Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Monday, November 23, 2015

Memory shaping the future

In the novel 1984, George Orwell wrote, "Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past."

As you study the political culture of China, remember that the paragraph (or so) in your text book about Tiananmen Square in 1989, includes more facts than most people in China ever see.

I Think It's Already Been Forgotten
Twenty-five years after June 4, 1989, even China’s educated youth have only a foggy understanding of the incident, and they’re skittish about discussing it openly. Textbooks don’t mention the violence that left hundreds, maybe thousands, dead in the streets of Beijing. The Chinese Internet has been scrubbed of all but the official accounts…
Protesters in Tianamen Square, June 1989

Awareness of the Tiananmen incident among young Chinese tends to correlate with education level, exposure to the world outside China, and general curiosity…

Most Chinese parents don’t talk about politics with their children, said Amy, a bright 26-year-old from Guangdong province who works for a tech company in Beijing. But she was an exception: she heard about the incident from her father. “He hated Deng Xiaoping,” she said. “He thinks Deng caused China to have no morals, no beliefs. I asked why, and he said, ‘Deng Xiaoping ordered tanks to run over college students. Do you think that’s what a good person does?’” Later, when she was attending a top university in Beijing, one of her professors showed photos and videos from the protests. “The teacher told us not to mention it outside class,” she said…
Some of the dead in Tiananmen, June 5, 1989
Everyone I talked to knew the basic outline: Student protests, government crackdown, innocent civilians shot dead. But they weren’t all sure why the protesters were so upset…

You can’t blame them for being confused. The 1989 protesters themselves didn’t know exactly what they wanted. They complained variously about high inflation, corruption, and a lack of democracy… Even if they’d agreed on a set of goals, they couldn’t agree how to achieve them: Some wanted revolution, while others pushed for incremental change.

The young people I spoke with agreed strongly that the government should not have resorted to violence. They found it ludicrous that the Chinese can’t discuss the incident freely. But they were also far from convinced that the protesters were correct…

Forgetting isn’t just easy; it’s often necessary. As Louisa Lim writes in her new book The People’s Republic of Amnesia, “moving on—not dwelling on the past—has become a key survival tactic, perhaps the most important one.” The young people I spoke with seemed torn between wanting to care, and knowing that caring wouldn’t make a difference… Susan seemed almost scared of what she herself would be capable of if she knew too much. “What am I going to do,” she said, “raise a revolution? Write an article? I can’t. I know myself, I know if I start writing I’ll be so aggressive, so critical, so negative. I don’t want to be noticed by the government.” She believes that even searching for forbidden key words could get her in trouble, she said: “They can track you down within minutes.”…

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