Tiananmen Square: official silence, public restiveness

In the twenty-five years since the Tiananmen Square massacre, China’s party-state appears to have stabilised its rule by instrumental middle-class support secured for material gain. The next twenty-five years may not, however, be so certain.

Jonathan Fenby
3 June 2014
Democracy goddess in new Tiananmen Square museum in Hong Kong

This isn't opening today in Beijing: the new Tiananmen museum in Hong Kong. Jayne Russell / Demotix. All rights reserved.Visiting Hong Kong at the end of the 1990s, the US president, Bill Clinton, set out a win-win scenario for China. Earlier, he had warned the then Chinese leader, Jiang Zemin, that the last major state ruled by a Communist Party was “on the wrong side of history”. Now, he was more positive: the economic growth of the People’s Republic should be encouraged because it would create a substantial middle class, he told a small dinner at the residence of the former British colony’s chief executive. That would push mainland China towards democracy as the middle class had done in north America and western Europe. So the end result would be positive, economically and politically, producing a world in which west and east could work together for global progress.

Clinton was wrong. The middle class which has flourished in this century has not shown the disposition towards pressing for political democracy he envisaged. Since the party declared class warfare dead in 2002, it has done far too well out of the system to want to spread political rights to hundreds of millions of poorer citizens or to dismantle the system that gives it good incomes and the ability to pay for private health care, private education, old-age provisions and foreign travel.

This is symptomatic of the way in which the Communist Party has been able to sustain the implicit bargain it struck with the Chinese public when the leadership, under Deng Xiaoping, sent in the tanks to crush the protests in Tiananmen Square twenty-five years ago. Ten years before the students occupied their country’s most iconic open space, Deng had introduced economic reform spearheaded by free-market methods, even if the state retained control of the commanding heights.

The result had been spectacular, as Chinese were free to better themselves and shackles which had held the country back under Mao Zedong were partially removed. Local enterprises flourished. A wave of low-paid workers entered the labour stream. There was abundant capital from household savings. Consumers in developed economies welcomed cheap Chinese goods and governments applauded the deflationary effect of exports from the mainland, without worrying too much about the transfer of jobs to the People’s Republic.

Deng’s basic motivation was not to promote greater economic freedom for its own sake. After two-and-a-half decades of disastrous adventurism under Mao, he knew that the country was in a terrible state and the Communist Party’s legitimacy and cohesion had been brought low—especially by the ten years of the Cultural Revolution, ending only with the death of the Great Helmsman. Deng’s aim was to use growth to make China a great power once again and to ensure that the party was the sole vehicle through which that enrichment took place, thereby giving it a claim on legitimacy to rule.

Growth's downsides

The downsides of the race for growth—especially wealth disparities and corruption—corroded the political message and were the prime drivers of the protests of the spring of 1989. Democracy came to be a watchword but the political message was confused. The movement in Beijing and other cities was primarily against the political system rather than for any set agenda of change. But that was quite enough to spur the repressive reaction on 4 June. The power of the party had been challenged. That had to be out down by a leadership group for whom monopoly power for the movement to which they had devoted their lives was a sine qua non for China.

Political liberalisation remains off the agenda: if there is talk of political or legal reform it means making the current system work more efficiently.

Huge crowds joining the demonstrations added a fresh challenge. Were the people at large also turning against the regime? Given the numbers who took to the streets, including some who were in the employ of the party-state, it might be impossible to draw a credible political line against a student spearhead backed by millions of people for whom the party had always claimed the right to speak and act. The way ordinary citizens peacefully blocked the army when it first tried to move in on Tiananmen, lying down in the street in front of tanks and fraternising with soldiers who had thought they were being sent to quash a foreign-backed insurgency, added a further troubling twist.

So the leaders gathered at Deng’s home felt that extreme force was required to achieve shock and awe, not riot police but tanks—even though most of the students were leaving the square. By the night of 3 June, the die was cast and, acting under cover of the declaration of martial law, the tanks not only did not stop but claimed by far the largest number of the night’s victims by firing at residential buildings on the boulevard to Tiananmen.

The "republic of amnesia"

The official version was set immediately. Deng castigated the protests as an attempt “to establish a totally western-dependent bourgeois republic” and a western imperialist plot to bring socialist countries “under the monopoly of international capital and onto the capitalist road”.  The events of the Beijing Spring (replicated in other cities) became a non-subject in mainland China—leading to what Louisa Lin, the American journalist and writer, calls “the People’s Republic of Amnesia” in her excellent eponymous new book. When she showed a hundred students at four university campuses in Beijing the famous photograph of the anonymous man in a white shirt and black trousers facing down a line of tanks on Chang’an Avenue in the capital on 5 June 1989, only 15 identified it. “Oh, my God!” said one young man. “This is a sensitive topic. This picture maybe is related to a counter-revolutionary incident.” Thousands marched through downtown Hong Kong on 1 June but, on the mainland, nobody will mark the anniversary—at least not in public.

Official history in China has always been fashioned to serve the interests of the ruling group. Imperial dynasties looked to scholars to write accounts of their predecessors to show why their misdeeds had forfeited the Mandate of Heaven, and so why their overthrow was justified. The main exhibit at the grandiose National History Museum overlooking the huge square in the centre of Beijing is an attempted demonstration of why only the Communist Party is fit to rule—since it, alone, was able to reverse the course of imperialist intervention and semi-feudal rule that had brought down China since the mid-1800s. By this version, the Communists did all the fighting against the Japanese, the Great Leap Forward and the famine that killed more than 40 million people around 1960 are passed over, and Mao is ’70 per cent good, 30 per cent bad’. History is dangerous, so it has to be controlled and made to conform with the reigning narrative.

That fits in with the continuation of Deng’s original basic recipe—economic growth and rising living standards in return for acceptance of one-party rule. Political liberalisation remains off the agenda: if there is talk of political or legal reform it means making the current system work more efficiently. Though the wealth disparity widened and corruption blossomed in the decades after 4 June, the bargain has remained in place, reinforced by the concentration on ensuring ‘stability’ as defined by the regime. The budget for internal-security operations is larger than that for the armed forces and the extreme sensitivity about 4 June is shown by incidents such as the banning of a software programme whose name, by coincidence, included the numbers of the calendar date of the crackdown.

China’s growth has been the major global event since the end of the cold war. The country that was on its knees at the time of Mao’s death in 1976 leads the world in construction, in its high-speed rail network, in the size of its automobile market and in consumption of everything from pork to cigarettes. It holds nearly $4 trillion in foreign exchange reserves and its demand for raw materials vitally affects the health of supplier nations, from Australia to Angola, Brazil to Zimbabwe. Underpinned by the Patriotic Education programme launched in the 1990s, which hammers home the message set out in the Road to Rejuvenation exhibit at the National Museum, national pride is high and the present leader, Xi Jinping, popular.

The equation set by Deng at the end of the 1970s and renewed after 4 June has thus worked in its own terms. Repression of critics and human-rights lawyers arouses no public protests. Dissent is equated with subversion. The law exists to strengthen the party. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate of 2010, Liu Xiaobo, is serving an 11-year jail sentence for circulating a petition calling for democracy. People who call merely for the application of the constitution are denounced by articles in the official media, branding them as foreign agents out to subvert the system.

Need for change

At the same time, the need for change is evident. If it does not pursue political democracy, the middle class requires action on quality-of-life problems arising from the nature of China’s growth, especially air, water and soil pollution. The big current anti-corruption campaign, launched by Xi Jinping, shows just how widespread graft has become: there are reports that a clan round a former Politburo member has amassed $15 billion and growing numbers of senior executives in state enterprises have been found guilty of taking large bribes. Xi put his name last November to a party document recognising the need for economic reform—a tricky, long-term process which will involve facing down powerful vested interests and introducing structural change, while seeking not to disturb the foundations of the party-state.

Xi insists that only the Communists can lead China and has amassed an unprecedented array of posts from which to exert his authority: he is general secretary of the Communist Party and the state president, and he chairs the Central Military Commission, the new National Security Committee, the new Reform Committee, the Cybersecurity committee and a body set up to oversee military modernisation. In the Deng tradition, he accepts the need for economic change but insists on continuing party rule. In the first field, he wants to meld “the dynamic forces of the market” with state dominance; in the second, he holds up Mikhail Gorbachev and his late-Soviet reform experiment as the example to be avoided.

The question for the rest of this decade (Xi will be in office till 2022) is whether those aims are compatible. To maintain its claim to rule, the party has to deliver. Though portraits of Marx and Lenin look out over its meetings, it is no longer an ideological party. Just as the mass of Chinese accepted the bargain of material betterment for political acquiescence, so the party has, itself, changed. It has become a managerial outfit which has to keep its side of the bargain. It has ensured that there is no political alternative and Xi is intent on centralising authority through policies designed to strengthen Party power—down to the re-invocation of the Maoist “mass line” to ensure everybody marches in step.

Will that work in a society which is evolving very quickly, where social media have introduced a new communications matrix, where Chinese make 80 million foreign trips each year and where the second generation of the middle class wants more than simply material advancement? Clinton’s analysis 15 years ago was wrong because it applied western history to China. The official Chinese framing of growth has been acceptance without political correlates—the amnesia that surrounds 4 June shows that.

But material progress does bring change beyond the increase in earnings gained. And the party is committed to maintaining growth, even if the crude annual increase in gross domestic product is falling. The real question is whether a one-party state of the kind which holds sway on the mainland can cope with the changes which that material progress bring and with the impact of globalisation on a country that has always sought to march to its own drum.

In retrospect, the period since 1989 may be seen as the easy time for the regime. The years ahead will prove more testing as the stakes rise and society evolves.

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