Xu Youyu (徐友渔): From 1989 to 2009: 20 Years of Evolution in Chinese Thought (2/2)

180During Mother’s Day weekend on May 10th, a number of intellectuals in Beijing organized a seminar discussing 20 years of the democracy movement in China. The seminar started with a moment of silence, paying tribute to the Tiananmen Mothers.

Xu Youyu (徐友渔), professor and researcher at Philosophy Institute of The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), presented the following text at the seminar, from peacehall.com, translated by E. Shih. This is Part II of his talk. Part I is here:

Ideological Fantasy is Shattered by the Sound of Guns

In order to explain the severity and deep ramifications of the June 4th gunning, I would like to say that the old ideology has such a long history and such a strong, tough hold that the people would never have been free of it without the fresh blood of June Fourth. In order to demonstrate the ideology’s insidious, barely perceptible powers of osmosis, I will add boldly an observation of 1989 that will most certainly be controversial: In fact, a significant portion of the spiritual resources supporting the 1989 student movement came from the Chinese Communist Party’s ideology. The effectiveness of this ideology was destroyed in its self-massacre.

It’s not that the students did not know how serious the consequences could be for rushing out of the school gates into the streets and squares for a mass protest under Communist Party rule. That’s only one side of the story. The other side of the story is that the CCP has been indoctrinating students on campus with teachings on “May Fourth,” “January 29th,” and “the Patriotic Students Movement,” and these movements became a mobilizing spiritual force. They seeded a deep belief in the students of their own legitimacy and of justice, so that they truly believed that the connection between the values of “patriotism, democracy” and the movement was natural.

As a revolutionary party, the CCP knows well how to wield the resources of ethnic history. It incorporated “May Fourth” and “January 29th” into its own ideological system, but it did not fully understand the double-edged nature of these resources. In reality, students in the “August Ninth People’s Movement” thought of themselves as the successors of the “May Fourth” and “January 29th” spirit. During that time, I heard directly and indirectly of CCP officials passing on their past revolutionary experiences to the students. The spiritual resonance on both sides was very natural. I should also mention that, out of ideological habit, the regime for the most part endorsed the students’ “passionate patriotism” in abstract terms. This, no doubt, made the students feel that their actions were continuous with and not rebelling against the heritage of recent Chinese revolutionism. Not until the guns sounded were they shocked by the regime’s sudden about-face.

After the June Fourth suppression, the regime fabricated a theory of “liberalized intellectuals” being the grand “puppet master” behind the students’ actions: the black threads ran from Fang Lizhi to his wife Li Shuxian to student leader Wang Dan to regular students. Even if we put aside the fact that this theory is extremely far-fetched, and assume for a moment that there was such a black thread in addition to the influence of the general intellectual atmosphere of the time upon students, we could not explain why tens of thousands of students—who had passed through political background checks in order to enter college in the first place—would become “anti-party and anti-socialism.”

I remember clearly going to Tiananmen Square in May of 1989 and trying to persuade the Beijing Steel and Iron Institute (now the University of Science and Technology Beijing) students who were meditating there in protest to go back to school. I said the troops were about to enter the city, and the suppression was about to start. Two doctoral students said without a second thought, “Why would the people’s army suppress us?” The students’ naiveté and earnestness make me sigh even today.

The students were as such, and civilians were generally not far off. Beijing citizens blocked military vehicles and martial officers from entering the city, while simultaneously bringing food and drink to the troops in support of their men. When the guns were fired, the people’s first reaction was shock and hurt, followed by rage.

During the 1989 Tiananmen Incident, a student movement leader said, just before the violent suppression began, that they would use fresh blood to awaken the Chinese people. These words were unfortunately prescient. Using such methods and paying such a price to obtain an understanding of Chinese history and political reality is particularly unfortunate; but the kind-hearted Chinese people could not have woken up with a jolt if not for this cruel blow.

From Democracy to Human Rights and Legalization

The heart of the 1989 student movement’s demands was democracy, and it brought with it a strong sense of justice-seeking within the system. We can see this from the seven demands of the April 18 petition that the students sent to the standing committee of the People’s Congress. The first demand was a fair evaluation of Hu Yaobang. The second was a disavowal of the “spiritual purge” and “anti-liberalization” movements. The third was the disclosure of property records for leaders and their children. The fourth asked for the end of media censorship and a new media law. The fifth asked for increased educational funds and a salary raise for intellectuals. The sixth asked for the annulment of Beijing’s anti-demonstration rules. The seventh asked for unrestricted reporting on student activities.

This is a clear reflection of the demands for human rights and legalization that came 20 years later. We could say that “Charter 08” has distilled the demands for human rights and legalization.

To start with fundamentals, democracy and human rights are universal values that are sought after by peoples across the world. However, in China’s specific situation, democracy has actually become a familiar mainstream ideological concept. The Chinese Communist Party is a bad match for democracy, whether in terms of structural principles or in executed action; yet it has inherited the May Fourth concept of “democracy” in name. Furthermore, it successfully wielded this concept in the battle for legitimacy with the Kuomintang, using the slogan “We Want Democracy.”

To the current regime, “human rights” is a more sensitive term than “democracy,” and to Chinese people who are fighting for democracy, it is also a bolder concept. Only with that meaning in mind can we understand the scene described by Bao Zunxin in his memoire, June Fourth Behind the Scenes: an Incomplete Nirvana: On January 28, 1989, a group of intellectuals gathered at the Doule Bookstore in Beijing. Fang Lizhi made a speech calling for human rights, and the response was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop. The whole gathering fell into an awkward silence.

After 20 years, the clearest change and contrast in thought is that 20 years ago, everyone was focused on culture; and now, the focal point is on political system. The atmosphere that dominated society in the 80s was “culture fever,” and at the heart of it was “aesthetics fever.” Other hot topics—such as humanism, alienation, subjectivity and an East-West dialectic—all had metaphysical abstractness. As for the sensational political debate television series, “River Elegy,” that was even more clearly using a discourse of civilizational and cultural type—the so-called yellow civilization in contrast with the blue civilization—to analyze China’s practical choices in the real world. This situation has shown itself to have limits, and refracted the frustration. Because of censorship, the people had no choice but to turn their practical anti-authoritarian criticism into a criticism of feudalistic culture. The limitation of this approach was that the intellectual circles were stuck in a rut, discussing problems of “ultimate compassion,” and had no interest or psychological strategies for facing the large-scale changes in society. It is very clear that the intellectuals were at a total loss for strategy in 1989, whether it was in terms of thought or in terms of knowledge.

20 years later the situation is fundamentally different, because for these 20 years the core of Chinese thought has had a momentous turn: from abstraction to the concrete, from ultimate compassion to scrutiny of policy arrangements. The core of knowledge has also had a momentous turn: from a humanities spirit towards social science, from philosophy and aesthetics towards economics, law, sociology, political science, etc. The legislative demands embody the thinking of current Chinese thought apropos of future nation-building principles and policy arrangement for China. Recently, the emergence of various events in support of rights shows that the demand for human rights has deepened and become more concrete in the past 20 years.

Persisting in Logical and Gradual Change

In the 20 years from 1989 to 2009, the Chinese people have had something continuous and stubbornly unchanging: a non-violent, logical, and gradual mode of change.

Non-violent protest was the unchanging principle of the 1989 democracy movement. The identification with, advocacy of and loyalty to this principle was a special characteristic of that movement, and it was not easy to come by. In several thousand years of Chinese history, the unchanging rule was that of one tyranny replacing another. Among civilians, the idea of taking “the justice of heaven” into ones own hands was very deeply rooted, as well. As for this generation of young people, the influence of “classics” such as Mao Zedong’s “Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan” taught them that it took brains and courage to abandon their arms, to seek dialogue, and to consider compromise. This “89” generation achieved this stance as a result of the ideological tradition of self-examination and critique.

In the past 20 years, the people’s understanding of the principle of non-violence has continued to become clearer and deeper. The generation that has experienced the christening of “89” have advocated and remained loyal to this principle as they aided the base level of human rights activism. Combined with the methods of legalizing human rights, this has in recent years had a positive effect on the development and success of human rights activism, as well as China’s legalization.

After “89,” the outstanding change in China’s thought has been an abandonment of zealous revolutionary ideology. This kind of change has far-reaching ramifications for China as it moves towards modern political civilization. However, in the development of thought, another tendency has also been spawning, and that is a growing cynicism.

On top of the suppression of mass movement and the purge that quickly followed in the wake of a mass social movement, there was an encroaching get-rich-quick opportunism and trend of going private in the 1990s. This environment led many people to quickly change their mindset from one of grief and anger to one of obedience. Others, in defense of their current way of life, began advocating a certain kind of historical and life philosophy on the level of thought. Their concepts implied that a definitive rupture with the old radical ideology entailed writing off all mass protest. Some even advocated a “paycheck philosophy” in the name of “saying farewell to the revolution,” which was a philosophy of obedience and cynicism.

Clearly, abandoning radicalism is not equal to not demanding any sort of change; insisting upon a logical and gradual method is not equal to accepting the present situation in a total absence of critique and resistance. Rejecting a totalistic philosophy does not equal not taking no responsibility for society. Currently, the regime relies entirely upon lies and terror to maintain a status quo; today’s Chinese society exists in an atmosphere and ethical situation of no truth-telling and no justice-seeking. The Chinese people who experienced and inherited the spirit of “89” are strongly advocating a kind of assertive civil society consciousness, civic ethics and civic duty. They insist that everyone should say what they really think, and work diligently to change the status quo; that no one can simply accept a life of terror and alienation, and be satisfied in self-preservation and personal benefit.

From 1989 to 2009, the face and social psychology of China’s society has undergone an enormous change. Yet the standard of thought and knowledge capability of the leaders who took the political stage after “89” did not change. They did not absorb any lessons from the “89” incident; they took no direction from the process of democratization in Taiwan. By contrast, the Chinese people who experienced and inherited the spirit of “89” never stopped learning, thinking and probing. They become more mature by the day. They use their strong will to suffer through the darkness, and use the light of their thought to welcome the future.

Posted: Friday, May 15, 2009

Please also read Cui Weiping: Why Do We Need to Talk About June 4th? on CDT.