Thursday, June 4, 2015

Westphalian sovereignty and the airbrushing of China's history

So another anniversary of the June 4th incident (known outside of China as the "Tiananmen square massacre") has rolled by, accompanied by the usual eye-catching reports of security and censorship bumped up to higher levels than normal.

According to this report by a Taiwanese newspaper, yesterday the Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying was asked an interesting question by a Spanish journalist during a routine press conference: since the Chinese government keeps asking Japan to face up to its history, when will they face up to what happened in 1989?

The spokesperson replied that the question wasn't logical, because the two things are completely different, and Japan's invasion of China has already been condemned by "international society" (perhaps she is unaware that China's actions were as well).

She then added that the Chinese government has already provided a clear verdict on what she called "the political disturbances of the late eighties" (China's official name for the events of 1989), and that China's success in its reform and opening up over the last 30 years vindicate the path that it has chosen. The Chinese Foreign Ministry's official website carries a transcript of the press conference, but rather unsurprisingly that part was cancelled.

For those who follow Chinese politics, the spokesperson's words aren't new. The Chinese government has indeed provided an official verdict of what happened in 1989, but nowadays you are only likely to come across it in propaganda directed at foreign readers, since internally it prefers not to mention the incident at all. It has been decided that letting those events slip into oblivion is safer than pressing the party line on them, and this tactic has worked pretty well, given that most young Chinese know little to nothing about that page in their country's history.

The signing of the Peace of Westphalia, 1648.

On the other hand the Spanish journalist's question is interesting, because it calls into question certain deeply held assumptions. To outsiders, it does indeed seem absurd when the Chinese government officially calls for Japan to stop "distorting history" and correct its textbooks, while so glaringly doing the same itself. However this absurdity is lost on many Chinese people, and not just because they are ignorant of their own history.

The fact is that even Chinese who are aware of the extent to which their own schoolbooks airbrush events like the Cultural Revolution and 1989 may still see no contradiction when their government condemns Japan for not recognizing the damage its army wrought in China during the Second World War. The reason lies deep within the mindset which both Chinese society and the Chinese government foster.

The way many Chinese see it, events like the Cultural Revolution and the repression of 1989 were internal matters, in which Chinese killed other Chinese, and so China has the right to remember them (or forget them) as it wishes, and this is nobody else's business. Japan's actions during World War II, however, were not an internal Japanese affair since they also involved China, and so the Chinese have a right to call for Japan to acknowledge them.

This mindset is very much in line with the basic ideology which the Chinese government promotes in international affairs. We could call it an extreme Westphalian worldview: national sovereignty is paramount. What happens in a certain country stays within that country, and no one should interfere in another nation's internal affairs, full stop. How China chooses to deal with its dissidents or with Tibet is its own internal affair, and foreigners have no right to interfere. And of course, the same goes for other countries.

This contrasts with modern Westerners' (and others) widespread belief in human rights as "universal values" which transcend national borders. There is a single human family bound in solidarity, and the "international community" has a right and a duty to take an interest and pass judgement on particular countries' "internal affairs" when human rights are being seriously breached.

In China, the government presents this sort of lofty morality as a cover which Western countries use to undermine other nations, with humanitarian interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan held up as the prime example of the hypocrisy of the Western powers. China on the other hand is presented as a benign power which never interferes in other countries' affairs, and lets every country "find its own path to development".

For people brought up with this worldview, it is perfectly logical to feel incensed about Japan not admitting its misdeeds during the Second World War, and at the same time to feel that foreigners have no right to criticize China for how it censors discussion of some episodes in its recent history. It doesn't matter if a few thousand people were killed in 1989: they were first and foremost Chinese killed within China by other Chinese, so it's no other country's business. Allowing free debate on this incident is something the Chinese will do when and if they so decide.

I personally don't subscribe to the Chinese government's worldview. I think that modern Western morality can't just be reduced to US military interventions or embargoes carried out under the cover of human rights (of course if Iraq hadn't been invaded, it might be easier to argue this point). I think the notion that we are all part of a single human family with shared values which go beyond artificial national borders is fundamentally a progressive idea, and the faster it spreads the better.

I also think it is amusing that the same Chinese government which now claims national sovereignty to be the supreme value in international affairs is still theoretically following Communism, a Western ideology which originally wanted global revolution to spread from one country to the next.

The point though is to understand that there is a clash of values, and that the Chinese government has constructed an internally coherent worldview which many Chinese find convincing. Perhaps it would have been better for the Spanish journalist to mention one of China's past foreign policy debacles, like the brief war with Vietnam in 1979. Not being an "internal affair", the comparison with Japan's history would have been more obvious.


Anonymous said...

(Test) Democracy is a human right

Renato Corsetti said...

I think that the Chinese Government is right in presuming that the western insistence about Human Rights is something you use to make problems to your enemies. USA and other western countries do not respect at home all the second part of the Convention on Human Rights from the article 25 more or less.

Renato Corsetti

Ji Xiang said...

@Renato: I agree that insistence on human rights has been used in a hypocritical way by Western countries to lash out at governments they dislike for other reasons. Just see the constant criticism of Cuba's human rights record, part of the justification for the idiotic US embargo, as compared to the much more muted criticism of terrible human rights abuses in Colombia.

My point though is that Western concern about human rights violations around the world can't just be put down to an excuse to "make problems for your enemies". When Western governments, media and societies express outrage over Saudi Arabia sentencing a blogger to 1000 lashes for insulting Islam (which just happened), is this simply a geopolitical expedient? I think it represents a genuine repulsion at a religious obscurantism which mirrors Europe's pre-enlightenment horrors. Let's remember that Saudi Arabia is generally a solid ally of Western governments.

The fact is that many Westerners have a real belief in the universal value of human rights for the whole of humanity, quite divorced from considerations of expediency. In itself this is not a bad thing. The Chinese government on the other hand adheres to a worldview where nobody should question other countries' decisions on "internal affairs", and wants its people to believe that all Western criticism of Chinese policies from any source is motivated by a plain desire to subvert the country from within.

Renato Corsetti said...

I agree that human rights have been, and still are, used as a weapon by the West. I also agree that many westerners sincerely believe in them. The power of television in the service of the western governments is indisputable.

The example of Saudi Arabia illustrates the situation perfectly: many westerners are genuinely shocked by the mediaeval barbarity of the regime, while the US remains unconcerned and cooperates with the Saudis in arranging massacres in Syria.

This is unacceptable.

justrecently said...

Mr Corsetti, I'm getting the impression that you want to put human rights violations into contexts. Is that so?

Renato Corsetti said...

Yes, it is so!

justrecently said...

Isn't there a great likelihood that the circumstances will always be blamed, before responsibilities of actual decisionmakers beyond the West - including Saudi or Syrian politicians - would be a topic? Propaganda seems to be at work on both sides of the divide ("West" and other). I see neither a complete picture nor a starting point for improvement that way.

Anonymous said...

There is no "distortion" by the CPC. Only lies by the west, as usual.

According to the Department of State, The Columbia Journalism Review, and Britain’s Daily Telegraph, the Tiananmen “massacre” never happened. Yet the “massacre” is constantly referred by Western media to this day. This is called propaganda, slander, and libel. They're all crimes committed by "Western liberal democraticies". Where is the rule of law to punish these liars?

● The Myth of Tiananmen : Columbia Journalism Review
link to????????? anti china propaganda - tiananmen debunked - 1998 - The Myth of Tiananmen and the Price of a Passive Press - Jay Mathews, ex-washington post beijing bureau chief.pdf

● What Really Happened in Tiananmen Square 25 Years Ago | Global Research - Centre for Research on Globalization
link to????????? added - white lies and propaganda - What Really Happened in Tiananmen Square 25 Years Ago - the massacre that wasn't.pdf

● China: Address Enduring Legacy of Tiananmen Massacre - YouTube
link to????????? added - case study - anti china propaganda - China Address Enduring Legacy of Tiananmen Massacre.mp4

● Tiananmen Square "Massacre"? The Power of Words vs. Silent Evidence (The Art of Media Disinformation is Hurting the World and Humanity) (Volume 2): Wei Ling Chua: 9781494326593: Books
link to??????? added - anti china propaganda - Tiananmen Square Massacre - The Power of Words vs. Silent Evidence (The Art of Media Disinformation is Hurting the World and Humanity) (Volume 2).pdf

● Wikileaks: no bloodshed inside Tiananmen Square, cables claim
link to????????? anti china propaganda - tiananmen square - Wikileaks - no bloodshed inside Tiananmen Square, cables claim.pdf

● The Tiananmen Square “Massacre”: A New Look
added - anti china propaganda - tiananmen square massacre debunked - The Tiananmen Square 'Massacre' - A New Look.pdf

● Let´s Talk About Tiananmen Square, 1989 My Hearsay is Better Than Your | nsnbc international
link to????????? white lies and propaganda and anti china propaganda - tiananmen square massacre debunked - Let’s Talk About Tiananmen Square, 1989 My Hearsay is Better Than Your Hearsay.pdf

single photo of said "thousands of massacres"?