Chaos Theory

Last week I carefully broached the subject of Tian’anmen Square with one of my co-workers. Together we looked through a series of pictures from that day from The Atlantic (excellent), which sparked a very interesting, and yet minimally productive conversation. It was her first time seeing evidence of civilian casualties, and I explained that no one was certain how many students and workers had died in the Square, but most foreign sources say hundreds. With the ongoing violence in Syria (which she is following), this wasn’t an easy idea to accept.

So I told her that I had never really heard about June 4th from a Chinese view, and asked her to tell me what it had been like.

She said here in Nanjing and in Beijing many workers and students gathered to protest against the gov’t. Some of them might have been working with foreign gov’ts and that many others had joined in. On the third, the students had attacked the military. She emphasized that just like with Syria it was sad anytime civilians were killed by their gov’t.

But she didn’t stop there. “You know, they were blocking the roads and it made traffic very bad. And all of the factories had to close. Nobody was working. It was chaos. The gov’t had to stop it. You can’t just have people not working and blocking traffic.”

Even though this co-worker is critical of most of what the Party says, and was willing to accept that the number of students was probably higher than what had been reported in China, she couldn’t shake this fear of chaos.

Then in Hangzhou yesterday, I got into a cab operated by a Christian. I could tell this because of a small plastic box on his dash that preached the Gospel for him with the push of a button. Over the crackly hymn he shouted back to me, “You know, our government is really terrible. Just terrible.”

“Oh,” I said.

“Yeah, we all want to get rid of them but what can we do? I’m a patriot, and I know they are no good for China, but if we over throw them there will be chaos…”

This fear of chaos is pervasive, and is reproduced over and over again in China’s media. Discussion of the Arab Spring had very little to do with the power of the people, or their desire to shape their own countries; instead it focused on what the GDP losses must have been for Egypt with all those people milling about in Tahir Squarethe soaring prices of tomatoes, and the unnecessary casualties. If one took People’s Daily and Global Times seriously, they would assume that most of the world remains plunged in chaos with no end in site. In fact the word “chaos” appears on at least a weekly if not daily basis in both papers.

A major hurdle for Chinese democracy activists will be convincing their fellow countrymen that change doesn’t have to be chaotic. Unfortunately, most Chinese people have very vivid memories of chaos, while democracy is an intangible idea that has never been seen by the majority of people. In this way, the tragedies of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution have helped to cement the Party’s power.

For political reform to be a palatable option, activists will have to demonstrate on some scale that reform and revolution are very different things. Only by convincing farmers and factory workers that democracy is a way to a greater form of stability, one that doesn’t require Chengguan or Weibo censors and could protect their property and wages, will they succeed.

16 responses to “Chaos Theory”

  1. sinostand says:

    I’ve similarly talked to many who make the argument that the government had to stop the protests at Tiananmen – which is fair. But then I ask why they didn’t do so with tear gas, rubber bullets and riot gear instead of the tanks and real bullets they did use. That question alone makes defending the suppression quite a bit harder.

  2. Not only Chinese. The American head of an organization promoting US-China trade recently said at a public meeting at a US academic institution he felt PRC had to do what they did on 6/4/89 to prevent a return to the “chaos” of the Cultural Revolution. I don’t know if this was to curry favor with Chinese government or if he really believed this. Out of maybe a hundred people at the event, I was the only one there to publicly challenge his assertion that the non-violent democracy protestors would have inevitably given rise to a new generation of “Red Guards”. He felt the crackdown was a necessary evil to prevent the greater evil, to use your word, that of chaos. I added that the accounts I read emphasized most casualties occurred among Beijing residents and in neighborhoods surrounding TS trying to stop the PLA’s advance into the Square not in the resistance of the demonstrators.

  3. 34f67dg72 says:

    I certainly agree that democracy would make China more stable. But on the other hand, it is still difficult to see exactly how it can get there peacefully and smoothly. It’s the transition that’s the problem.

  4. BB says:

    I think you hit the nail right on the head. “Chaos” seems to strike fear into the hearts of Chinese. Perhaps because of all the violent revolutions that overthrew previous dynasties and the KMT government, people immediately associate “new government” with “revolution and chaos”. At any rate, I find the response of the Chinese government to Tian’anmen indefensible as lethal force was deployed instead of exhausting each and every other option first. More so, I think the government missed an excellent opportunity to start implementation of gradual political reforms at that time. Instead they keep resorting to violence, fear and intimidation to keep chaos at bay.

    • James says:

      The violence, fear-mongering, and intimidation are just to keep a tight grip on power. They only claim it is to keep chaos at bay.

      I think a discussion of the root causes of why the average person in China fears chaos so much, and why they view it as inevitable if the government changes, would be interesting.

      • BB says:

        Poor wording on my part. Perhaps “to keep change at bay” would have been more appropriate. And I fully agree that it would be interesting, and valuable, if there would be discussions on chaos and change in China. Of course the CPC would do everything in its power to nip such discussions in the bud.

      • James says:

        I’m sure that the government mouthpieces would all claim that past incidents in China’s history “prove” that chaos is inevitable in China without strong leadership. Such a claim assumes that the people and attitudes are unchanged by time and knowledge.

        What interests me is what specific parts of the culture / attitudes / values of the average Chinese person makes them believe that Chaos would inevitably come.

        I’ve talked with enough people in China, from a broad cross-section, over a decade, and most of the people I talked with at least repeated the sentiment that change must come slowly, or Chaos would come – and it seemed they truly believed it.

        Perhaps it was only inculcated in them by their schooling, but I would have thought that more than just a handful would have dropped that belief if it wasn’t bourne out by their daily observations of life and culture around them.

      • Chopstik says:

        The chaos that the government is there to prevent in the eyes of many Chinese today is the chaos that the government itself induced during the Great Leap Forward and especially during the Cultural Revolution. Regardless of how the government remembers (or ignores) those events, most people who lived through them fear a return to the chaos and anarchy that were so prevalent at those times and therefore are willing to allow themselves to believe that the continuity of the government is the only that prevents a return to those days – ignoring the obvious fact that it was the government that created the situation in the first place. The government simply continues to harp on that fear in the hopes that it will dupe enough of the people to prevent a general uprising – in much the same way that other governments (US/Europe and the general fear of “Islamist” philosophy?) do the same thing to deflect attention away from issues within the existing governmental structures themselves. It is, unfortunately, not something that is particular only to China – though it is probably more egregious than many others.

  5. real name says:

    “… died in the Square, but most foreign sources say hundreds”
    hi Tom, please do not mix TAM events with deaths, the most of deaths were out of square
    (linked article (in Slovak) contains reply from american journalist spent night there: “… I am unaware about any deaths in the square”)

    • Tom says:

      This is semantics, in the US people don’t know what June 4th is, they know what Tian’anmen square is (most take this to mean the crackdown itself, in retaliation for the democracy protests).
      This is the same semantic game the Japanese play with the Rape of Nanking, where they don’t count anyone killed outside the city walls as a death in Nanjing. The name of the event carries meaning beyond the location, and for most of my readers these two, June 4th and Tian’anmen Square are synonymous.

  6. Yaxue C. says:

    Two or three days ago, I woke up from a night of solid, dreamless sleep with this thought, crystal clear as though someone wrote it on my blank forehead:

    “After decades of strongman’s rule, China is on the verge of a chaos: Strongmen are no more, people–who have been fooled and deprived–are powerless and clueless, and all the chickens are coming home to roost.”

    If chaos breaks out one day in China, it would not be because of the Party’s rule, not the other way around. The best hope for China, as far as I can imagine now, is, when that time comes, enough Chinese will realize what’s best for China, and the international community will help facilitate that.

    • Yaxue C. says:

      Ooops, I mean “it would be because of the Party’s rule, not the other way around.”

  7. buzzsargent says:

    Change is painful and more often than not is chaotic. The PRC pledges its loyalty to the Communist Part and not the Government of China. Any break or hint of change in attitude with respect to this will be totally unacceptable.

  8. Joel says:

    The theme of fear of chaos stretches back in Chinese culture long before the PRC. It came up in some of our first culture readings on China way back in the day. One that I can remember was based out of Hong Kong (Beyond the Chinese Face). Makes sense to me, given the multiple successive generations that suffered in chaos.

  9. […] but on those topics and others related to this post I also highly recommend the always-impressive Seeing Red in China blog. Here some related stuff from […]

  10. […] this. After all, they got their fill of the chaos that revolution brings during Mao’s reign. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, and a successful movement is going to have to reassure the people that what they are doing is not […]

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