How Tiananmen is shaping the modern world

Rare Historical Photos A Chinese man stands alone to block a line of tanks heading east on Beijing’s Cangan Boulevard in Tiananmen Square, on on June 5, 1989.

In retrospect, Jesus Jones’ 1990 hit, Right Here, Right Now was out of date even by the time it was released. It’s a paean to the optimism of 1989, when it seemed that “the world could change in the blink of an eye”. In many ways, it was understandable: the Berlin Wall had fallen along with European Communism – in fact, Jesus Jones had performed in Romania immediately after the collapse of the Ceausescu regime.

But the event which arguably did more to shape the modern world – and not for the better – had befallen six months earlier. For a brief, flickering moment in the northern summer of ‘89, it had seemed as if one fifth of the world’s population might finally be freed of the yoke of the communist regime with had murdered tens of millions of its people, and oppressed billions, for four brutal decades.

Then, on June 4, 1989, the flickering gleam of Chinese freedom was brutally extinguished. But what followed forged a template by which the Western world is increasingly being moulded.

Thirty years ago in early summer the Chinese army and security forces slaughtered several hundreds, perhaps thousands, of student demonstrators crowded into the centre of Beijing, running them over with tanks, shooting them in doorways. Since then the whole apparatus of a surveillance state has been deployed to suppress the collective memory of this bloody event.

Firstly, let’s not forget the horror of what unfolded on that night.

On the evening of June 3, paratroopers from the 15th Airborne division, faces smeared black, were transported by a secret underground train into the centre of the capital to work with paramilitary police and commandos to crush the demonstrators. Columns of tanks moved in from the suburbs. The following day, blood flowed. It was a shaming one-sided battle. Many bodies disappeared. Stories about some army units refusing to fire were hushed up. Secret service “cleaners” were sent abroad to track down dissidents. And across the country there descended a pall of silence.

China became, in the words of writer Louisa Lim, the People’s Republic of Amnesia. Within a year 12 per cent of newspapers had been shut down, 32 million books seized, 150 films banned and many tens of thousands arrested.

ABC’s Four Corners special, a mix of archival footage and contemporary interviews, is must-watch.

It’s easy to write off Tiananmen as just a Chinese tragedy, but that is a foolishly blind view. Western leaders and businesses have been only too willing to turn a blind eye to Beijing’s crimes. To understand the enormity of this complicity, imagine an alternative-history scenario where a triumphant Third Reich in Europe has successfully suppressed all memory of its crimes – the plot of Robert Harris’s Fatherland – with the complicity of the rest of the world.

But the same Western corporations who endlessly bludgeon us “deplorables” with their “progressive” finger-wagging are not just happy to ignore China’s brutal oppression. They’re also using Beijing’s technological authoritarianism as the model for their own plutocratic tyranny.

That graveyard calm has not lifted to this day. Censorship, made slicker with algorithms, is almost total…Xi Jinping has drawn his own conclusion from western complaisance. It’s OK to repress the opposition but ill-advised to slaughter them wholesale. As a result technology is being developed at breakneck speed, and tested at scale, to identify non-conformists and place them in a virtual cage…this is supported by a dense network of cameras and an army of data analysts.

When Silicon Valley elites collude to silence and un-person dissenters from Tommy Robertson to Lauren Southern, they’re following in China’s footsteps.

China has the edge. As the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari has argued, technology can favour tyranny. Artificial intelligence will allow autocrats to consolidate power, to centralise it, to override privacy; the sheer mass of information being gathered by the Chinese authorities makes dissidents more vulnerable than at any time in history.

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In his 1984, Spring: A choice of futures, Arthur C. Clarke optimistically wrote that modern communications technology would spell the end of authoritarianism. As first the Chinese and now we in the West are learning, Big Data technology is the handmaid of tyranny.

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