Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Forget Tiananmen, Welcome Confucius

The Irrawaddy News

BEIJING — Tiananmen Square is history. Or at least that is the belief shared by many on the campus of China’s top university. Students at the distinguished Beijing University, or Beida—once a hotbed of political activism and now at the forefront of China’s attempts to project soft power around the world—no longer commemorate June 4, 1989, when the Communist Party ordered a military assault on thousands of unarmed students protesting for democracy at Tiananmen Square.

A Chinese paramilitary policeman keeps watch on
Tiananmen Square in Beijing. (Photo: AFP)

In the early 1990s, clandestine candle vigils were held on that date on the banks of Beida’s No Name Lake. Small groups of students would form circles holding candles and talking about the Beijing Spring of 1989 and its quest for democracy. Hidden in the dark, these gatherings would last for an hour or so before being dispersed by university security.

On summer nights in the lead-up to the anniversary, some students would play a dangerous game of hide-and-seek with the guards, throwing bottles out of their dormitory windows—a symbolic gesture of protest against the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s decision to call out tanks against unarmed civilians in Tiananmen Square. (Xiaoping is a homonym for ‘bottle’ in Chinese.)

After all, Beida is where the trouble for the Communist leadership started in 1989—with a few political posters and student meetings swelling to protest marches to Tiananmen Square, and continuing all through the spring with peaceful sit-ins in the square, and hunger strikes to bolster demands for political reform.

On a recent day in late May, this writer—a student herself at Beijing University in those years—retraced the sites of stealthy student gatherings and audacious small acts of defiance, but found neither. Beida’s youth still crowded the benches and grass around the serenely beautiful No Name Lake, but the conversations were not about commemorating what happened 20 years ago.

Buoyed by China’s sustained economic boom, which offers opportunities unthinkable to their parents and grandparents, Beida’s students tend to believe today that China is destined to blaze a path different than the one chartered by the 1989 student leaders.

"In 1989 they (students) all believed in Western democracy. That is why they even had the Statue of Liberty on Tiananmen Square," a philosophy student surnamed Zheng told IPS. "But I think China should follow its own path of development in politics as well as economy, and not be a copycat of the West. We have done that long enough."

Such confidence is partly fueled by China’s authoritarian government’s success in delivering material goods to its people. But there are other layers too: disillusionment with the Western model of liberal capitalism during this time of global financial crisis, and newfound pride in the country’s traditional culture that is feeding a revival of the Confucian political and moral ethos.

While few of the Beida students who talked to IPS openly vindicate the bloodshed that occurred in the early hours of June 4, 1989, nearly all of them said the crackdown was necessary to prevent China from veering dangerously off its chosen path.

"There would have been chaos, and our economic development would have suffered," said another student, Lan Pingli. "But we need many years of peace, stability and economic prosperity to be able to find our own Chinese way of political governance."

If Lan sounds uncannily like a Communist propaganda apparatchik, it is because she and many others among her peers believe Beijing’s form of authoritarian governance combined with a market economy is the right formula for the world’s most populous country. They subscribe to the idea that political change will come to China not by following the western model of parliamentarian democracy, but China’s own practices.

The Communist Party, which has long regarded Confucius as a feudal thinker, has made a flip-flop, tacitly approving a state comeback for Confucianism, and even promoting it as a key aspect of an alternative political model for China.

"Confucianism has quietly come back," says Joseph Cheng, a political scientist at the City University of Hong Kong, "and the Communist leadership has been exploiting it to help fill the ideological vacuum and improve morality. It is a low-key revival, but it suits their needs to find a new cohesive force at a time when Marxism is dead but democracy is absent."

China watchers say President Hu Jintao believes this country’s rampant consumerism has left an ethical vacuum that could be filled by a return to the Confucian values of honor and decency. In a recent lecture titled 'The Socialist Concept of Honour and Disgrace,' he extolled Confucius’s "eight virtues," such as plain living and public service, and warned of his "eight disgraces," like pursuit of profit.

Some experts say the revival of Confucianism has broadened China’s political spectrum and could in the long-run serve as a basis for a new model of governance.

"What is interesting is that now there are more options on the table than compared with the 1980s, when political evolution was viewed only as a change from an authoritarian to a democratic form of government," says political theorist Daniel Bell, author of a book on China’s new Confucianism. "In China at the moment, the spirit of experimentation is prevailing."

Yet many believe that China’s political options have actually narrowed since the late 1980s, when the Communist Party crushed the pro-democracy protests.

"I don’t see any serious initiative on the part of the Communist leadership to change the current political model," says Joseph Cheng. "In fact, since the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, party leaders have shown less and less readiness to compromise on their monopoly on power."

Others say dressing its power in Confucian robes cannot help the Communist Party avoid accountability for the killings of untold numbers of unarmed civilians.

"Confucianism is against killing," says writer and social critic Yu Jie. "You cannot justify a crackdown like Tiananmen on the grounds that you were trying to keep the country on its own track."

The Communist Party has dismissed international condemnation of the violent crackdown and rebuffed all efforts to seek a re-examination of the events of June 1989. Beijing continues to defend the use of lethal force against its own citizens as a measure necessary for the stability and development of the country.

Estimates of the death toll vary widely, from a few hundred to a few thousand.

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