Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Tiananmen Square 20th Anniversary: A Losing Battle for Traditional Information Gatekeepers

June 3, 1988, (yes, 1988 - 'the' Tiananmen Square confrontation of 1989 was an anniversary event) Tiananmen Square, Beijing: Hundreds of students march to Tiananmen Square. They were upset because a student was murdered: and they were not at all happy about the way China's leaders are running the country.

About a year later, they were back.
  • May 13, 1989, Tiananmen Square, Beijing: Thousands of students, still not at all happy with the established order, start a hunger strike in Tiananment Square.
  • May 18, 1989, Beijing: Millions of people take to the streets, supporting the students.
  • May 20, 1989, Beijing: Martial law declared.
  • June 2, 1989, Beijing: Unarmed troops enter Tiananmen Square, and are pushed back by demonstrators.
  • June 3, 1989, Beijing: Armed troops move toward Tiananmen Square. Fighting breaks out in Beijing's western and southern outskirts.
  • June 4, 1989, Beijing: Tanks and armored personnel carriers break into Tiananmen Square. Armed troops engage students and Beijing residents, inflicting casualties.
Eventually, enough people were killed, and enough students, intellectuals and labor leaders were arrested. China's leaders regained control of Tiananmen Square, along with the rest of their capital city.

(from, used w/o permission)
Tiananmen Square, 1989: A man with two shopping bags faces down four tanks.

That was Then, This is Now

Twenty years later, not much has changed - apparently.

China's leaders are still dedicated - officially - to the socioeconomic world view that Russia gave up on in the early 1990s. And protest leaders like Wang Dan are still exiled or missing.

I've detected a note of bitterness in some op-ed pieces:
"Because nothing is more important than the Global Economy, don't expect anyone other than exiled dissidents and human rights groups to note the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre...." (HeraldNet)
The old gag sums up the apparent state of China's youth: "Apathy is rampant, but who cares?" The younger generation in China doesn't seem to be as gung-ho about starting hunger strikes, carrying banners, chanting slogans, and other 'relevant' activities.

This may not be such a bad thing.
"...'Politics is not a game that we want to play or we can play,' said "Holly," a 21-year-old college student, who like the rest of the people quoted in this article, agreed to speak on condition of anonymity.

" ' "Politics is the dirtiest kind of business; stay as far as you can from it," says my grandfather,' she added. 'So, we better focus on something that we are in control of. Practicality is what today's China is all about.'..." (CNN)
China may have essentially the same leadership it had two decades back: but the country isn't as isolated. And, since China's leaders have eased up on sabotaging their country's economy (in my opinion), China's citizens are enjoying a better standard of living.

I think that knowing you have something to lose does make a difference.

So does knowing what works, and what doesn't: and doing what works. China's leaders have done their best to trivialize the Tienanmen Square debacle, and make it very clear that they don't like - or tolerate - dissent.

What Works in Berkeley, May Not in Beijing

Taking to the streets with signs and shouts may work in responsive Western countries. In places like China, you're more likely to quietly disappear. The practical outcomes of China's protests of the eighties encourage a different approach.
"... 'What happened then helped me to protect myself and my loved ones from ignorant sacrifices, which are extremely important,' said "Rodney," a 25-year-old professional who works for a company abroad.

" 'You know what? The most foolish thing is to start a fight with a mad man. So you don't let the mad man see you. You just maybe throw stones at him, without letting him know.'

"For youths, disillusioned with the system, that venue today is the Internet.

"The nation's online population is the world's largest: 298 million users -- about the size of the entire United States...." (CNN)

Pyrric Victories: Beijing and Information Technology

In the short term, China's leaders are victorious. Just like they were twenty years ago.

This year, on the eve of the Tiananmen Square massacre, they cut off access to "...Blogger, Flickr, Twitter, Livejournal, Tumblr, the Huffington Post and Microsoft's, Hotmail, its MSN Space blog tool and its new search engine Bing, according to news reports, as well as more than 6,000 Web sites affiliated with colleges and universities...." (HeraldNet)

Based on past experience with this sort of thing, people in China who understand English and aren't able to read this blog today will have access in a few days, weeks, or months.

And, they'll probably be net-savvy enough to realize that their leaders are trying to keep them ignorant. I don't think they'll like that.

In the sort term, it's a victory for China's leaders. In the long term, I don't think that alienating the most intelligent and technically astute citizens is a good idea for any government.

Winning a battle at ruinous cost is nothing new. Something upwards of two millennia ago Pyrrhus, king of Epirus, won a battle with Roman forces. "If I win a victory in one more battle with the Romans, I shall not have left a single soldier of those who crossed over with me" was his reaction. Then, in the 19th century, "Pyrrhic victory" was coined to describe a victory that cost more than it's worth.

I think that's what's happening in China, and elsewhere.

The War For Freedom

I suggested, over a year ago, that the "War on Terror" might appropriately be called the "War for Freedom." (March 18, 2008) It's easy to focus on groups like Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and the threat they present to freedoms that have been taken for granted in Western civilization. The threat is very real, but it's not the only threat to individual rights.

Leaders of communism's last major outpost, Islamic radicals, and tenured sixties radicals have something in common: they are, or were, information gatekeepers.

Before the telegraph, fax machines, and web servers replaced handwritten letters, movable type and the local pub as state-of-the-art information technology, relatively small groups of people had fairly good control over what people knew about the world outside their home town.
All the News We Feel Like Printing
In the 'good old days,' at least in America, people on the editorial board of northeastern metropolitan papers like The New York Times had enormous influence over what was, and was not, considered "fit to print." Broadcast television did not, in my view, make that much difference. ABC, NBC, CBS and NPR represented the same culture, with Los Angeles thrown in.
Politically Incorrect Ideas Need Not Apply
It was the same story in academia. Papers submitted to academic journals had to pass what's called "peer review." Ideally, peer review sorted out crackpot ideas and let well-thought-out papers through. In practice, all too often if the editors didn't like a paper's ideas - or author - the paper would never be published.

I've been told that American academia is a little more open to ideologically impure ideas than it was when I left in the eighties. I hope so: but I think there's a long way to go before "academic freedom" is no longer an oxymoron.

- - - We're Changing All That

A German technician named Gutenberg developed a technology we call movable type a few centuries ago. Movable type made it practical to mass-produce documents quickly, at relatively low cost.

Around the same time, a monk put a set of ideas up for discussion on the local bulletin board - which at that time was a church door. Luther's "Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiaru," or "Ninety-Five Theses," might have been a footnote in the intellectual history of Wittenberg: but someone copied the document. And made copies.

Thousands of them.

And Europe changed forever.
  • Northern princes freed themselves from powerful rulers of Mediterranean Europe.
  • People in northern Europe formed local and regional variations of Christianity that by now are called everything from Adventists to Waldensians.
    • The actual number is probably in the dozens, at least, but far short of the rather imaginative tens of thousands that's repeated from time to time. ("30,000 Protestant Denominations?" (undated))
  • Books - including the Bible - came down in price from the equivalent of a helicopter to around the price of a meal. ("Catholics Not Allowed to Read Bible!! Catholic Church Banned Bible Ownership!!" A Catholic Citizen in America (January 27, 2009))
I think something like that is happening now: on a global scale.

People who once controlled what 'the masses' were allowed to know, and told them how and what to think, are losing their monopoly on information channels. The old order may still control major metropolitan newspapers, broadcast television, and university curricula: But it's been about a decade, since a "Hypertext project" started evolving into the World Wide Web we know today. (More at "WorldWideWeb: Proposal for a HyperText Project" World Wide Web Consortium (undated))

Even regimes like China's, Iran's and the UAE's, have trouble keeping their subjects isolated.
Protecting the Children? Or Keeping 'the Masses' in Line?
I'd just as soon see a Web that was safer for my kids - and my computer. But I know too much history to want 'The Government' or any other authority deciding what common people are allowed to know.

Here in America, I've seen strange coalitions of evangelicals and atheists try to censor the Web. With, I trust, the best of intentions. (March 9, 2008) Several years ago, the Christian Coalition and the Feminist Majority joined forces, calling for what would have been a national censorship agency. They didn't, quite, get their way: but I think we'll see other efforts to 'protect' people from ideas that don't meet with official approval.

Exile isn't What it Used to be

When Chinese dissident Wang Dan was exiled from China, that should have been the end of his influence in China. But times have changed since Chairman Mao's day. Wang Dan lives in Los Angeles, is the Chinese Constitutional Reform Association's chairman, and stays in touch with people in China through the Internet.
He "...also believes information technology will help civil society change China in the ways for which he fought, even in the face of persistent official censorship.

" 'The Internet has changed the meaning of exile,' he said in a wide-ranging interview days before the 20th anniversary of the bloody crackdown in the heart of China's capital.

" 'I don't think we're really in exile because I use the Internet, MSN, Skype, Twitter, Facebook ... so I have a lot of contact with mainlanders,' said Wang, who was jailed twice and has not been allowed back to China since being exiled in 1998...."

"...But he insists that Communist Party rule by force and deception remains the norm and 'the basic characteristic of this government never changed.'

" 'The government has already lost control of activities of civil society on the Internet -- that's the hope,' said Wang, describing the World Wide Web as a key weapon in a struggle between state and society."

"The Internet and social-networking technology means 'more and more (of the) younger generation can find the truth, even though there's a lot of censorship,' he said...." (Reuters)
I prefer to avoid bitter recitals of what's not right.

It's better, I think, to follow Wang Dan's lead, and look at the radical changes we've seen in the last few decades.

Information Age technology, and deep-rooted concerns about freedom of expression, have put facts and opinions back where they belong - in the hands of the people. As I wrote in another post, "Knowledge is power: and I like power."

Related posts: News and views: Background: Related posts, on censorship, propaganda, and freedom of speech.

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Note! Although I believe that these websites and blogs are useful resources for understanding the War on Terror, I do not necessarily agree with their opinions. 1 1 Given a recent misunderstanding of the phrase "useful resources," a clarification: I do not limit my reading to resources which support my views, or even to those which appear to be accurate. Reading opinions contrary to what I believed has been very useful at times: sometimes verifying my previous assumptions, sometimes encouraging me to change them.

Even resources which, in my opinion, are simply inaccurate are sometimes useful: these can give valuable insights into why some people or groups believe what they do.

In short, It is my opinion that some of the resources in this blogroll are neither accurate, nor unbiased. I do, however, believe that they are useful in understanding the War on Terror, the many versions of Islam, terrorism, and related topics.