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 Square, the 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.