“The Tiananmen Question”

Wednesday, 26th January 2011 at 15:44 UTC 7 comments

It is probably one of the most iconic protest photos in history. A single human facing down a huge, ugly symbol of totalitarianism. China’s recent history has shown that capitalism is more than capable of thriving in the absence of human rights and freedoms that many in the West have long contended go hand in hand with economic liberalism.

It certainly used to be the prevailing narrative that you either had a planned economy through authoritarianism or a Liberal Democracy; free markets alongside free speech. But in Tiananmen Square and the decades that have followed that assumption has been shown to be false. There are two possible conclusions: that there simply isn’t a correlation between free markets and human rights or that there is a negative correlation, whereby free markets thrive in authoritarian regimes.

If the latter is true, then the Tiananmen Question is simply this: should a country allow human rights at the peril of the market economy, or put the market first and hold back human rights to protect business interests?

The US PATRIOT act amongst other Western legislation in the last decade has sought to classify an attack on business interests as an affront to national security, and thus, by implication, business interests trump human interests. The trade agreements of the last two decades almost all contain clauses that restrict or prevent government’s from acting in the interests of their citizens or the environment if a (usually foreign) business deems it a barrier to profit.

Against a backdrop of rhetoric of expanding freedom and democracy, America and Europe appear to be giving a rather different answer to the Tiananmen Question. Kettling and threats of water cannons being brought into Central London to punish protesters plus the rising use of CCTV cameras that form part of traffic observation systems to catch dissidents (the method employed by China to crackdown after Tiananmen) should cause us to wonder whether quietly, behind closed doors, a completely different answer is being given to the trade off between human rights and profit.

I suspect my outlook on this issue is partly generational: I did not grow up aware of the Cold War, where leftwing ideology was pitted against the values of “Liberal Democracy”. Those who appeal to the notion of a Liberal Democratic Ideal tend to get laughed at by many, especially those not familiar with the academic arguments for such a thing. For the ordinary 20 something in the street, it doesn’t look like free enterprise as a human right, so much as business interest as a barrier to progressive, socialist, humane, community-oriented values.

Far from the ideological discourses of Anarchism, Communism, Socialism and so forth, this is a question we can and should raise amongst everyone, before it is simply too late. It should be a question anyone can understand, no matter their knowledge of Marx or their following of world politics. It has been presented time and time again to the British public in the media and in everyday lives. The Tesco store opening in a community with plenty of local shops, the imposition of Starbucks and McDonalds, the recent revelations of police infiltration of protest groups on both sides of the Atlantic.

With pro-democracy protesters in Egypt being condemned by Hilary Clinton, who seems quite happy to support the dictator Mubarak, it becomes a question we must be not only quick to answer, but also proactive over. We can be fairly certain from recent  behaviour that the government of Britain has its own priorities, and in choosing differently we may pay a high price. Not stepping up to the challenge, however, will do us no credit in the eyes of future generations.


Entry filed under: Britain, Corporations, Free Speech, Freedom, Human Rights, Participation, Police, Politics.

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Greg  |  Wednesday, 26th January 2011 at 17:52 UTC

    Umm, China was communist last time I checked. Using Tiananmen Square as an example of the evils of capitalism isn’t going to work, in fact it rather gives the lie to the rest of your post.

    As for having Starbucks ‘imposed’ on us, “imposed” is a bit rich when nobody’s coerced into going there. If people don’t like Starbucks, all they have to do is stay away from it – aout a year ago they closed 600 stores in the US.

    • 2. Graham Martin  |  Wednesday, 26th January 2011 at 19:18 UTC

      With that much free enterprise going on? Hardly a worker-controlled, planned economy, is it? A rising tier of business owners free from state/party control? Sounds more like capitalism to me…

  • 3. Greg  |  Wednesday, 26th January 2011 at 22:46 UTC

    To take another event from the same year, are you about to say that the people who pushed down the Berlin Wall were protesting against capitalism? If you just use the word as a label for whatever gets your goat, how do you expect to be taken seriously?

    • 4. Graham Martin  |  Thursday, 27th January 2011 at 17:54 UTC

      The point. You’ve missed it.

  • 5. Greg  |  Saturday, 29th January 2011 at 19:11 UTC

    If you stuck to using the accepted meanings of capitalist and communist rather than reverting to “whatever Graham doesn’t like” and “what Graham does like”, your point would be easier to grasp. This would involve you dropping your weird form of reverse McCarthyism where you see capitalism everywhere, including in the world’s largest communist government.

  • 6. Graham Martin  |  Monday, 31st January 2011 at 17:20 UTC

    Please please explain the critical characteristics of communism from your point of view and then explain how China, a country with a burgeoning business class and widespread private enterprise, fulfils these.

  • 7. Greg  |  Monday, 31st January 2011 at 22:39 UTC

    Well let me see
    1) We’re not talking about the present,since the Tiananmen Square massacre was 22 years ago in 1989.
    2) That’s only 13 years after the Cultural Revolution. If you want to borrow my copy of Wild Swans, you can read what a properly oppressive and properly not capitalist government is like.
    3) China is governed by the Communist Party.

    Ergo, blaming Tiananmen Square on the evils of capitalism makes as much sense as hailing Robert Mugabe as the leader of the free world.

    Now, would you like to defend your ridiculous idea that a massacre carried out by the largest communist government in the world was the fault of capitalism?


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