals standing up to government corruption and tyranny.
One other prominent part of the Tienanmen Square events was Zhao Ziyang, China’s Communist Party General Secretary at the time. Initially seen as a reformer and rising star within the China’s government, he attempted to mediate the protesters’ demands with communist officials, notably Deng Xiaoping, China’s ultimate leader at the time. Ultimately, he was basically fired just before the crackdown and put under house arrest until his death in 2005.
As the New York Times reports, during his house arrest, Zhao secretly recorded his memoirs which is now being published as a book entitled, Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang:
One striking claim in the memoir, scholars who have seen it said, is that Mr. Zhao presses the case that he pioneered the opening of China’s economy to the world and the initial introduction of market forces in agriculture and industry — steps he says were fiercely opposed by hard-liners and not always fully supported by Mr. Deng, the paramount leader, who is often credited with championing market-oriented policies. . . .
Roderick MacFarquhar, a China expert at Harvard who wrote an introduction to the new book, said it had given him a new appreciation of Mr. Zhao’s central role in devising economic strategies, including some, like promoting foreign trade in coastal provinces, that he had urged on Mr. Deng, rather than the other way around. “Deng Xiaoping was the godfather, but on a day-to-day basis Zhao was the actual architect of the reforms,” Mr. MacFarquhar said. . . .
Although the tumult of 1989 is distant for many Chinese, it remains a forbidden subject, heavily censored on the Internet and rarely if ever mentioned in the state-run media. Beijing authorities are likely to be unhappy with Mr. Zhao’s airing of inside conflicts. . . In a sharp break with Chinese Communist tradition, even for dismissed officials, Mr. Zhao provides personal details of tense party sessions. . . .
Mr. Zhao said that in 1989 he argued that most of the demonstrating students “were only asking us to correct our flaws, not attempting to overthrow our political system.” . . . Perry Link, professor emeritus of Chinese Studies at Princeton said, “Laying bare the personal animosities from such a high position is something new here. It’s certainly the element that will send officials in Beijing through the roof.”
Undoubtedly Zhao Ziyang remains a controversial figure for Chinese Americans and Chinese all around the world. Nonetheless, for those interested in China and the events of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, this book promises to give an unprecedented inside look into the political and personal issues within China’s communist regime.
When it comes to political news back in Asia, most of the mainstream media’s attention is directed at the “usual suspects” — China, India, Japan, and North Korea. However, Thailand is in the midst of plenty of political turmoil recently. For those who want some background information on the current protests taking place in Thailand, Andrew Lam at New America Media offers a very nice and succinct summary:
According to Thai police, up to 40,000 anti-government “red-shirt” protesters have scattered around the Thai capital, blocking roadways and entrances to upscale shopping malls. A few days earlier, in the nearby beach town of Pattaya, they managed to scare away leaders attending the Asian economic summit and attack Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s own convoy, causing injuries to several members. The prime minister barely got away. His declaration of a state of emergency was only met with more riots by the red shirts. They only began to break up when thousands of soldiers moved in.
Many of these red shirt protesters were trucked in from rural areas. Fierce supporters of exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawsastra, who was ousted in 2006 when he was traveling abroad, and charged with corruption in absentia, the protesters are now threatening to bring down the economy as well. Foreign investors are driven away by the unrest and tourism, already suffering from Thailand’s instability, is predicted to sink even further.
Yet, less than six months ago, it was the “yellow shirts” who owned the streets. Members of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), they wore yellow to honor Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Representing a more urban population – in many ways the educated and bourgeois class — the yellow shirts blocked the airport for days and stranded nearly 250,000 tourists.
The yellow shirts were incensed when a pro-Thaksin prime minister was popularly elected into office when the general election was held in December 2007. In effect, the yellow shirts disagreed with the election, claiming fraud. The constitutional court, under pressure to get the country moving again, agreed with them and disqualified the pro-Thaksin prime minister.
The trouble was that there was no clear evidence of fraud. In fact, Thaksin himself won the election fair and square before he was ousted by the military three years ago, with tacit support from the king. Many observers predict that he would win again were he to return and run in a fair election. A populist, the former prime minister made great strides among the rural population, provided education and jobs, and brought many out of dire poverty. Charges of corruption aside, his growing base in the countryside rivals that of the affection the people have for their king.
This leads to the issue of civil war, or something close to it.
Now that the 2008 Summer Olympics have ended, we all know that China has received plenty of criticism and accolades before and during the Olympic games. Rather than rehashing that chronology, I want to focus on the question of where does China go from here? The Christian Science Monitor offers some interesting observations:
The striking success of the Olympics – burnishing China’s prestige as the world admired its sporting prowess, organizational skills, and dramatically modern urban landscapes – could encourage profound changes in the country, say a range of Chinese and foreign analysts. . . .
One profound change that a number of China-watchers predict, in light of the international respect China has earned: that its leaders and people will trust the rest of the world more readily, and tone down an often aggrieved nationalism. . . .
For more than a hundred years, China’s leaders have set themselves the goal of recovering international respect after humiliation at the hands of Europe and the United States in the 19th century. For more than half a century the ruling Communist party has made “standing up to the world” a key plank in its platform. . . .
If China’s leaders decide that their management of the Olympics has earned the country respect, that “offers an opportunity for the Chinese state and the Chinese people to ditch the nationalist narrative of their identity based on shame and humiliation,” says Professor Shambaugh. “Hopefully they can throw all their aggrieved nationalist baggage away and move on like a normal country.”
It is certainly true that ever since the communists came to power, China has had a “chip on its shoulder+ in terms of proving to the rest of the world that they could overcome their “sick man of Asia” image and instead, use their own brand of communism to once again propel China into the rank of international superpower.
Along the way, one of the tactics used by the Chinese has been an intense and often fierce sense of nationalism — reacting defensively to any perceived slight against their country’s image or policies.
As I’ve written about before, perhaps the most recent and prominent example of this nationalism inside the U.S. was the backlash of Chinese students against “anti-Chinese” media portrayals regarding the Olympic torch relay and pro-Tibet demonstrations.
But now that many people from around the world have seen a brighter and more positive side of China, does it mean that the Chinese can let their defenses down somewhat and capitalize on their “softer” image? We’ll have to wait to see how China handles the issues and criticisms that still exist against it, such as human rights and individual freedoms, environmental conservation, and consumer product safety.
Despite their Olympics success, these criticisms will continue to come China’s way, so the ultimate test will be whether China reverts to reacting defensively and nationalistically — or whether they can build on their newfound confidence and status and react in a more gracious and balanced way.
I sincerely hope that it will be the latter — China has many positives going for it now, and it would be a shame if it squanders this newly-earned goodwill by going back to the same authoritarian ways.