How Would Facing Its Past Change China’s Future?

In the latest ChinaFile conversation, David Wertime asks the question: How Would Facing Its Past Change China’s Future?

Several prominent China commentators are in general consensus is that an official accounting of Tiananmen is necessary, inevitable, and unforeseeable in the near future. The post gives a more measured, insightful consideration of the issue than much of the mainstream coverage of yesterday’s anniversary.

Ouyang Bin, veteran Chinese journalist and ChinaFile’s associate editor recounts his time as a university student in Beijing, many years after the event:

The day was a dangerous, forbidden, tantalizing secret, especially when people abruptly veered away from talk of it if they felt the conversation might touch on this time and place.

For most Chinese people who can remember it, June 4 is best ignored, Bin says.

Wu Guogang, one of the first students at Peking University when it reopened after the Cultural Revolution and ex-editorialist of the People’s Daily, reflects on Deng Xiaoping’s famous slogan “in solidarity look forward” (tuanjie yizhi xiang qian kan)—a slogan that can be interpreted as a reproach to avoid facing the past.

In the 1980s, Deng’s slogan was mocked and rewritten as “in unity looking at money” (xiang qian kan). If only my fellow Chinese could see a chance to make money in the past, they definitely would remember the past, face the past, and make use of the past. Otherwise, there is no such thing called the past.

Columbia University Professor Andrew J. Nathan says an official re-examination of June 4th is a slope too slippery for China’s current leaders to consider.

If June Fourth can be mentioned, the legitimacy of the current leaders can be examined: they are the heirs of Jiang Zemin, who was installed in 1989 in an illegal coup by Deng Xiaoping. If June Fourth can be mentioned, the issue it was all about can be raised: democracy.

For Asia Society’s Orville Schell, the question exemplifies a Western paradigm which might not necessarily apply in China. Schell suggests it is borne out of the Freudian notion that the individual and the society must be introspective, life must be continually examined and that remembering the past helps us to understand our psychological formation and only by doing so do we remain humane and functional.

Nevertheless, admits Schell:

Such may sound like an indelibly Western notion steeped irrevocably in Judeo-Christian kultur with little relevance to Eastern cultures. But, in this day and age, you do not have to a follower of Sigmund Freud to believe that a healthy person, like a healthy society, almost inevitably needs to come to terms with who, or what, it is. To do that effectively, the always-painful process of engaging the gears of historical memory is almost inevitable. For the Chinese Communist Party to imagine that it alone might somehow be exempt from this ineluctable verity would seem arrogant folly.

Read the full exchange, with additional contributions, via ChinaFile. See also more about June 4th via CDT.

Open popup

Welcome back!

CDT is a non-profit media site, and we need your support. Your contribution will help us provide more translations, breaking news, and other content you love.