A lot of folks are posting about the Tiananmen Square massacre today, of course. I thought we should share it too, but I wanted to write a little bit about what was explained to me about what happened in the spring of 1989 that the western media often overlooks.
I am a 1.5 generation Chinese American leftist. I was two when the massacre happened. My sister had just been born. My father, who immigrated from China to Hong Kong when he was a toddler to escape the Cultural Revolution, and then Hong Kong to the United States to go to college, tells me he was seeking work in China around this time.
Several summers ago, when we were traveling together in China, he told me about what he understood about Tiananmen Square from his perspective as a young, newly naturalized American citizen who still had deep ties to the motherland. He told me the sense of unrest was not just about state control of the media and politics, but a sense that the state was also imposing capitalist reforms on the Chinese economy without input from the people, and with clear preferential treatment for party cadres and others who had an “in” with the powers that be. Students were upset and anxious about what looked like unilateral decisions about the future that weren’t just about opening markets, they were about neoliberalising the country.
When I think about what’s happening in Istanbul, Turkey, I can’t help but think about this. When we remember Tiananmen Square, I hope we remember that this wasn’t necessarily about the struggle of democracy versus Communism, but that it was about people who wanted to take part in determining the future of their country, and who rejected nepotistic neoliberal reforms. Just like with the media narrative around Gezi, American audiences risk being turned around. A million people don’t turn out and go on hunger strikes against their own self-interest. There’s more to this story than meets the eye.
Remember Tiananmen, but remember it for what it was: young Chinese students and workers resisting their country “modernizing” in the age of Reagan, the godfather of neoliberalism. This is the same ideology that young Turkish students and workers are resisting in Istanbul. It’s the same ideology that has decimated the U.S. economy and that we resist when we say “another world is possible.”
When we ask why the Chinese government still hasn’t admitted that Tiananmen even happened, we should remember that China today is just as cutthroat and capitalistic in some ways as the United States is. They have delivered on neoliberalism, but in the style of an autocratic state, where nepotism and party connections had more to do with business success than anything. Students and workers in China in 1989 were emphatically saying no to this system.