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Remembrance against manufactured amnesia: on the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Incident

by David Leiwei Li

History exits not because the past wishes to be excavated but because the present needs it for its self-understanding. To evoke the Tiananmen incident at considerable time and space removal from that historical trauma seems to entail an inquiry of interpretive innocence: who wish to know what and where knowing is taking place. If vision is said to be predetermined by prior experience, you see what your mind’s eye directs you, recollection has a similar conditional as well as willful characteristic, you remember what you want to remember. It seems to me that in the United States the significance of the Tiananmen crackdown is already framed in a lens through which the discourse of democracy and human rights will again celebrate itself in universal triumphalism, ready to condemn once more the Chinese tragedy twenty years ago in the nineteenth century vocabulary of “Oriental despotism.” Barbarism is the symptom of the Other from which the civilized modernity of a West-dominated late capitalism is immune.

I want to swim against this mainstream of common sense to suggest that the bloodshed at the Gate of Heavenly Peace, as Tiananmen is literally known in Chinese, is a watershed world-historic event that marks China’s compulsory participation in and the de facto completion of the civilized liberties of today’s global capitalist order. The brutal suppression of mass movements by the communist state on June 4th 1989 is succeeded by the Fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9th, 1989, the first Gulf War of 1990, the implosion of Soviet Union in 1991, Deng Xiaoping’s tour of southern China in 1992, Hong Kong repatriation into China and the end of British colonial rule in 1997, the handover of Macao in 1999, and finally the People’s Republic’s entry at the end of 2001 into The World Trade Organization. In becoming the 143rd member of the WTO, China has officially reneged its history of determined “delinking” from the world system (Amin), deliberately “connected the tracks” (Jiegui) with the global market, and successfully rounds up the world picture of neoliberal capitalism, the picture of globalization as we know it, in what should be properly called “the Reagan, Thatcher, and Deng Xiaoping Revolution.”

The impact of this revolution after the revolution seems a conclusion of the long nineteenth century colonialism, or imperialism of earlier capitalist phase, that China once adamantly resisted. Now that labor and material extraction can efficiently be divorced from territorial occupation, the end of the last millennia witnessed the inauguration of a neocolonialism, or, capitalism of the neoliberal phase. In this new era of global capitalism, states world over are forsaking their citizens, Mandarins in Mao jackets are marketers and musketeers for Wall Streets, and democracy and human rights, legacies and unfulfilled promises of liberal nation-states of old, are unmoored by the radical mobility of transnational corporations and have become pieties emptied of real significance.

The massacre on the square of Heavenly Peace only paved way for the initial boom in the southern Chinese Special Economic Zones, and the massive industrialization succeeding it has turned China into the factory of the world stocking the shopping malls of the world. By recalling June 4th in this manner, I am neither advancing any conspiracy theory nor claiming a behind the scene collusion between the Chinese communist party bosses and the company bosses from EuroAmerica. But one cannot fail to observe the marriage of convenience between strange bedfellows, when the totalitarian communist bureaucracy, in its newly incarnated rational form, submits itself to the border-transcending ideology of privatization, marketization, and deregulation. As we begin to unmask the workings of “the invisible hand” since the Tiananmen incident, the conversion of state interests into capital interests or the convergence of state and capital interests for the sake of the forever-profitable economy appear to have achieved conceptual crystallization. Post-Tiananmen Chinese governance is a model of market development administered by an autocratic state. It demythologizes the faith that capitalism is a socioeconomic force conducive to the flourish of democratic institutions, free and egalitarian societies. The short history of neoliberal capitalism since Tiananmen and the end of the Cold War has clearly disavowed the coupling between democracy and capitalism, and questions if the latter is the precondition of the former.

To resurrect the lives mowed down by the tanks, we shall not merely condemn the Other, to dig a hole under our feet and find China. Rather, we should find in the glistening high-rises of our material civilization the barbarism its shiny steel and glass, its plasma screens, and I-pod-nano are meant to deflect and refract. “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism,” writes Walter Benjamin, “barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one to another” (256). For Benjamin, an ethical way of remembrance necessarily excludes the empathetic identification with the victor of history, for such identification will “invariably benefit the rulers” (Ibid). What we ought to bear in mind is the fact that the rulers of our time are becoming more and more alike though they may be geographically apart. Without full cognizance, we are perhaps ruled not only by those who govern us with the apparent freedom of the boundless market but we are becoming rulers of our own, unwittingly abiding with such normative liberty. The post-Tiananmen world is indeed one of liberty into which the multitude is thrown, competing against each other without crutch, without rudder, and without much purpose.

It is truly sad that few contemporary Chinese is aware of the anonymous young man standing against the tanks in Tiananmen Square two decades ago, as we try to commemorate him and the event today. Most Americans, if they remember, remember it in the isolation of a once shocking image now turned banal. We attribute the Chinese amnesia to suppression by its totalitarian state, and we are all too anxious to congratulate ourselves on the blissful forgetfulness of the Kent State. Evidently, I am not equating the degree and scope of such historical violence on different sides of the Pacific at different historical junctures, neither am I condoning the brutality of both governments. What I advocate simply is that we ground our thinking and feeling both within and beyond the nation at a time when capitalism has chained our humanity in an involuntary identity.

The oblivion of history is tied to the waning of utopian imaginations, and the vanishing of the man from collective memory is nothing but the triumph of the spirit of capitalism, whose perpetual renewal of fashion and commodities hinges on the constant “creative-destruction” (Schumpeter), not only of physical landscapes, and manufactured things, but the memory inherent in animal life that makes us less barbaric. In remembering, I hope, we are becoming more human.

Works cited

Amin, Samir. Trans. Michael Wolfers. Delinking: Towards a Polycentric World. London: Zed Books, 1990.

Benjamin, Walter. Ed. with an Introduction by Hannah Arendt and Trans. by Harry Zohn. Illuminations. New York: Shocken Books, 1969.

Schumpeter, Joseph A. Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. New York: Harper, 1950.


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