Uncivil Society, or, Orientalism and Tiananmen, 1989
Cultural Logic: An Electronic Journal of Marxist Theory and Practice, 2009
37 Pages Posted: 2 Dec 2009 Last revised: 22 Apr 2010
Date Written: November 1, 2008
This essay focuses on a watershed moment in Western and global understandings of China: the “democracy movement” of Tiananmen, 1989. The enduring resonance of this event within Euro-American minds is shown in part by the anonymous “Tank Man” winning a spot on Time’s “Top 100 People of the Century,” the ongoing circulation of the image of the students’ Goddess of Democracy statue, and U.S. outrage over Chinese protests against the NATO bombing of their embassy in Belgrade. In both the social imaginary of the West and within Area studies, “Tiananmen” marked the birth (or resurgence) of “civil society” in China, and thus also of the modern, liberal, free subject of capitalist democracy. No longer, then, are the P.R.C. and the Chinese seen as ultimately, essentially different, but are now (slowly but surely) following the same, universal developmental path. This chapter details the basic events of the Tiananmen event, as well as their interpretation in Area studies and journalism. But it also recovers, via a reading of selected documents, poems and slogans from the Square, some of the ‘forgotten’ aspects of the movement, such as Maoist and pro-state rhetoric, and the activities of the autonomous workers’ federations. The latter details, as well as insights derived from critical Chinese intellectuals like Wang Hui, Liu Kang and Zhang Xudong, militate against the Sinological re-inscription of the events into a Western narrative of freedom and development, and reveal the “positional superiority” of the orientalist (Said). From here, I argue that this new orientalism not only takes as its object a textual ‘China,’ but in fact indexes and helps constitute the identity of the West, and “America” in particular.
Keywords: orientalism, Tiananmen, democracy, civil society, postcolonialism
JEL Classification: A14, P39
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation