“China After Tian’anmen“
The New York Review of Books
31 March 2014
Those among us who watch these sorts of things, but who don’t talk about them, share a quiet understanding that 2014 is one of those little anniversary years in China.
The fourth of May marks the 95th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement, a 1919 grassroots nationalist campaign protesting the Chinese government’s handling of the Versailles treaty, a key event in the history of the Chinese revolution. The first of October marks the 65th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China; and the fourth of June marks the 25th anniversary of the incident in Beijing’s main public square in 1989.
It is perhaps this latter milestone that inspired Rowena He to pen her new Tiananmen Exiles, and that inspired Perry Link to write the foreword to that book. The foreword is excerpted in Link’s NYRB essay.
In his article, Link takes us through the background of China’s modern social contract: the shock of the June 4th incident was followed by a concerted effort on the part of the Party to shift the nation’s focus away from politics and toward prosperity. Commerce, opportunity, rising living standards and the social stability that made all of them possible absorbed the attention of the nation for the next two decades. The quid pro quo, of course, was that the people would not ask hard questions of their leaders.
For a generation, this approach has yielded great success as China’s economy continued to rise on the back of consistent and high economic growth. But the number of people enjoying consistently rising standards of living is falling, and the nation faces simultaneous crises in both the environment and ethics. As Link notes:
At a deeper level, though, Chinese people (like any) do not feel secure in a system built on lies. The wealthy send their money abroad—and their children, too, for education. In 2013 several surveys and reports showed sharp increases in the plans of whole families, especially among the wealthy, to emigrate, and there is no reason to think that poorer people would not follow this trend if they had the means.
The nation’s most prosperous are turning into a quiet flood of refugees to societies with rule of law, strong ethical systems, and who place limits on opportunity in favor of a better lifestyle.
Link summarizes a narrative familiar to many of us. It does more than simply justify the current silent exodus: it sets the stage for the next act in China’s economic and political evolution.