Today marks the 25th anniversary of the most indelible image of the doomed Chinese democratic movement – a lone protester, blocking the tanks in Tiananmen Square. And we naive westerners actually believed that global media exposure would weaken the autocracy.
It’s downright embarrassing to recall our giddy optimism, our faith in the power of television (the cutting- edge medium of 1989) to expose tyrants and democratize the world. And I echoed that optimism, because here’s what I wrote 25 years ago: “Move over, Mao.”
Hey, not a bad opening line. Plus, I wrote this: “The ubiquity of the networks…has helped undermine the credibility of the communist regime.” And this: “(The) greatest power no longer comes from the barrel of a gun, as Mao said, but instead from the lens of a camera.”
That’s what network sources and media commentators were telling me, anyway. Ed Joyce, a former president of CBS News, said to me, “It’s a fascinating time to be alive, isn’t it?” And Scott Miller, a prominent New York advertising guy, was arguably the giddiest of all: “TV is the ultimate weapon of revolution and change. It’s a naturally democratizing tool because it empowers individuals….It’s the technological counterweight to despotism.”
Well. We’re all a lot wiser today, aren’t we?
The miracles and wonders of 1989 – videotaping the Chinese tanks; feeding the cassettes to couriers; flying the couriers to Hong Kong, where the material was beamed to America via satellite – have long since yielded to the miracles and wonders of social media. Nevertheless, despotism remains endemic, certainly in the Middle East despite the social media-inspired Arab Spring – but especially in China, where the regime uses digital technology as an instrument of oppression.
Most Chinese young people don’t even know about the Tiananmen Square protests – much less the subsequent massacre – because the historic truths have been purged from the Internet. The government employs “scrubbers” who sustain the purge 24/7, and they’re very meticulous. It’s even impossible to search the term “4/6” because that’s a synonym for “June 4,” the date of the massacre.
Even those who are dimly aware of what happened in 1989 lack the curiosity to learn more. As Beijing journalist Helen Gao wrote this week in The New York Times: “When I returned to China after finishing college in the United States in 2012, I was shocked to discover how few of my friends use VPN, software that allows one to scale China’s Great Firewall and access blocked sites like Twitter and other media platforms. Well-educated and worldly, they nonetheless see censorship more as a nuisance of daily life, something to be begrudgingly endured, rather than an infringement on their freedom of speech.” They’ve been conditioned by the regime to eschew politics, in favor of “economic advancement.”
That’s how despotism works in the digital age. Foreign policy journalist William Dobson said several years ago, in his book The Dictator’s Learning Curve, that the old-school tyrants would never make it today because their atrocities would wind up on YouTube. Smart tyrants cleanse the Internet, monitor social media (to ensure that small protests don’t mestasize), and steer their citizens toward what Gao calls “concrete symbols of success: a college diploma, a prestigious job, a car, an apartment.”
So much for the giddiness I echoed in ’89, when I wrote that Chinese oppression had been outed by the global village, “giving the lie to the ’60s maxim that the revolution will not be televised.” I need to amend that. The revolution can indeed be televised, and even stoked by crowdsourcing. But thanks to the dictator’s learning curve, there are no guarantees whatsoever that the revolution can be sustained.
I wrote here yesterday about red-state Mississippi’s cognitive dissonance – OK, its rank hypocrisy – as it assails the evils of Washington socialism, while simultaneously pocketing prodigious amounts of socialist lucre. For every dollar in federal taxes paid, it gets back $3.07 in federal aid. In terms of federal aid as a percentage of state revenue, Mississippi is tops in the land.
And today we have two smart commentators joining the fun.
Gail Collins at The Times has a great statistic: the state’s cotton farmers got $4.6 billion in federal subsidies between 1995 and 2012, with the brunt of that welfare going to the richest of the farmers. (I guess these Republicans believe in “small government” only when the recipients are poor.) And over at The Washington Post, E. J. Dionne has a great quote. He wondered how Mississippians can diss D.C. while vacuuming its money, and one local guy told him, “Our anti-Washington politics has been to make sure that we got as much of it here as we could.”
Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1