Tiananmen Square Massacre: A Problem of Dirty Hands


A few days ago, I was discussing the issue of Tiananmen Square Massacre with my friend from China. Even though the massacre happened long ago, the issue remains controversial.

Students protesting in Tiananmen Square in June 3, 1989 (credit:www.facsimilemagazine.com)

The event was triggered by the death of Hu Yaobang, who was a reformist and had advocated rehabilitation of the people being persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. Many Chinese citizens admired his contribution to China. However, the Chinese government just briefly mentioned his death and did not even plan to organize a state funeral for him. In response to that, many university students started a series of peaceful mass protests to occupy Tiananmen Square. The demonstrations began with a march in memory of Hu. As days passed, millions of people joined the protest and occupied the square. There were all angry about the widespread corruption and refused to move until their demands for democratic reform were met.

A man standing in front of the tanks to protest (credit: subversify.com)

The non-violent protest was interpreted as “riot” and a “threat” to the social order of China by the Chinese government. Premier Li Peng told one of the government leaders Deng Xiaoping that the demonstrators were hostile to him personally and wanted the downfall of the communist government. On June 4 1989, the government warned the protesters that they would do anything to clamp down the “riot.” That night, tanks and troops moved into the streets of Beijing. The soldiers randomly fired on unarmed demonstrators. The bloody military operation caused the death of hundreds or even thousands of citizens. According to BBC News, photographer Jeff witnessed that a protester was crushed to death by a military tank. Here is a video of the incident; it gives an insight about how the civilians were killed.

The massacre is clearly a dirty hand problem. The Chinese government sacrificed their morality to exchange for peace and stability in China, so that the “riot” would not stop its economical development. According to Martin Hollis, “The Prince’s subjects are not individuals but citizens; and the difference in the moral demands of public and private life attaches to different social positions.” As there is a difference in the roles of the ruler and the people, the ruler needs to consider the best for its people instead of just some individuals. In the political way of thinking, the Chinese government’s action can be justified because the decision that they made was in the best interest of all of its citizens.

Many people died in the massacre (credit: gameofroles.files.wordpress.com)

On the other hand, there are in fact many ways that can be used to settle the protest. For example, they could persuade the protesters to leave or they could carry them away. By any means, killing them would be the worst option. Even though they have claimed that the social order and economical development could only be maintained if and only if the “riot” ended, the civilians were only using a non-violent method to demand a democratic reform to stop the corruption. They hadn’t caused any social instability at all. The civilians definitely have the right to voice out their opinions about the current political system and this freedom should not be deprived by bloody military operations.

So what do you think? Do you think that the massacre could be justified because the government was acting in the best interest of the nation? Or do you think that the actions conducted by the Chinese government were way to extreme? Do you think it is right for the politicians to do something that is absolutely wrong in order to do something good for the country? Clearly it is too complicated to come up with an answer in this case as the problem of dirty hands is inevitable, but I believe there are still many ways to settle the demonstration.

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6 Comments on “Tiananmen Square Massacre: A Problem of Dirty Hands”

  1. blevz Says:

    It seems like in this instance the Chinese government was simply asserting its authority over its citizens. Although they are multiple non-violent resolutions to protesting, they do not remedy the problem of pluralism in a one party slightly totalitarian society. If the government had struck a deal with the Tiananmen protesters then a new group would begin to demand reforms. The government’s actual response was very Hobbesian. In a similar vein to “do as I say or you will be destroyed” the government made clear that it would not tolerate contestation of its official line of thought. This has continued well past the event itself into historical censorship of what happened in the square on that day. The government does its best to cover up any accounts of Tiananmen in addition to other historical events and organizations that deviate from the government’s official view of the world. However, this attempt to suppress pluralism seems to be China’s future downfall, as more and more people begin to uncover their government’s deception they will lose feelings of legitimacy for the government and demand a new one.

  2. elyssashea Says:

    I think that Tocqueville would not approve of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. In the three separately divided regions of the individual, civil society and the state, engagement by the individual in the other two is contingent on the government protecting individuals’ self-interest. Rather than considering the rights of the individual, I believe that the Chinese government was more over considering the economy and the country as a whole. The Chinese people were merely expressing their individual rights to partake in civil society by protesting in the Square, and there is nothing that says they were violating other measures that make them law-abiding and tax-paying citizens who agreed to participate in the state. Yet, the government still violently went after these individuals, thus violating the arrangement between the individuals and the state.

  3. elmatts25 Says:

    Problems of dirty hands are very hard to distinguish from good-decisions-gone-bad. Since one would assume that rulers would always make decisions that they believed were “right” at the time, how can we know when this was not the case? I believe, in many instances, the public believes it to be a problem of dirty hands simply because the outcome was horrible. In this case, I do believe it was a problem of dirty hands. It is very difficult to justify killing so many people. The Chinese government justified their actions by claiming that the protesters were a “threat”. Since we know that these protesters were “non-violent” there is almost no way they could have been a “threat”. Therefore, this is certainly a problem of dirty hands because there are many other alternatives to stopping riots without going to such extremes as they did in the Square. The only situation – I can think of – that might not make this a problem of dirty hands, would be if the Chinese government truly believed that the riot was going to be extremely violent.
    To answer your question of whether it is okay for politicians to do something completely wrong for the good of the country — I don’t know. To some extent I agree with a Machiavellian approach to governing, however there are many, many situations where a ruler should consider morals and determine whether something is “right” or “wrong” before hand. We all know governing is not a simple job. There is not one “right” way to do things. It is important to make decisions that you believe are “right,” however everyone makes mistakes and we cannot judge a decision based solely on its outcome — or on our assumption fo the reasoning behind it.

  4. Baihan Li Says:

    It is always hard for me to comment on those posts that address on the scars of China. This issue in fact does not need much concern because the Chinese government itself has already taken regret on this behavior.

    However, this involves a theory of one famous Chinese writer; that is, never should students become the forces for revolution.

    In fact, the Tiananmen square issue is far more than merely a activity in memory of Yaobang Hu. In its later phases, it had developed into a large-scale protest asking for total democracy and capitalism. Let’s think this way: would any authority allow its people to doubt the fundamental state ideology? Definitely not.

    However, I wanna indeed argue about the issue of ” one youth was crushed to death”. Yes, he died under the wheels of tanks. However, it is not that the military intentionally killed him but that he ran into the marching troop. The tank was not able to stop because he was so close and thus he was crushed.

    Therefore, I just wanna say at last: please don’t make any comment or post before you really know the issue. It has been so disturbing this whole semester to read all those partially distorted news about China. It is, definitely, not the intention of any classmate to use those false materials (at least I hope so). However, the ignorant commentary is far worse than informed detest.

  5. nluongo Says:

    In order to decide whether or not this is a case of dirty hands, we need to decide whether it meets these two simple criteria: Was it something that would be deemed morally wrong for a private citizen to do? And was it done for the good of the society as a whole? Looking at the video provided and reading accounts, the first criterion certainly seems to be met. However, the second is almost impossible to determine and that is why it is so difficult to call whether or not this was dirty hands. Barring some kind of statement from the people who ordered the military to act, we will never know whether this was done to protect the peace or simply to protect the interests of those in power. It is this intent that separates an act of dirty hands from a reprehensible act of selfishness.

    Also, replying to the comment directly above me that asked:would any authority allow its people to doubt the fundamental state ideology? If a government truly represents the people and their interests, the answer to that question is: absolutely.

  6. Brian Hall Says:

    The Dirty Hands problem does not really provide a system by which one can assess relative benefits vs. harms. If there were a way of quanitfying the negative and positive outcomes of a Dirty Hands decision and deciding what was right and wrong based on the ideal of a net positive result, then perhaps it would be a useful way of passing judgement on issues such as this. As it is, the Dirty Hands problem is really only a useful of way of framing and thinking about a situation.

    In the issue of supressing riots or extirpating insurgencies, where one stands on the issue has more to do with political opinions than anything else. Those with strong fascist or collectivist sentiments would tend to support the maintenance of the system even if there were a substantial cost in human life. That is, even if the government is incompetent, it is to the benefit of the whole society not to suffer a collapse, and so the hundreds or thousands of casualties that result from police action are justified.

    On the other hand, liberals and anarchists (I mean this term in the denotative sense) tend to think that these sorts of situations are exactly why the state is not a valid structure for regulating human society. If the cost of maintaining a highly developed, industrial society is injuring or killing thousands of inevitable dissenters, then maybe the system is inherently malignant.

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