It is easy to feel a sense of cognitive dissonance visiting Tiananmen Square. I went there because it was the site of one of the great, albeit unsuccessful, popular protests of the modern era. While large, the square itself is rather plain, except for the gigantic flat screen displays that continually carry pictures of national sites and happy citizens. There is the Forbidden City to the North with Mao’s picture over the entrance, the Great Hall of the People to the West, Mao’s Mausoleum sort of in the middle and the National Museum of China on the Eastern edge. All these are of interest in their own right and great testaments to the taste in monumental architecture popular with authoritarian regimes, whatever their political stripe. The overt presence of the military and security forces appears remarkably light. In most respects the square bears no evidence of the momentous event that took place there some 24 years ago.
Except for one thing; there were a considerable number of fire extinguishers placed around the square and in front of the Tiananmen Gate, the entrance to the Forbidden City. Since there was nothing flammable around this was rather puzzling. That is until I realized that they were there to deal with the threat of protestors resorting to self-immolation as a way of dramatizing their opposition to the policies of the Chinese government and Communist Party. Back on 23 January 2001, seven people attempted to set themselves on fire and five died as a result of their action. There have been other such incidents, not in Beijing, but elsewhere in China, particularly Tibet.
This was a visible admission of China’s leadership’s appreciation for its tenuous hold on power. According to many sources there are more than a hundred thousand protests, demonstrations, acts of civil disobedience and riots in China every year. The government and Communist Party can deal with these so long as they remain relatively small, and more importantly, out of sight. This would not be the case if a protest took place in Tiananmen Square. A protest by suicide, and self-immolation in particular, raises the central question: how bad are things in China if someone is willing to die a gruesome and painful death rather than live with the lack of personal, ethnic, religious, political or economic freedoms? Committing such an act in Tiananmen Square, the site of the 1989 protests that nearly toppled the Chinese government, would be particularly significant and threatening.
Behind the strategic placement of fire extinguishers around the square is the reality that the Communist Party knows that its hold on power is tenuous, at best. This is one reason why the new leadership is casting about for a definition of the Chinese Dream. What it has come up with so far, in the words of Xi Jinping, the nation’s new President, is “to achieve great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” While some official sources have suggested that Xi’s remarks reflect the desire to build a modern, prosperous nation, other observers both at home and abroad, have suggested that the phrase really reflects the desire to erase the sense of shame that lingers from the era of unequal treaties and foreign invasions, establish China as a world power and free it from having to operate by the rules of an international system that it did not create. In other words, the dream is to recreate the Middle Kingdom on a global scale.
Neither interpretation of the Chinese Dream addresses the need of all people to have some personal and political autonomy. Raising living standards is important but there comes a time when individuals ask the question “is that all there is?” When the Chinese people start asking this question, there won’t be enough fire extinguishers in the country to put out the blaze.
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