“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” — Benjamin Franklin
[Readers are directed to the end of this post for an explanation of my timing and motivation.
UPDATE 6/5, 11 AM CDT: videos embedded!]
I. Anniversary Reconnoiter
At around nine in the morning local time on the thirtieth anniversary of the “June Fourth Incident,” I began a reconnoiter of Tiananmen Square in central Beijing to observe security measures and, if possible, witness any attempt at commemorating the massacre. I accompanied Dr. Andrew R. Cline, professor of media, journalism, and film at Missouri State University in Springfield. We were part of group of eleven people—four students, two faculty, and five others including me—comprising a “Study Away” program from MSU which had spent the previous twelve days in China, flying into Beijing and taking high-speed trains to Xi’an and Xining, then on via the Qinghai–Tibet railway to Lhasa before flying back to Beijing. Of all days, Tuesday 4 June 2019 was designated a free day for the group: no itinerary—and no guide. The remaining nine group members, as it turned out, had other ideas about what to do that day.
Andy’s motivation was broadly journalistic, garnished with a specific interest in whether any actual Marxists would show up. I went along out of a feeling that I had something of a reputation to uphold, and quickly decided during our approach that I would evaluate the security measures and write up a more quantitative report, although I will also pass along some thoughts about the organizational behaviors involved.
In the map below, the portrait-shaped area near the top and just left of center is the Forbidden City, and the blue marker indicates Tiān’ānmén Square (天安门). Detail on eight waypoints follows; the total distance we walked from (1) to (8) was 3.7 kilometers, and would have taken three-quarters of an hour with no stops.
- Our route began at the Beijing Sunworld Hotel on Dēngshìkǒu (灯市口) Street. I have now stayed at this hotel four times, twice each in late spring of 2018 and 2019, with two separate Study Away teams. The neighborhood seems prosperous and secure, analogous to Georgetown in DC.
- We proceeded west to Wangfujing St and turned south. One short block later on our left (east) was St Joseph’s Church, which physically survived the 20th century in part by becoming an elementary school. It is now a church again (and is the setting of a scene in Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem), but is administered by the so-called Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.
- Continuing south, we proceeded through the upscale Wángfǔjǐng (王府井) pedestrian shopping mall. There were several police vehicles and approximately ten uniformed police at each of at least five intersections through East Chang’an Ave. The usual number is fewer than five police and private security guards combined along that entire stretch (I have walked it several times on dates other than June 4).
- We then walked west on Chang’an (长安街) …
- … and south on the west side of Zhengyi Road (正义路) to Qianmen East St. There were few police on Zhengyi, but it is not a major thoroughfare, and in any case is plastered with security cameras. Police vehicles on Qianmen East included a couple of black F-350s, the largest such assets we saw that day, not heavily outfitted like the SWAT vehicles we had seen the previous week in Lhasa, but obviously intended to intimidate. There were, again, several uniformed policemen at each intersection.
- We walked west on the north side of Qiánmén (前门) East Street and turned right (north) at Guǎngchǎng East Side Road (广场东侧路). This is at the southeast corner of the Tiananmen Square complex. There was a preliminary security checkpoint at which we showed our passports (and Chinese nationals showed their Resident Identity Cards). The Qianmen subway station on the west side of the street was, like several others in the area, either closed or having its pedestrian traffic significantly rerouted on the anniversary.
- The main security checkpoint was approximately 200 meters north, on the east side of the street, near the southwest corner of the National Museum of China (中国国家博物馆). The line, such as it was, occupied an area approximately 15 meters wide (east to west) and perhaps 75 meters long (north to south). It could have been denser, but at 1 person/m², there would have been over a thousand people queued up. We had good line-of-sight views into the Square itself, which was quiet and rather thinly peopled. I will provide various additional details later in this post, but this is where I admit that this is as close as we got, simply because we got tired of waiting. We probably would have been admitted to the Square had we been willing to work our way through the line over the following 60-90 minutes.
- We then returned to the preliminary checkpoint, where we noticed that there was an entirely separate and much faster process for tour groups. Crossing Guangchang, Qianmen, and other major thoroughfares in the area of the Square is predominately via pedestrian underpasses, which of course are easily controlled/sealed off. The streets themselves are replete with both permanent and temporary barriers to pedestrian traffic. Tour groups were being ushered underneath Guangchang to emerge in the southeast corner of the Square itself. We continued diagonally via underpasses to the south side of Qianmen, facing the Zhèngyáng Gate (正阳门), to survey the southern perimeter of the Square as we had done on its eastern perimeter. There was, again, little activity to be seen. This was the effective conclusion, at around 11 AM, of our little reconnaissance mission.
Here are three of the 14 videos Andy took and broadcast on Facebook Live that morning (via a VPN, direct Facebook access from the PRC being … problematic). The first one shows a glimpse of Tiananmen Square itself; the second I included mostly because it shows glimpses of me; the third is a sort of overview.
II. Repression and the Triple Constraint
In project management, the “triple constraint” is a formal representation of the colloquialism “good, fast, cheap—pick any two.” For this analysis, I will define the three constraints facing current Chinese leadership as follows:
- Scope will include the purpose and objectives of preventing another “June 4th Incident.”
- Budget will include not only the resources devoted to the project but their relative prioritization and overall organization.
- Schedule will include not only the immediate vicinity of the anniversary but also specific lead times and year-round activities.
Scope: China is on a generational-temperament/population turnover cycle remarkably similar to that of the US, having experienced severe disruption in the mid-19th century and again in the early-to-mid-20th. (As is my wont, I draw heavily on Strauss-Howe generational theory and Xenakis’ generational dynamics here.)
China experienced especially high death tolls during the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) and again during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) and Civil War (1945-49), paralleling the American “Crisis eras” of the 19th and 20th centuries. Similarly, the Cultural Revolution closely paralleled the “Consciousness Revolution” in the US. Assuming a similar interval to their next Crisis era, China will be greatly troubled in the 2020s. Whether or not Strauss/Howe or Xenakis are known to the Chinese leadership, they are certainly sufficiently familiar with their country’s history and its most painful episodes to anticipate turmoil. The ongoing crackdown may very well be an attempt to minimize that turmoil.
We should also remember that the population density of China proper is a full order of magnitude greater than that of the US, and that every human society has been beset with existential risks, principally from other human beings, so it is entirely normal to view human action as a source of ultimate destruction. The US lost 2% of its population during the Civil War, around a quarter of its wealth in the Great Depression, and 0.3% of its population during World War II. The corresponding death tolls for China were, not coincidentally, around an order of magnitude higher, close to a literal decimation.
So while the crackdown is brutal, consisting of measures entirely unacceptable to Americans (massive internet censorship, imposition of “social credit,” the removal of term limits on a sitting president, no real elections in any case, a vast system of “re-education” camps and “vocational training centers” in Xinjiang, the suppression of Hong Kong, etc), it is not merely gratuitous. From a certain Chinese perspective, by failing to employ prophylactic measures against its own stresses, the US is sleepwalking toward the edge of a cliff. (Although our elites may be making a clumsy attempt at what they imagine to be prophylactic measures, so far they seem reassuringly incompetent.)
Specific objectives of forestalling another Tiananmen Square protest are what drive the combination of risk avoidance (rerouted pedestrian traffic) and risk mitigation (heavy police presence several blocks from the Square) I observed at the anniversary. They presumably include prevention of:
- any kind of political assembly on the site (it is forbidden to unfurl banners of any kind on the Square, even one supportive of the regime)
- initiation of any kind of independent mass movement which might be, or even gradually become, opposed to the current leadership
- resulting greater awareness amongst the Chinese population of the original June 4th Incident
publicity of any of the above outside China
- embarrassing publicity outside China of a specific crackdown on any unapproved organized event on the site
Such a multipurpose, multilayered approach is greatly facilitated by the Chinese holistic thought pattern, described in Erin Meyer’s The Culture Map, which pays as much attention to the background of a situation as to the more obvious, salient features noticed by Westerners.
That said, for the purposes of this analysis, I will consider the physical scope to be confined to central Beijing, in a radius of approximately 2 kilometers around Tiananmen Square itself.
Budget: This estimate will cover only marginal costs, over and above the day-to-day measures, put in place for the anniversary.
By far the most conspicuous additional security measures were those along the Wangfujing pedestrian shopping mall. Approximately 20 police vehicles and 50 patrolmen were present within 1 linear kilometer of street. Extrapolating this to a 3 km × 4 km overall perimeter would increase those numbers by an order of magnitude, and another more distant but sparse layer could double that figure.
Big American cities have police forces numbering very roughly 3 per 1,000 population (KC has around 1,200 for a population of 500k; Chicago has 13,000 for a population of 2.6 million). Going with the Chicago value of 1 per 200 inhabitants, Beijing could have as many as 100k police officers. Devoting 1% of them, and perhaps 2-3% of their vehicles, to this project seems, if anything, modest.
Presumably there would also be more people watching everything shown by the surveillance cameras—and there are a lot of cameras; at one point along Qianmen I looked around and counted 18 of them within perhaps 30 meters of where I was standing. That was unusual, but I doubt that I was ever more than 50 meters from one anywhere on our route, and they come in groups of at least two. Thirty kilometers of street in concentric perimeters around Tiananmen could contain over 1,000 cameras. There could easily have been an extra hundred employees of the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau keeping an eye on the associated video feeds that day.
Nor were there extra guards working the security checkpoints, which was one of the reasons for the interminable line on the east side of Guangchang. At most 15 people a minute were getting through the main checkpoint there (I was wearing a watch with a sweep second hand and counted them for a while). This may itself have been intended to demoralize would-be protesters.
What there were not, anywhere around the east or south sides of the Square, were lines of cops, armored vehicles, helicopters, etc. Few if any long guns or automatics that I could see. No vehicles with tear gas launchers. As glimpses of the mailed fist go, the whole thing was surprisingly subtle.
In the US, all this would cost a bundle; at a burden rate of $100/hour, throwing an extra thousand employees into something for even as much as 10 hours would be a million-dollar expense. A more grimly realistic estimate would be twice that. Chinese costs are roughly a quarter of ours, so say $500k ≈ 元3.2 million in 2021.
But given the scope of the thing, it was cheap. A whole lot cheaper than any analogous effort would be here, and not just because of prevailing labor costs. Why? The short answer is that they’d spent the real money up front over the previous three decades: barriers on, and underpasses beneath, streets; plenty of surveillance cameras; and of course the up-front cost of suppressing the original protest and censoring all subsequent mention of it, up to and including banning code words (“May 35,” “VIIV”) on the ubiquitous/mandatory WeChat app.
Schedule: The great disadvantage to would-be commemorators, and advantage to the Chinese government, is the fixed date of the anniversary.
Knowledge of that specific anniversary can be, and has been, successfully diluted to the vanishing point, such that Chinese students arriving in the US typically learn about it here, having never heard anything about it growing up, and especially in school.
Extra police can be assigned months in advance, trained/rehearsed weeks in advance, and deployed by the beginning of morning twilight on June 4th (4:15 AM local time in Beijing). Military units can be positioned somewhere out of sight but within an hour of the Square, say 30 kilometers, days in advance. A single PLA armored brigade (4,000 soldiers and 124 tanks, among other assets) would be more than sufficient to overwhelm a protest covering the entire Square and all nearby streets to a radius of several kilometers.
Furthermore, the use of different units at each anniversary can help prevent knowledge of the date’s significance from spreading through Chinese society, and especially the security forces. For the rank and file, it’s just an unusual drill they happened to do in early June one year. The anniversary itself could even be broken up into multiple shifts to ensure both the freshest personnel and that no one unit saw too much.
And all of these preparations can be repeated and refined year after year. Planning for it may well be a more or less continuous activity. It’s probably made more than a few project-management careers.
III. Human Limitations and Responses
Now for the good news: all of this is being carried out by very fallible human beings. A surprisingly large fraction of it may be, essentially, a façade, or so shoddily done as to constitute an analog to the 豆腐渣 (“tofu dregs”) of near-new but already-crumbling Chinese construction.
As an example, on the 2018 trip, the fingerprinting device I tried to use while going through immigration at PEK didn’t work. Security agents laughed it off and waved me through. More immediately relevant, when I presented my documents at the security checkpoint at the intersection of Guǎngchǎng East Side Road and Chang’an (that is, the northeast corner of Tiananmen Square, close to the southern entrance to the Forbidden City) earlier in the 2019 trip, the guard glanced briefly at my current passport, began flipping through my expired passport with the Chinese visa from the previous year’s trip (Chinese tourist visas are good for 10 years), got as far as the page with my Russian visa from the 2016 Study Away trip, nodded, and handed both passports back to me. Any old visa pasted in there was good enough, apparently.
A few days later, going through Lhasa airport security before the LXA-PEK flight, there was a spot where outgoing passengers get bunched up in an area with security monitors and screens. The screens are angled to be clearly visible to the passengers. Software draws bounding boxes around passengers’ faces, implying facial recognition … but is it really happening? It would be far easier and cheaper if nothing went on behind the scenes, so to speak—but it would be just as visually intimidating, especially to the average Tibetan, who may be boarding an airliner for the first time and has almost certainly never been through another airport. (See also Virginia Postrel on “computer glamour.”)
Then there was the free day for the group on the 30th anniversary of the massacre. What was the (very Chinese) tour company thinking? — Occam’s Razor would suggest that they don’t know about the “June Fourth Incident” either.
How many of those thousands of cameras in central Beijing are in working order? Hell, how many of them are anything but empty housings with flat “lenses” on the front? And notwithstanding my budgetary guesses above, how many actually have a human being on the other end? US security is notoriously lax in this area, and human nature doesn’t change at national boundaries.
And speaking of US security, amidst all the wretched overhyping of our, shall we say, January Sixth Incident, there are lessons to be learned: “Social constructs and basic decency, not lightweight security gates, are what hold everyone except the outliers back in a typical crowd.”
But the ultimate constraint is the security/convenience tradeoff. Anything you do to make something more secure, physically or informationally, makes it less readily accessible. In economic terms, there is always an opportunity cost; and any deliberate reduction of that cost to make access more convenient makes the thing being guarded less secure. It is all too tempting for insiders to cut corners—see a couple of my examples above—and “social engineering” is famously effective at gaining unauthorized access.
This may be a somewhat greater problem in China than elsewhere, ironically because of the homogeneity of the population (94% ethnic Han) and remarkably tight networking of Chinese society; to quote myself: “Compare the grapevine recounted in Life and Death in Shanghai with actual events as documented in Mao: The Unknown Story. An enormous population living in dire poverty and with only state-controlled media nonetheless had startlingly accurate knowledge of the activities, and interpersonal conflicts, of its most powerful leaders.” As Rogers explains in Diffusion of Innovations, in homophilous systems, attitudes are controlled by pre-existing norms, not by opinion leaders. A norm of 豆腐渣 (or intimidating-but-simulated) security in Chinese society would be next to impossible for the regime to alter.
How to exploit these enduring weaknesses? Again framing the problem as a project-management exercise, the “triple constraint” now looks like this …
- Scope: develop a critical mass of outliers (in the sense quoted above). It need not be large; a relative handful could stage a demonstration and broadcast its activity … but its members must have significant commitment, “skin in the game” on the level of the signers of the Declaration—“we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” Loss of life is an obvious possibility, and years of debilitating legal troubles a near-certainty. I note that migrants walking through the Darien Gap display this level of motivation.
- Schedule: this one’s easy—don’t do it on June 4th. The development of plausible alternative dates would make for an interesting exercise.
- Budget: make it somebody’s full-time job to organize and all other participants’ jobs to do minimal preparation but be ready to go on some non-June-4th date. My inspiration here is of course the ultimate concentration of singlehanded effort represented by Killdozer (also on June 4th!) and the Nashville bomber. I note that based on everything I saw on the 30th anniversary, an armored bulldozer could almost certainly make it onto the Square from a concealed location several kilometers away.
IV. The American Interface
Nothing in China is happening for the first time: not the construction boom (and possible bust); not the female infanticide and gender imbalance; not the suppression of ethnic and religious minorities; not the foreign-policy adventurism; not the attempted creation of an enormous trading area; not even, in some sense, the space exploration. All of it has precedent at least several centuries old, some of it nearly fifteen hundred years old. What is different this time is 1) radically globe-shrinking technology and 2) the presence of the United States (as opposed to 中国, Zhōngguó, literally the Central States), which has developed to the point where its federal government provides some of the services of a hypothetical global government.
McNeill put the closure of the global οἰκουμένη in the Axial Age, but the past two centuries have seen the introduction of speed-of-light communication—and mechanized transport that puts any two substantially inhabited points on Earth’s surface three weeks apart for bulk-cargo transport, one day apart for passenger transport, and less than an hour apart for nuclear-warhead-bearing missiles. To again quote myself:
The difference between the Bell 101 modem, commercialized in the year of my birth, and Google Fiber, which I got [in] March [of 2014], is incidentally a seven-order-of-magnitude increase in the data rate, but far more importantly, the difference between a handful of wire-service teleprinters at radio and TV stations in each major city and a personal computer in nearly every residence with access to thousands of news sources of greatly varying quality. I note that signal speed itself is unchanged, as is the ability of a given individual to read and comprehend text; in theory a 300-baud land-line modem connection could supply written material as fast as most people could absorb it. What is new is the many-to-many communication paradigm in combination with preexisting effectively instantaneous transmission and, of course, the ubiquity of full-motion, high-resolution video imagery …
Gregory Clark calculated, for his book A Farewell to Alms, that the marginal cost of shipping one pair of blue jeans to the American market from anywhere in the world (including sub-Saharan Africa) is 9 cents. For a good overview of the hardware that makes such a thing possible, see Vaclav Smil’s Prime Movers of Globalization. Again using the late 1950s as a baseline, oceanic shipping capacity via container ship has increased by two orders of magnitude. Like telecommunications, speed itself has not increased, but cost has plummeted and the variety of readily available goods has exploded. Turning to the other major subject of Smil’s book, air travel, thanks in part to phenomenally efficient and safe turbojets, has grown such that at any given moment during regular business hours, half a million people are airborne in the US alone. One billion people cross an international boundary [in a normal] year.
All these technologies were introduced in, or greatly scaled up by, the US. Their character is such that they can be used by nearly anyone, nearly anywhere. The 9/11 attackers used jet airliners; the Chinese plan to, among other things, double their nuclear arsenal in this decade.
Meanwhile, as I am wont to remind my readership, per Strauss and Howe, the US has a temperament problem:
Historically, aging Idealists have been attracted to words like “exterminate” and “eradicate,” words of apocalyptic finality. Add in the fiery passion of the more evangelical last-wavers, sharpen everyone’s moral conviction, reduce everyone’s level of tolerance, subtract the active presence of any adult Adaptives—and that is the leadership awaiting America, circa 2020. It is easy to picture aging Boomers as noble, self-sacrificing patriarchs—but just as easy to see these righteous Old Aquarians as the worst nightmare that could ever happen to the world. Other generations of spiritualist elders have had visions of apocalypse; this one will have the methods.
As noted earlier, China and the US have been on a nearly synchronous cycle of generationally-driven events, or rather responses to/attempted management of events, since at least the 1850s. We did not confront one another in earlier Crisis eras—and one way or another, this will be the last such era in which humanity is confined to a single planetary surface. It is possible that never again will civilization itself be so threatened with extinction.
It might seem ironic that Chinese paranoia is arguably relatively reasonable (and competent), and American paranoia relatively incompetent (and at least intermittently unreasonable); I am tempted to create a quadrant diagram to illustrate this. My larger point, however, is that selection pressures have been operating on the Chinese for far longer, and much more severely, than they have on Americans.
China is … basically Mote Prime. (I figured this out in late May of ’19, gliding through Henan Province on a 300 km/h train somewhere near Zhengzhou. Old civilization: check. Limited effective land area: check. Huge population: check. Completely engineered environment, at least on all the level ground: check. Filthy air: check. Risk of enormously destructive internal conflict: DEFINITELY check.) Less fictionally, imagine it as the United States, but with a billion people living east of the Mississippi (and getting most of their electricity from high-sulfur coal-fired power plants), and almost no one to the west … and with those few faraway Westerners being ethnically and religiously distinct (and generally repressed). Imagine that the current US Federal government and Constitution is merely the latest of a (rather irregular) series of perhaps eight different overarching arrangements over the past couple of millennia, interspersed with various complications, including multiple civil wars even bloodier than the one the US actually had. Imagine the selective pressures, both directly biological and cultural, that would have come to operate on the population over that time, especially since nearly all of it would have taken place within a Malthusian Trap.
And now we come along … with our occasionally-amateurish brand of paranoia, vast technological capability, increasingly lurid temperament, and significant internal discord, all the while very much sensing that we are in a crisis badly in need of resolution. Is there some exogenous development that might focus our attention elsewhere in such a way as to at least avoid Civil War II? Well, it’s starting to look like it.
China lied, people died, planet-wide. Great. Now what?
It’s easy to think that we’re going to blow it. But I have hope for a remarkable parallelism in American and Chinese negotiation styles:
Of all the many diagrams of national negotiation styles in Lewis’ book, these two are the most similar. Not an expected result, to put it mildly. But if American and Chinese negotiators are somehow aware, even tacitly, of the parallel trajectory depicted here—and of our synchronized crises—our very different approaches to managing population-level risks may yet avoid a direct collision and complete failure of deterrence.
A hymn for today’s anniversary.
APOLOGIA: Amidst a confluence of—among other things—self-organized criticality over the Wuhan lab leak hypothesis, bien-pensant American paranoia over an ostensible “January 6 insurrection,” and the ever-looming background of latent Boomer ruthlessness, what can I offer from my experience that might lend understanding in the midst of our ongoing crisis?
I have separately addressed what might be called the “near problem” in foreign relations—a mostly dysfunctional Caribbean Rim—by recounting my Haitian activities (see especially Poukisa Mwen Te Ale An Ayiti and Ayiti Pa Nimewo Yo). The near problem is far from successful resolution. Besides Haiti, a noticeable fraction of the 160 million people living around the Caribbean Rim are potential refugees, with an all-too-obvious destination—but it is a much less destructive threat than the “far problem,” which is of course China, and only China.
Any political opinions or suggestions for action are very much my own.