Another Tiananmen anniversary

And so the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the climax of China’s aborted revolution of 1989, rolls around again.

Not much has changed in the last four years – you can read what I wrote about the subject then:

Chinese democratisation, and how it happens, will be the biggest story in this part of the world for the next few decades. We try to avert our eyes from it, but Deng’s successors know that they are sitting on a powder keg. Economic crisis could set off another rebellion, but so could continued prosperity: no modern government has ever been able to provide material comfort to its citizens without ultimately provoking demands for liberty and democracy.

None of this, of course, registers on western diplomacy. China’s rulers are treated as if they are a civilised government like any other, rather than a regime held in power solely by military force. But that too is not unusual; historically, outside help for the oppressed is the exception rather than the rule.

Most people have had to fight alone for their freedom. China’s did twenty years ago, one day they will again.

But the United States last week gave a demonstration (quite possibly inadvertently) of just how sensitive China is about the issue. A brief statement on the anniversary from the State Department brought forth an indignant reaction from the Chinese government, which called on the US to “discard political prejudice … immediately rectify its wrongdoings and stop interfering in China’s internal affairs.”

The context is a simmering tension over Chinese and American military postures, although both sides seem to be trying to downplay its seriousness. There remains the dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which I blogged about a few months ago, but everyone concerned is keen for that not to get out of hand.

Australia, of course, continues to shy away from criticism of China – recall the embarrassing instance of Julia Gillard being praised by the Chinese media for refusing to meet the Dalai Lama. But with expectations of a change of government in September, many might be wondering whether the Coalition, with its history of anti-communism, could adopt a more sceptical approach.

But if an incident last week is any guide, the oppressed peoples of the world don’t have much to hope for from a Coalition government. Shadow foreign minister Julie Bishop spoke at the Canberra launch of a Beijing-organised propaganda fest on Tibet; Chinese media apparently reported her as praising the exhibit and saying it would “dramatically enhance the understanding of Tibet”.

It’s entirely possible that Bishop has been verballed by the Chinese, but her efforts to exculpate herself were not very convincing; according to the Age they included the remarkable claim that “she was unaware of the Dalai Lama’s visit.” Bob Carr’s spokesman delicately twisted the knife, saying that “if Ms Bishop had attended the exhibition aware of what she was endorsing, this was her right, but if she had endorsed it unintentionally, she needed to be more careful.”

Lest we should need reminding, since at least the late 1970s appeasement of China has been a thoroughly bipartisan project. Our political parties these days have no more ideological content than the Chinese Communist Party; perhaps it’s not surprising that they get on so well together.

Probably the best that can be said for Bishop is that she might not be quite as embarrassing for Australia as Alexander Downer was. But that’s setting a very low bar.


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