Societies in Conflict
Watching American repression, 31 years after witnessing Tiananmen Square
By Craig Calhoun, on behalf of the ASU Global Futures Laboratory
On this anniversary of the Tiananmen Square repression in China, it is a shock to see something similar happening in the US. But it really shouldn’t be.
On June 4, 1989, China used massive military and police force to suppress peaceful protests. It was roundly — and rightly — condemned. In the US today, massive military and police force is also being used to suppress peaceful protests. Just as in China, the protests are calls for better treatment by the government. The repression amounts to rejection of those demands.
In 1989, Americans thought of the Chinese events as very distant reflections of problems in a very different society. Indeed, these two societies remain quite different, with the protests emerging in quite distinct conditions. The US protests of 2020 come amid the anxieties of a pandemic and the pent-up pressure of a lockdown to contain it. China’s 1989 protests came as the economy was actually opening up. Racial division is basic to US protests but figured little in China (though violent repression of minorities has grown since). Police violence precipitated the US protests; it was not significant in causing the Chinese protests. The US has also seen widespread looting; China saw little.
But then there’s the deployment of military and police. Just as in China, the US has focused on containing and confronting protestors (not on preventing looting). It is repressive, not only defensive.
Indeed, since the Cold War died down — with 1989 as a pivotal year — the US has generated massive surpluses of military equipment. The Department of Defense has provided these to local American police forces for use against American citizens rather than foreign enemies. Of course, police forces have organized forms of crime to contend with, including gangs and the international drug trade. But militarization of the police is one reason we see officers deployed in front of peaceful protestors in armored personnel carriers, carrying heavy weapons, wearing Kevlar helmets and supported by helicopters. It’s a reason we see police so clearly separated from and lined up against other citizens, standing behind shields, dressed all in black.
In China in 1989, when soldiers talked to urban citizens, they became hesitant to carry out violence against them. So when the government planned its final push against protestors, it made sure that army units were isolated before they attacked. It made sure that they would regard their fellow citizens as strangers. In the US, police adopted not just military equipment but the rhetoric of war: war on drugs, war on terror, war on crime. Problematic training taught policemen to be afraid and quick to resort to violence, presenting civilians as threats not citizens. Policies like “stop and frisk” targeted minorities in particular. This helped to drive a wedge between police and citizens.
Some police chiefs tried to change these patterns, emphasizing better community relations, reform and accountability for bad behavior. The program of militarizing police was limited amid corruption investigations and after it contributed to 2014 violence in Ferguson, Missouri — that itself anticipated today’s national crisis. But police unions not only protected violent officers and opposed reform, they called for renewed provision of military equipment. Donald Trump restored and expanded the program in 2017.
Racism in the US and democratic freedoms in China are not simply technical problems to fix. They are ways in which power and ideas are entwined in social relations and histories. Change requires social transformation. This can come gradually or abruptly, with more conscious choice or less. Social movements are efforts to shape this change.
The Tiananmen Square protests captured the world’s attention, offering inspiration about the potential for change in communist societies and even for democracy in China. At first, students and some other intellectuals — and then increasingly Chinese citizens from other walks of life, including the working class — marched, issued declarations and petitions, and occupied Tiananmen Square. Much the same happened in other Chinese cities.
The Chinese protestors of 1989 called for some democracy in a manifestly authoritarian society. These were protests against corruption, repression of free speech, and new forms of inequality. They were also protests against seeing China held back by ignorance, and leaders focused more on staying in power than on the well-being of the Chinese people or the future of the country. Protestors objected to being treated as mere subjects, rather than real citizens. The same issue is now basic to protests in Hong Kong and efforts to preserve its greater freedoms.
But for the next 30 years, the course of change in China was in the hands of those who repressed the democracy movement, not of the pro-democracy activists. Chinese leaders accomplished a remarkable economic transformation, injecting credit and cash into the system to make China more competitive, and opening up domestic and international markets. China became richer. Much poverty was eliminated, but inequality grew more extreme. Enabling people to get richer was in part a strategy for distracting them from challenging the authoritarian centralization of political power. It was reinforced by nationalism.
The American protests of 2020 are part of an effort to save and perhaps even improve democracy that has degenerated. Democracy is challenged by growing authoritarianism, collapsing trust, hyper-partisanship, and decaying or actively sabotaged institutions. Protestors call for American democracy to live up to its promises and be fully extended to all citizens. Black Lives Matter is a movement for racial justice and safety from police violence and toleration of violence by others. But it is also a call for Black Americans to have all the rights, and protections, and dignity of US citizens. Its background includes deep inequality, corruption and very different life chances.
The current mobilization is not without precedent. American society has been made and remade by social movements since its earliest years, including the anti-slavery movement before the Civil War. The 1960s saw a wide range of movements, but most importantly an enormous and partially successful struggle for Civil Rights. After years of remarkable self-restraint and non-violence in the face of violent repression, this was transformed by urban violence that exceeded the grasp of both organizers and police.
There were riots in 1968 and there have been riots since, many directly provoked by police violence. There have also been efforts to reduce discrimination, to help Black Americans gain college educations and advance in professions. It has sometimes seemed that racism was receding, but sadly it has not just persisted, it has been repeatedly renewed. It is manifest not only in police violence but also in gerrymandering and voter suppression. Black and white Americans live separate enough lives to allow whites to forget about the problem until dramatic video evidence, abuses of power and street protests remind them. These histories recurrently entangle efforts to move forward — and not only in eliminating racism or repression.
Both America and China face an enormous range of challenges and opportunities. How will they address climate change and all of its manifestations from floods to droughts, to millions of potential refugees? How will they address transformations in work and employment, including those brought by artificial intelligence and other new technologies? How will they regulate genetic engineering to minimize risks and maximize benefits? How will they recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic devastation that has followed? And how will they prepare for future pandemics and other threats?
Race is a factor in vulnerability to the COVID virus, though we don’t yet understand why or even have the demographic data for a full analysis. Early in the pandemic, China’s response was undermined by repression of even the free communication of medical knowledge. But democracies have shown striking weaknesses, too.
Racism in America and the repression of democracy in China are reminders that facing future challenges effectively depends on the strength of societies. We can enhance this or neglect it, but we cannot escape the implications.
The Tiananmen protests were not only about the rights of students but also a better future for all of China. So, too, protests in the US today are not only about ending violence against Black Americans, but also about ending the degeneration of democracy in America. Ultimately, dealing with old and unresolved issues is crucial to our capacity to deal with new ones.
Craig Calhoun was a witness to the Tiananmen Square protests and is the author of Neither Gods nor Emperors: Students and the Struggle for Democracy in China. He is University Professor of Social Science at Arizona State University.