In the lead up to the “25th Anniversary” of the Tienanmen Square Incident of 1989, we are hearing everything again of how a great sad chapter of Chinese history has been – and continue – to be covered up. A politically activist museum even opened in Hong Kong earlier this month. Old, tired politically activists are freshly interviewed by the major Western media outlets again (Guo Jian by FT, for example). New books are published, as reported, for example, in this Washington Post piece.
Even though times have changed, the narrative has not. As 1989 fades ever back further to memory, Western pundits try to re-frame the issue more and more as a current freedom of speech issue. In the Washington Post piece linked above, for example, it is reported:
The contours of today’s brash, powerful China were shaped by decisions made in the immediate aftermath of the Tiananmen crackdown.
China’s leaders are personally vulnerable because they trace their lineage to the winners of the power struggle that cleaved their party in 1989. … The party’s ultimate goal is ensuring its own survival, and it has clearly decided that it needs to keep a lid on discussion about Tiananmen in public, in private and in cyberspace.
China’s online censors are busy scrubbing allusions, no matter how elliptical, to June 4. As the anniversary nears, judging by precedents set in recent years, the list of banned words and terms will grow to include “64,” “today,” “that year,” “in memory of” and even “sensitive word.” History is apparently so dangerous that China’s version of Wikipedia, Baidu Baike, does not have an entry for the entire year of 1989.
Just days ago, I stumbled across “Tiananmen,” written by the British poet James Fenton less than two weeks after the bloody repression. A quarter-century later, his words are still true, perhaps more so even than before.
“TiananmenIs broad and clean
And you can’t tell
Where the dead have been
And you can’t tell
What happened then
And you can’t speak
I do not want to get into a political discussion of the Tienanmen incident in this post (although interested readers might refer to here). What I want to touch on here is just this notion that China is somehow being oppressive in not allowing people to have a no-holds-barred discussion of the 1989 Tienanmen incident, where fiction can be liberally presented as facts, where people are allowed to incite freely others over the events and politics related to the Tienanmen incident.
The reason China does not allow many of the so-called books on Tiananmen from the West to be published, as the Washington Post article above accuses China of, is because to be honest, the West has an infatuation with a false myth of Tiananmen – as described for example in this article titled “The Myth of Tiananmen Square” in the Columbia Journalism Review (see also this piece titled “Wikileaks: no bloodshed inside Tiananmen Square, cables claim” from the Telegraph, or this piece “Let’s Talk About Tiananmen” from nsnbc International).
Imagine if all the Chinese (media, scholars, government officials, and most citizens) are brain-washed to intensely believe all the 911 conspiracy theories that accuse the U.S. government of being the mastermind behind orchestrating and then covering up the events of 9/11/2001? How would the U.S. react the China’s incessant pushing of their version of 911 as the official truth?
Before you say nothing: imagine we live in a world where the U.S. does not have the resources and technologies to carryout widespread surveillance as the N.S.A. is doing today. Imagine also if 911 – besides being a tragedy in terms of human lives lost – is also loosely tied to a genuine political struggle in the U.S. 1Imagine also that we are living in a world where it is China that outspends the U.S. in military spending by an order of magnitude, where it is China that has an gdp per capita that is almost a magnitude larger, where it is China that has built a military alliance stringing around the world.
Would the U.S. really be that sanguine about allowing all the falsehoods to be freely promulgated?
To be truthful: in China, discussions of issues behind Tienanmen are freely tolerated – even encouraged – today. This includes discussions about official corruption, democracy, wage inequality, working conditions. What is not tolerated are foreign-sponsored color-revolution activities thinly masked as free-willy trumped up allegations, accusations, smears and out-right falsehoods.
Still not fully convinced that China is not suppressing speech on what happened in 1989 – especially when compared to the vaunted “free speech” standards of the U.S.?
Let’s move briefly away from the U.S. and compare what is accused of China with what is happening in Japan. In many ways, Japan is a better comparison than the U.S. because while Japan is still considered to be stronger than China by most measures (economic and military), it is not the world’s super power, like the U.S. While it is unfathomable how China can be a threat to the U.S. in the foreseeable future, it is not difficult to imagine how China might threaten Japan 20, 30 years down the line if both nations remain on frosty terms and if current development trajectories of both nations continue.
In Japan, recently when artist Katsuhisa Nakagaki producted artwork called for “more intellectual and thoughtful politics by protecting Article 9, acknowledging the folly of paying a pilgrimage to Yasukuni Shrine and thwarting the current administration’s right-wing slant,” the work was promptly banned by Japan’s museums.
Museums throughout the country have long faced the difficult question of whether or not to display art that could potentially be viewed as political propaganda.
The latest controversy surrounded the call for the removal of a 1.5-meter-tall dome, a piece of an exhibition by the association of contemporary sculptors held in February at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum.
The artwork by Katsuhisa Nakagaki, 70, featured messages such as: “Let us call for more intellectual and thoughtful politics by protecting Article 9, acknowledging the folly of paying a pilgrimage to Yasukuni Shrine and thwarting the current administration’s right-wing slant.”
According to the museum, the ousting of the work was warranted because of an in-house rule that states the museum “can opt out of an event endorsing or opposing a certain political party or religion.”
Nakagaki protested the museum’s decision, saying, “The museum is supposed to protect artwork.”
But in the end, he chose to have it shown without the messages, to allow his artwork to remain in the exhibition.
Akiko Komuro, deputy director of the museum, defended the ruling by citing the museum’s status as a public entity.
“As long as it is operated by taxpayer money, the museum is expected to be politically neutral,” she said.
Nobuko Takahashi, chief of the Tokyo metropolitan government’s section in charge of cultural facilities, supported the museum’s decision, saying, “An art museum is a venue for artistic expression, not a political dispute.”
But Koji Enami, professor of constitutional law at Waseda University, criticized the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum’s response as an “overreaction and misuse of its main principle.”
“Art and politics are deeply entwined, and countless numbers of artworks were created to criticize politics, including Picasso’s ‘Guernica,’ ” he said, referring to the artist’s representative piece centering on the German aerial bombing on the town of the same name in Spain in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. “The museum’s demand for the removal of artworks is rather political.”
A member of the museum staff … noted that in recent years people have grown quick to react to exhibits concerning the interpretation of history and Japan’s relations with South Korea and China.
In summer 2012, paintings and sculptures based on the theme of “comfort women” were pulled from an exhibition at the museum after talks between museum officials and representatives of the exhibition organizer. The step was taken after the museum received a flurry of inquiries from the public asking if the exhibit represented the museum’s official position on the controversial issue concerning women who were forced to provide sex to Japanese soldiers before and during World War II.
The following summer, the museum took a pre-emptive measure for an exhibition centering on a similar theme. In order to avert complaints, messages demanding compensation from the Japanese government, which were attached to photos of a comfort woman statue, and other potentially contentious articles were removed before the opening of the exhibition.
So we see what appears to be routine censorship of un-savorable political speech. Yet this is the same Japan that possesses an advanced economy and that is widely recognized in the West as free and democratic. What’s going on?
With the recent rise of S. Korea and now the rise of China, many Japanese that are raised on the mantra of the superiority of Japanese culture – of the Japanese race – are feeling more and more threatened. To protect that political identity of Japan, many feel it necessary to prevent inciteful speech, of which telling the truth about WWII atrocities are now considered a part. So now in Japan, freedom of speech is constrained to freedom to make neutral speech – which really means, freedom to be neutered speech – speech that have no political impact. And even this freedom will have to be further constrained by the soon-to-be implemented vaguely worded, draconian secrecy laws.
In Japan, in ways that is clearer than that in U.S. because Japan is more “regular” (more “mortal”, less “exceptional”) in a way that the world’s sole “super power” is not, we see how the notion of freedom of speech – of freedom itself – is more a rhetorical construct than some Universal Principle. The work of articulating and defining what freedom is or is not about is political and does not – cannot – reside in any notion of freedom itself. Instead it necessarily lies in the framing of a political agenda – or a world view that supports the political agenda – that precedes the discussion of “freedom.” Once that worldview or agenda is framed, “freedom” naturally flow.
Too often, people accuse China as lacking freedom of speech. I counter, too often, this occurs because these people do not respect – or even recognize – China’s interests, history, social-economic circumstances, geopolitical challenges. We are not arguing about “freedom” per se folks – a vacuous concept if there is one – but wrestling over the framing of the political agendas, history, culture, and politics that precede the discussion of “freedom.”
Can it be that “freedom” – like “liberation” – is in the eye of the beholder? If so – can it be presumptuous – or even insincere – to label categorically a restriction on speech as “censorship” when it might also be seen as a duty of governance?
- In my opinion, the government response to the Tienanmen Protests was only tangentially about democracy and corruption. The reason martial law was declared, the real reason things got violent, was because of the ideological struggle between factions that want China to continue opening up and factions that want to slow things down. A worker’s movement was formed and riots ensued. The movement was turning fast into a flash point for a showdown between the two political factions, a showdown that was not in the interest of the nation. ↩