The ghosts of Tiananmen


Ten years after the Tiananmen massacre of 1989 I wrote a book, Bad Elements, about the fate of the protesters, dissidents and free-spirited Chinese who had wanted to change their country. Much had changed in those ten years, and even more has changed since. New buildings, ever taller, ever bigger, have made cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing virtually unrecognisable to anyone who has been away for longer than six months. Old neighbourhoods disappear overnight, to be replaced by high rises, shopping malls and theme parks, sometimes replicating in miniature, or in painted concrete, razed ancient landmarks. This isn’t just a matter of economic growth; it is a transformation. So was I wrong to detect a whiff of decay in the authoritarian one-party state when I travelled in the People’s Republic of China ten years ago? Was I misguided in my belief that the dissident “bad elements” still mattered? It is not hard to find educated, prosperous citizens in the wealthier coastal regions who will say so. The foreign traveller in China today will often be told, sometimes in excellent English, that the country is not yet ready for the freedoms my dissidents demanded. China is too big, one hears, too large, too old, the Chinese masses are too uneducated, in fact, China is just too damned complicated for democracy to take root. The whip-hand of authoritarian rule is still essential to keep chaos at bay and enable prosperity. Democracy is a luxury to be enjoyed after wealth and education; first food and shelter, then, possibly, freedom.

more from Ian Buruma at Prospect Magazine here.