I. Ground Rules
1. This will be an essay format, with few links, which would only serve to get me in trouble.
2. My language might be a tad bit crude. Do not allow young children to read, or if you do, please sit with them and explain what all the swear words mean so they can follow my rant dutifully.
3. There will be no images of the events of 21 years ago. You never know who might be looking at this stuff. Given the recent troubles experienced by china/divide, I figured I should play it a bit safe.
4. Please finish reading the entire post before sending in your profanity-laced comments. I’m not guaranteeing that you will change your mind by the time you finish reading, but since I’m taking the time to rant, the least you can do is peruse the whole thing.
II. Something Happened in Beijing a Few Years Ago
With that out of the way, let’s turn to the news of the day. From the stuff in my Inbox, it appears as though many folks are commemorating some sort of anniversary that occurred a few years back, perhaps in the neighborhood of 21 years ago.
I’m going off of third party sources here since I wasn’t anywhere near Beijing at the time. I didn’t arrive until late 1998. Come to think of it, a lot of the people that seem to be so emotionally attached to this particular anniversary were not living in Beijing back then either. I’ll get back to that in a moment.
I have difficulty getting emotional about events that took place a long time ago, in places I wasn’t living at the time, that involve people I didn’t know, and have to do with issues I don’t really care about.
But that’s just me. I have difficulty getting emotional about a lot of other things, too. This might explain why those two doctors from the New England Journal of Medicine contacted me 15 years ago about that study of sociopathy. I never did write them back — didn’t give a shit.
So I’m looking at this with a great deal of detachment, pretty much the same level of feeling I get when I think about the 9/11 attacks: I would rather these things not have happened, but beyond that, it’s just another loss of life that doesn’t effect me personally. More people die in auto accidents every year, or from heart disease or Hep-B.
Have I sufficiently established my credentials as an insufferable bastard? I think we can move on.
III. Peering Through the Tian An Door
At the risk of getting into a long discussion of what exactly happened 21 years ago, I still find it odd that most written accounts focus almost completely on a widespread political struggle that supposedly existed. With the exception of a limited number of students (whose numbers dwindled significantly as time wore on — probably out of justifiable fear), I’ve yet to read a credible account of a serious political struggle that was going on at the time.
What do I mean by “serious political struggle”? Well, first of all, this was not an organized movement that included a significant portion of the population. Yeah, I know, neither were the Bolsheviks in 1917. Good point, but those guys were hard core, just ask Kerensky. As idealistic as these students were, they don’t belong in the same category as Lenin and his comrades.1
Second, I don’t really see any struggle going on. There was a protracted protest, and those sorts of things can definitely lead to political turmoil, but a real struggle takes a lot more time and involves an actual plan. No overarching strategic maneuvering going on 21 years ago.
Third, a lot of the activity had nothing to do with politics. Sure, there were definitely a lot of pissed off people running around and, eventually, getting smacked around by the imported defense forces. By and large, though, a poor economy (specifically a high rate of inflation) was the reason for the majority of the discontent, not political ideology. Lots of folks will quarrel with that interpretation, I’m sure, but that’s what I was taught in school.
And yet all these retrospectives make it look like Danton and Robespierre were running around Beijing fighting against the Ancien Régime. I do believe that some folks have selective memories.
IV. Depends on Who You Ask
Sometimes my usual apathy crosses over into actual annoyance. This is surprising insofar as I usually don’t give a shit (see above). However, I think my reasons are justifiable.
I tend to get pissed off on a category basis, depending of who is doing the talking. To wit:
1. Foreigners who were in Beijing back in the day that give “first-hand accounts.” I will cut these guys some slack if they confine their comments to what they saw first hand, or if they happened to have other direct knowledge of what was going on. That’s just fine and dandy.
Unfortunately, a lot of expats who just happened to find themselves in the city when the shit hit the fan seem to think that they are experts on the subject.
Just because I was living in LA in 1992, this doesn’t make me an expert on the sociopolitical underpinnings of the Rodney King riots. CNN did not go out and find middle-class white kids (e.g. me) for television interviews. And yet they do the exact same thing with any American expat who was in China during the “troubles,” whether they were hiding in their hotel room or out on the street.
Annoying, yes? To recap: “The General Manager of the factory I was visiting died in my arms on a street corner after being shot through the throat” — acceptable; but “Not that I was involved, but this was the greatest political struggle since Gandhi” — not acceptable.
2. Professional activists. I sympathize with anyone who gets shot at (or is shot, for that matter), loses a friend, or is otherwise traumatized. As the proud holder of a degree in history, I also appreciate it when individuals with firsthand knowledge of historical events document their experience.
That being said, many people have taken their experiences of 21 years ago and turned them into careers — this pisses me off. Whenever the U.S. Congress schedules one of their periodic hearings about China’s dirty deeds, some Congressional staffer consults his Rolodex (sorry, I’m dating myself here) and calls up one of these professional activists who dredges up the same old stories in an attempt to tarnish the image of the current occupants of Zhongnanhai. They love ‘em on Capitol Hill.
Many of them have ulterior motives as well: pushing books they’ve written, seeking tenure at a university or a position at a think tank, proselytizing for Jesus, or simply being as large an irritant to the Chinese government as possible. I don’t need any of it, thank you very much.
3. Expats or offshore foreigners with really strong opinions. If someone knows what they are talking about, that’s fine. However, 99% of the folks over here (I’m in Boston at the moment) have no clue and say really stupid things about what happened in Beijing. Most of them know that something occurred in Beijing, it was bad, it involved a tank, it was televised for a while (and therefore important), and the people getting shot at were heroes. Again, these people should go away and piss off at their leisure.
4. Chinese nationals who were not involved 21 years ago or were too young. This is pretty much the only group of people with which I have no beef, probably because they have no opinion on the subject all. As time goes on, and the educational system does its magic, the usual response to the question “What do you think about what happened 21 years ago?” is “Huh?”
All right, I think I’ve sufficiently upset as many people as possible, so time to wrap this up. Am I taking life and death events too lightly? Indeed I am. Everyone else does too, and we’re all selective about it. Why should we be particularly outraged by this act of violence by a government and not, for example, give a flying *#)% about drone attacks in Afghanistan or wars of aggression?
However you all want to justify your selective outrage is fine with me. Speaking for myself (of course), I will be sitting out this particular anniversary, awaiting something more relevant.