Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Revisiting June 4, 1989: Implications for Rising Individualism

Two years ago today, this blog posted on the meaning of the Tiananmen Incident for the ethnic Chinese populations living around the world, noting that the failure for resolution, reconciliation, and above all, lack of official apology, continue to be a painful patch of darkness in the minds of millions.  Certainly, this point is all the truer today on the Incident's 25th anniversary than it has ever been.  But as that two-year post has also noted, today's China is no longer the China of 1989, a much more complex place where sheer weight of economic development has wrecked havoc on the very social fabric.

And it would perhaps be, therefore, interesting to speculate just how the very (albeit limited) remembrance of June 4th among China's domestic audience resonates with China's own monumental societal changes.  It is accompanied foremost by the transformation of how individuals think about China, its government, and its relationship with the world, both as a more economically successful country as well as one that is open in a way that expose its continued conflicts with both internal and external foes.  In one word, China has become more individualistic, a place where people have more venues to think and express for themselves.

This notion is extremely ironic.  After all, it took one brand of "individualism," i.e. the capacity to think and express that the government should behave differently, to launch the June 4th movement in the first place.  But in the years of "pure" economic development (without political tempering of any sort), that crushed sense of individualism has re-manifested itself in the Chinese society, most chiefly in the various forms of SNS that spread new, original ideas to large audiences in a short period of time.  People, now armed with new-found wealth and tools, could potentially pursue activities that make the government nervous.

Except...the people no longer have that "out-of-box thinking" that led the students to the streets in Beijing.  Stumbling through a phone interview with an unnameable Chinese firm today, the author was surprised by how businesslike the whole conversation was, despite the sensitivity of the date.  It certainly was business as usual in China, with people spending and earning just like any other day of the year, with only the faintest of voices calling their attention toward the anniversary of the event.  People are expending all their innovative juices on how to better make money, not on discussions that change the society at a more fundamental way.

June 4th, 1989 never suppressed the growing tide of individualism that took over China in the years after the economic reforms.  Instead, the Incident redirected that raw energy of individualism.  With openness came previously inaccessible information of foreign lands, on all topics and issues.  But instead of discussing the good and bad of political systems and civic societies of foreign countries as was the case in pre-1989 days, today's young and energetic in China are strictly focused on the lavish: the brands, the lifestyles, the fashion statements, and all materialistic things that makes the foreigners oh so enviable.

That combination of individualism and capitalism is literally saving the bigwigs of the Chinese Communist Party from having to make the same horrible decision they did as they saw what was unfolding on Tiananmen Square.  People are simply too busy to make the money they need to live similar lifestyles they see from abroad to bother with political thinking.  In fact, many people are jumping into Communist Party memberships and cushy public servant positions just to make those dreams more possible.  The public's capitalist desires have only made the Communist Party stronger in the years since.

It is too funny that people argue the next June 4th is nearly here, citing the massive increases in social protests in China during the past few years.  These people have obviously failed to spot the fundamental difference between the anti-government protests of today and those prior to the Incident.  While the protesters of yesteryear called for abstract ideas like "human dignity" and "freedom of choice," the ones of today are so much more practical.  They demand land, increased salaries, protection of property, and all the economic incentives that come with prosperity.  They target not the entire system, and are easily bought off.

Outside observers like the author can only lament the passing of the morally righteous individualism from China's burgeoning civic society since the days of the reform.  Yes, people care about equality, they care about environment, and they care about good governance.  But they do out of self-interest, out of their personal betterment from potential changes, but not the same ideals of a more positive unknown that underlay the 1989 student movements.  Those students may have been naive about what they really wanted, but they dared to dream of some completely new.  That strand of individualism is all but dead in China today.

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