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The Rules of Revolt

Posted on Jun 9, 2014

By Chris Hedges

(Page 2)

Lesson No. 6. When a major authority figure, even in secret, denounces calls to crush a resistance movement the ruling elites are thrown into panic. Maj. Gen. Xu Qinxian, leader of the 38th Group Army, refused to authorize an attack on the unarmed protesters in the square, saying, “I’d rather be beheaded than be a criminal in the eyes of history,” according to the historian Yang Jisheng. He was stripped of his command and arrested. His refusal sent shock waves throughout the rulers, especially after seven senior commanders signed a petition that called on the leadership to withdraw the troops. In many uprisings the ruling elites, after members of their inner circle defect, see distrust and potential disobedience among other authority figures, even those who are loyal. To protect themselves the elites carry out internal purges, such as those conducted in the Soviet Union by Josef Stalin—purges that are self-destructive. One person in authority saying “no” is an effective form of resistance. The elites know that if enough people refuse to co-operate they are doomed. They cannot let this spread.

Lesson No. 7. The state seeks to isolate and indoctrinate soldiers and police before sending them to violently quash any movement. This indoctrination hinges on portraying the protesters as elitists and traitors, often with ties to foreign governments, who do not share the traditional cultural, religious and moral assumptions of the wider population. The Chinese leadership and state press called the demonstrators tools of “bourgeois liberalism.” The government quarantined troops for 10 days outside Beijing and subjected them to daily indoctrination before the final armed attack on Tiananmen Square. State propaganda, while denouncing the protesters as disloyal, portrays the state as the ally of the working class and the defender of traditional values. Any successful mass revolutionary movement, to counter this propaganda, must exhibit respect for the traditional values of society, including religious and patriotic values.

Lesson No. 8. Secrecy is self-destructive to a nonviolent resistance movement. Openness and transparency expose the endemic secrecy and deceit used by regimes to maintain power. Openness inspires confidence in a movement, not only among those within it but among those who sympathize with it. The nature of secrecy is manipulation, the hallmark of despotic power. If people believe they are being manipulated they will distrust a movement and refuse to participate. Secrecy is also an admission of fear, which is what the state wants to instill in those who resist. Finally, the huge resources available to the state to employ informants and carry out surveillance mean that most resistant acts planned in secret are not secret to the state. Only under extreme totalitarian conditions—Nazi Germany or Stalinism—can secrecy be justified by protesters. But even then it rarely works.

Lesson No. 9. The state on the eve of breaking a rebellion with force seeks to make police and soldiers frightened of the protesters. It does this by sending in agents provocateurs to direct acts of violence against symbols of state authority. It is imperative to the state that police and soldiers believe they are in mortal danger, especially when the state is demanding that they use deadly force to quell an uprising. Indoctrinated soldiers sent into Tiananmen Square in June of 1989 believed they would come under fire from armed dissidents or disloyal army units.


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Lesson No. 10. After deadly force is used to end a revolt, which happened when Deng Xiaoping sent more than 200,000 soldiers to gun down protesters in Beijing, the state invests tremendous energy to foster historical amnesia. Those in China who seek to remember the uprising—even 25 years later—are silenced. Parents whose sons or daughters were killed in the military assault on Tiananmen Square are forbidden to openly mourn. It is imperative to the ruling elites that the true historical narrative be erased. The use of deadly force against unarmed citizens exposes the tyranny of the state and therefore must be banished from memory.

Lesson No. 11. Once a movement is put down, wholesale retribution occurs. It is estimated that 4 million people were investigated by state security after the Tiananmen Square massacre on suspicion of involvement in the protests. An additional 1 million government employees were investigated. Tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, were arrested and sent to labor camps. Many were executed. 

Lesson No. 12. Nonviolence does not protect demonstrators from violence. It also does not always succeed. Nonviolence requires—despite what those who advocate violence contend—deep reserves of physical and moral courage. State violence is defeated through the refusal to be afraid, even after violence is used by the state to stamp out protests, and through continuing acts of nonviolent resistance. The goal is to show that violence will not work. But like hundreds of protesters in Tiananmen, many in the first generation of rebels may perish in the process. The generation that begins a revolt often does not live to see its conclusion.

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