Thursday, June 4, 2015

Westphalian sovereignty and the airbrushing of China's history

 And 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.