JUNE 4 marks the 25th anniversary of Beijing’s military crackdown on student demonstrators who occupied Tiananmen Square and demanded clean government and free speech.
Like the 24 anniversaries before this one, silence is all that will likely be heard on the part of the Chinese government — or silencing of those trying to commemorate it. To understand this incomprehensible denial, it helps to know an age-old Chinese dilemma: How does it become modern, to remain Chinese and not become Westernized?
The Communist government may have crushed Tiananmen 25 years ago to prevent any development of Western-style democracy. An imperial government first tried 150 years ago to modernize the Middle Kingdom without Westernizing it.
China’s first modernization reform, known paradoxically as the “Western Matters Movement,” took place from the 1860s to 1890s, following the country’s defeat in the Opium War. With the slogan “Learning barbarians’ skills to strengthen China,” it was a movement of learning from the West about building mines, factories, railroads, schools and a navy in order to maintain the Qing dynasty rule. One reform leader was Zhang Zhidong, a governor, who summed up the kind of education China needed in this well-known expression: “Chinese learning for essence; Western learning for utility.” His idea prevailed, in the era of the Communist Party, too.
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Mao Zedong, for instance, carried out the Cultural Revolution to prevent a “peaceful evolution” in China by the West. But he also launched the Great Leap Forward, with its infamous backyard steel furnaces, for China to catch up with the utility of the West, namely the industrial production of Great Britain and the United States.
Deng Xiaoping was more successful in getting China rich by adopting a market economy through the Four Modernizations program launched in the late 1970s. However, he made no mistake about the utility side of things: modernization of industry, modernization of agriculture, modernization of science and technology and modernization of defense. One man named Wei Jingsheng who dared to call for a fifth modernization, democracy, was put in jail and later exiled to the U.S.
By cracking down on the Tiananmen demonstration while continuing China’s economic reforms, the Communist Party leaders proved themselves to be the latter day comrades of Gov. Zhang of the Qing dynasty. When tasked with modernizing China, they made the same choice: Western industry and commerce, yes; Western political system, no.
To Yang Jisheng, author of “Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962,” all economic reform and no political reform is but a modern version of “Chinese learning for essence; Western learning for utility” of the late Qing dynasty.
With President Xi Jinping now at China’s helm presiding over the second largest economy in the world, balancing Chinese essence and Western utility has only become harder.
If for a Qing government in the 19th century the “Chinese essence” meant Chinese culture and philosophy, in the 21st century under the Communist Party that essence has evolved to mean socialism with Chinese characteristics more than anything else.
If a Qing China welcomed Western utility such as mining and railroad, today’s China Inc. embraces everything Western and capitalistic, from stock markets to private property, from latest mobile technology to latest fashion, from American college education to European shopping. The only Western thing that is unacceptable is democracy.
During a visit to Belgium in April, Xi told his audience that China had tried everything — constitutional monarchy, imperial restoration, parliamentarianism, multiparty system and presidential system — but none worked. In early May, he called on university students in Beijing to establish core socialist values, a combination of Chinese cultural tradition and socialist qualities. He then reiterated that although it would learn from the best of the world’s civilizations, China would not copy development models of other countries.
There may be silence in Beijing over Tiananmen for the 25th time. Raging behind the red tower is a last-ditch defense by the Communist Party to keep China from becoming democratized.
Wendy Liu is a writer from Mercer Island. Her upcoming book is titled “My First Impression of China — Washingtonians’ First Trips to the Middle Kingdom.”