TOM PLATE WRITES – This is about the downside of overwrought moralizing. For inconvenient truths must be carefully considered on this week marking the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square uprising and suppression. Much is at risk in the clarity and ethical framework with which the U.S. views China – and vice versa.
The truths presented here are not so obvious. The American perspective tends toward rank propaganda – a reconstruction of the past driven by the political interests of the present – just as Beijing tries to float the pretence that this infamous event was minor – as if some misty mythology to be hung out to dry along with other phantoms of the new Cold War opera.
One starting truth is that, even to this day, no one has nailed down precisely what happened at Tiananmen, such as how many people were actually killed by government troops – hundreds? or (some say) thousands? No one knows the extent to which troops were provoked – or all the myriad motivations of the various interests involved in that tragic swirl on the square. Nor can anyone say for sure how insane was the rulers’ decision that the upheaval was an existential threat – or whether, put most unkindly, the judgment of Deng Xiaoping and his inner circle was clouded by undiagnosed post-Cultural Revolution post-traumatic stress disorder. Perhaps the mere sight of marauding young people wanting to run things pulsated through panicked old men like serial electric shock.
And it is quite uncertain whether Western hands were all that clean in the mess; whether journalists took sides, some pitching in to help protestors strategize for maximum media play; or even whether the protestors’ commitment to Western democracy was as universally shared in that square as consistently reported by foreign media.
With each new annual degree of separation from the original 1989 actuality, the potential for unreality looms larger than ever – sometimes morphing into blatant impropaganda, as it were. But not being able to comprehend exactly what did happen decades ago never seems to muffle the roar on this international memorial day of political sermonizing. Given all the added tension, recrimination and trust-evaporation between China and the U.S., this incautious cacophony is especially disturbing, even pre-war-like in its blindness to nuance.
Decades after Tiananmen, when what we know for sure has to be weighed against what for sure we don’t, we are perched unsteadily on the edge of a grand canyon of possible unreality: historical memory. And this is a slippery place: Compared to properly documented history, historical memory is like a permanent rumor mill grinding away in the hearts of angered peoples and nations – not easily dislodged or, worse yet, easily weaponized into hatred and churned into a ‘just’ war.
So if the desirable goal between two nations is peaceful, productive relations, hurling impropaganda each other’s way becomes the enemy of road of reconciliation. In the gutsy book, ‘In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies’ (Yale University Press), author/policy analyst David Rieff wrote: “Far from political remembrance being always a moral imperative, there will be times when such remembrance is what stands in the way…of the hard work of forgiveness….”
To put it less elegantly, when you dislike a person, you look at them and every blemish on their face becomes an affront. In truth, there is right now no lecturing of China that rises above superpower politics. Americans must come to terms with that. From this nation that, for all its founding ideals, has committed violations of human rights and humanitarian law, abroad and at home, our sermons on the mount of ‘American Exceptionalism’ ring not of freedom but hypocrisy – or self-deception. And this is hardly due to President Donald Trump alone but to a long legacy of mixed moral messages and missed opportunities, along with our actual national triumphs that we are not loath to trumpet.
In America’s piling-on of negativity toward ‘the other’ superpower, let us not forget the unwise contributions of some China ‘scholars’ and ‘experts’ who jump on these Tiananmen anniversaries like trigger-happy big-game hunters with licenses to kill. As the French historian Jacques Le Goff (1924-2014) remarked, “Memory only seeks to rescue the past in order to serve the present and the future.” Undoubtedly, many people inside China welcome the West’s posturing in the hope that relentless hammering will marinate into regime change. While misconceived, that attitude is not hard to understand.
The government of the People’s Republic of China currently has an image problem in the West driven in part by the realities of its rougher policies and harder attitudes. Tensions tighten with every tit-for-tat tariff tweet from Trump – and from Beijing’s every bitter counter-tariff-return of disservice. But even if the regime were to change colors before next year’s 4 June Tiananmen ritual dirge, would the replacement look like a lovely rainbow or the meanest of typhoons?
The Communist Party of China has many faults – not wholly unlike (please permit me) America’s Republican (GOP) and Democratic (DNP) parties, whose diminished capacities are now so fully on display. But to blanket only with condemnation modern China’s guiding institution that helped countless citizens up the economic ladder after decades of misery is to deny one of history’s great astonishments.
The memory of Tiananmen should remain embedded in history – entrusted solely to honest historians. In this instance, disputed memory is working to poison relations between China and America, which already contains more than enough gravamen that’s begging to be addressed, some of it urgently. The question for America this 4 June is: Does it want to be ‘right’, or effective? Philosopher George Santayana is often quoted with something like: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But memory is a tricky thing, and too much ‘remembrance’ might imprison us with the wrong lessons.
Tom Plate is the Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University and the vice president of the Pacific Century Institute. An earlier version of this column appeared in the South China Morning Post of Hong Kong, to which Professor Plate is a regular contributor.