Parimal Maya Sudhakar writes on developments in China since the Tiananmen Incident of 1989.
On 4th June 1989, violent confrontations between armed forces and large groups standing against the Communist government took place in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. In China, the event is referred as Fourth June Incident to avoid confusion over earlier protests at the Tiananmen Square, particularly the Tiananmen Incident of 1976 and May Fourth Movement of 1919. The protest against political establishment and the subsequent crackdown happened at a time when anti-communist movements were sweeping across Eastern Europe alongwith the policies of Perestroika-Glasnost in the USSR. The 1989 protest was conglomeration of section of ex-members of CCP (Chinese Communist Party), Trotskyites, urban workers, students and intellectuals. Demands of agitating leaders were vague in nature and lacked theoretical perspective required for converting dissent into nationwide movement based on an ideological alternative. The urban workers’ concerns were job insecurity and inflation, both of which had been the result of economic reforms. The intellectuals were clear in demanding political reforms and freedom of expression. The students wanted immediate steps to curb corruption and punish corrupt government and CCP officials. In a way, the protest was not aimed at overthrowing the CCP regime in one stroke but asking the Party itself to initiate process of broad political reforms.
CCP leadership was sympathetic to these demands, except for immediate political reforms. Political liberalization for attaining western style democracy was completely ruled out. Deng Xiaoping’s resolute handling of 1989 protesters was based on the theoretical framework that could be summarised as follows: China is witnessing the primary stage of socialism, which will continue for many more years; Development of forces of production is the utmost task before the CCP and the Chinese people and; only CCP’s supremacy can ensure political stability required for massive economic development. Deng Xiaoping was convinced that loosening of CCP’s authority would pave way for chaotic years, which would hamper the economic modernization programme. He knew that CCP’s legitimacy would come from his economic modernization programme, which had doubled the per capita income of Chinese people in a single decade.
Deng Xiaoping’s decisiveness in clamping down on Tiananmen protesters had deeply disappointed his western admirers, who had expected him to become the Gorbachev of China. On the other hand, he silenced his ultra-left detractors of being a ‘capitalist road taker.’ The 1989 incident did not shake Deng Xiaoping’s belief in his economic modernization programme and he refused ground to the neo-Maoist section within Party which aimed at going back to the policies of Cultural Revolution. Post-1989, the CCP ensured that it would remain in control of the economic modernization programme and would not allow either the ultra-left elements to put breaks to it nor capitalist interests to take over the decision making process at the highest level.
Chinese government was subject to severe criticism in international media over its use of force against agitators. The capitalist forces all over the world were overjoyed with the probable fall of socialist government in China and propagated systemic change in the country sooner than later. In this context, we can witness four noticeable aspects of today’s China. One, the 1989 protesters could not regroup since then. The paradox of Fourth June Incident was liberal intellectuals leading a section of urban workers who were affected by the pace of restructuring of State-Owning-Enterprises (SOEs). Another paradox was protesting students’ disillusionment with Marxism-Leninism but their inability to find an alternative that would have made China as developed as the western countries. Once the Chinese state cracked down on the protesters, these contradictions ensured that the dissenters would not come together in the near future. The rural populace remained indifferent to the 1989 conflict since many of them, if not all, had experienced dramatic improvement in their standard of living under the Deng Xiaoping regime.
Two, the CCP has continued to maintain its position that use of force on agitators was necessary during the 1989 protest. The CCP has a long tradition of self-criticism and critical evaluation of the past. The entire Maoist era was full of episodes where the CCP or a section of leadership within found problems with party’s policies and methods; whether it was the Hundred Flowers Movement or the Great Leap Forward. This led to intense ideological struggles within the CCP. In the post-Mao period, the Cultural Revolution as well as the phenomenon of cult politics came under severe criticism. However, handling of the Tiananmen protest had never been a subject of self-criticism for CCP neither was criticised by any noteworthy section within the party. Since Tiananmen protests the CCP has witnessed two generational leadership changes and the third leadership transfer is in the offing. At no point of time, the new leaderships tried to torpedo the legacy of Deng Xiaoping and his associates over the Fourth June Incident; either overtly or covertly. This indicates an overwhelming mood within CCP for the necessity of the One-Party System and firm belief in dealing with dissent, which challenges its legitimacy to govern.
Three, there has been no ‘systemic’ change in China with CCP firmly in control of affairs. In the immediate aftermath of Tiananmen protest, Chinese government brought the inflation under control and put controls on indiscriminate restructuring of SOEs. This was helpful in taming the dissent within urban workers. Similarly, cases against corrupt officials were fast-tracked and even death penalty was handed to few of the perpetrators of financial crimes. These measures were symbolic in nature as corruption in China has been a longstanding systemic problem. The party’s continuous campaign, in post-Tiananmen phase, against the return of chaos and political instability had its own impact. A generation, which faced hardships during Cultural Revolution, rallied behind the Chinese government. More importantly, the CCP succeeded in impressing upon the people that economic modernization was much more necessary than the political reforms. An ordinary Chinese citizen, post-Tiananmen, aspires more for economic prosperity than for political reforms. Most of them desire to get rich and richer, while collectively they want China to overtake Unites States in all the spheres. Chinese government further gained its legitimacy from successful handling of complex issues of national importance like unification of Hong Kong and Macau, bombing of Chinese embassy in former Yugoslavia and prolonged negotiations over accession to WTO. The recently held Beijing Olympics was also utilised by CCP to gain popularity among the people.
Four, very significant developments have taken place in China since 1989 at the political and societal level under the supervision of CCP which, in turn, have had greater implications on the state-society relations. The right to property has been officially acknowledged and the Party opened up its doors to those who have become affluent, and influential as a result of the economic modernization programme. The thoughts of Three Represents promulgated by Jiang Zemin and theory of Scientific Development for building Harmonious Society as constructed by Hu Jintao showed that the CCP has further moved away from Maoist notion of class struggle in China. The Chinese population has become more mobile with influx of rural population into cities in search of work and flight of Chinese students to foreign universities in the hope of better opportunities abroad. Direct elections are encouraged at the grass-root level, which has now become an important feature of village politics in China. At some places, non-CCP members have trounced the party members in these local elections. Similarly, protests by farmers and workers against local authorities have become common in today’s China. Mostly, such protests erupt due to mismanagement, corruption or atrocities by local government officials. Today, thousands of organizations are functional throughout China working in different fields ranging from environmental issues to care for old age persons. Occasionally, these non-party, non-governmental organizations lobby with the CCP and the government on issues of their concerns. China’s urban market is full of various regular publications in which the common feature is absence of political matters. On the other hand, Chinese bloggers are vociferous in their political writings and sometimes critical of Party and State. At the end of year 2009, China had record 384 million internet users with 120 million using mobile internet applications. Internet usage for banking, booking travels and doing commerce is popular among its users in China.
Post-Tiananmen, China has been traversing an unparalleled path. This phase has, indeed, been most stable and productive for China in last two centuries. While adhering to Deng Xiaoping’s conceptualisation of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, the post-Deng leadership has concentrated more on development of productive forces. It is also taking up challenges emanating from economic modernization programme and opening up to the outside world, like bridging the divide between coastal and inland China and addressing the disparity between rich and poor people. The real issue, so far untouched by CCP leadership, is when will China accomplish Primary Stage of Socialism and how will it enter next stage. The party believes that the present stage will continue for many more years. If one takes a clue from the Chinese history; any systemic transition in China, whether entering into next stage of Socialism or embracing political liberalization, will be intensely turbulent. Today, no one is prepared for the inevitable.
1. Minqi, Li, China: Six Years After Tiananmen, in History as it Happened: Selected articles from Monthly Review 1949-1998, compiled by Ortiz, Bobbye S. And Tilak D. Gupta, third impression July 2006, Cornerstone publications.