J.C. Peters

11 June 2009

Tiananmen square

REVOLUTIONS MAY BE inspired by philosophers, they are started by the commoners. By the ones who've got nothing to lose and everything to gain; laid off factory workers, students without career prospects, soldiers fighting an endless war they don't understand.


The only time people really stand up to their leaders, demanding change, reform and rolling heads, is when they're completely out of options. The French people didn't storm the Bastille because they wanted to reform their government into a democratic republic upholding the rule of law, they stormed it because they didn't have any more bread left (hearing of this, Marie Antoinette famously advised them to eat cookies instead)


On June 4th 1989, Liu Suli stood in front of a rolling tank at Beijing's Tiananmen square, armed with nothing but a plastic bag and a determined mind. Trying to circumvent Liu, the tank moved, but Liu moved with it, maintaining his position. The tank moved again, and Liu moved again.


That day, Liu won the battle, but lost the war. The protesters -demanding political reform- were crushed by the military, killing hundreds (some say thousands). Liu Suli himself was imprisoned but survived. Today, he's 49 years old and has a cafe / bookstore in Beijing, close to Peking University.


Here's what the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has learned since that day: People don't give a shit about democracy. They don't give a shit about political reform and they don't give a shit about civil liberties. People care about stability, jobs, security, cars, cell phones and sex.


Therefore, there has been little political reform in China since 1989, but a lot of economic reform. The CCP is still all powerful, but the most important principle of communism -all available goods and resources are shared by everybody- has been replaced by the most important principle of capitalism: the right to individual ownership. As a result, the country has thrived economically, rewarding entrepreneurship, hard work and creativity.


A couple of weeks ago students at Peking University were asked about their thoughts on the 20th anniversary of'Tiananmen Square'. Most of them only had a vague notion of it, or had never heard of it at all. After talking about it a bit, they agreed political reforms in China were necessary, but that reform would eventually happen by itself and no protests were necessary. In reality, they were much more occupied by the financial crisis and the (current) problem of getting a good job after graduation.


But like NASA, the Chinese government doesn't take any risks. So, last week, it took every precaution to make sure nobody and nothing in China commemorated the 20th anniversary of the student protests (/killings). Blocking thousands of websites, including Twitter, Flickr, Windows Live and Youtube, they aimed to keep history where it already was: in the past.


And while the students are busy caring about getting a good job, the Chinese government is tightening its grip on their internet access and freedom of speech. This week, it issued a directive requiring all personal computers to be equipped with a new software program called 'Green Dam'. This program will enable the government to block all manner of content, monitor individual internet usage and collect personal information. In essence, it will create a Brave New World.


Companies like Dell, Lenovo and Hewlett-Packard are still 'studying' the new rules, declining to comment. In the end they will of course do what powerful Yellow-bellies like Yahoo, Google and Microsoft did before them: comply. (after all, 'Resistance is futile'). At the end of the day, it's always about the all mighty Renminbi.


Maybe we should hope the next financial crisis is worse.