A few decades ago two world leaders tried two different ways to overcome the horrors of Communism. In the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev proposed openness and democratization, glasnost and perestroika. Free markets were a second thought. In China Deng Xiaoping promoted an unfettered free market capitalism. Deng declared that it was good to get rich.
If we are comparing two experiments, which one turned out better? Did liberal democracy take over the world or did free market capitalism prove to be dominant? Or is China telling us that authoritarian capitalism is the wave of the future?
Soon after Mao Zedong died in 1976 Deng Xiaoping took over China. Among his first actions he ended to the Cultural Revolution by arresting the Gang of Four, led by Mme. Mao. He also moved quickly to privatize agriculture. The Chinese people had suffering a massive famine in the early 1960s. By the time Deng took over the extreme poverty rate in China was over 80%, so his first priority was feeding the population.
Deng was referred to as the Supreme Leader. He did not hold the offices of president or premier. His only title was: Chairman of the Military Commission.
Obviously, his reforms did not run smoothly. In April, 1989, upon the death of party leader Hu Yaobang, students began to protest in favor of liberal democracy and openness—that is, the Gorbachev agenda. Their protest movement grew and attracted serious support within the ranks of the party rulers. Eventually, the students occupied Tiananmen Square, the central square in the capital of Beijing, for weeks.
While China’s leaders debated the issue, the protests were allowed to continue. In the end, when the students refused to decamp from the Square, the government, surely on the orders of Deng, sent in the military and shut down the protests with tanks and machine guns: the number of dead has been estimated in the hundreds and more.
One notes that the soldiers who participated were brought in from the provinces. Troops that were stationed around Beijing were mutinous and, as I recall, refused to participate. Mutinous troops are one indication that the nation was far closer to disintegration than we knew.
Of course, the massacre was not televised. No one really knows how many people were killed. But, the students’ rights were not respected. We all recall the inspiring picture of the man who stood strong and stopped a column of tanks. We rarely reflect on the fact that, once the man was removed, the tanks ran down the student encampment.
The student cause had been championed by China’s own Gorbachev, party secretary Zhao Ziyang. At one point, he had walked into Tiananmen Square and told the students that he (and they) had lost. He was retired from his job and placed under house arrest.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal Richard Bernstein reviews a new book on the massacre. He sees the events as dramatizing a conflict between democracy and authoritarianism:
One of the great ironies of recent history is that China would almost surely be more democratic and amenable to Western values if the massive pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989 had never taken place—or, at least, if the demonstrators had gone back to their classrooms before the Communist leaders crushed their movement with tanks and automatic rifles. The failure to do that led directly to the fall of the most boldly liberal-minded leader ever to occupy the top position in the Chinese Communist hierarchy, party general secretary Zhao Ziyang. He was placed under house arrest and the possibility of democratic reform was locked up with him.
We appreciate his foray into fantasy, but China has never had a democracy. Why anyone imagines that all countries will naturally become democratic, one does not know. One suspects that it shows people to have read too much Hegel.
Bernstein is reviewing a book by a Swedish Sinologist. He summarizes the book’s thesis:
The day of the crackdown, June 4, 1989, in this sense marked a decisive moment in China’s long history. But the Swedish Sinologist Johan Lagerkvist goes further in “Tiananmen Redux: The Hard Truth about the Expanded Neoliberal World Order.” For Mr. Lagerkvist, Tiananmen was not just a watershed in Chinese history but a watershed for the world, more important in its permanent impact than such near contemporaneous occurrences as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
His argument is essentially this: The violent denouement of the Tiananmen demonstrations brought about something more than the definitive eradication of any opposition to the authority of the one-party state. It also released paramount leader Deng Xiaoping to accelerate China’s transformation from a poverty-stricken Maoist country to a rich and powerful capitalist one. What is most important in Mr. Lagerkvist’s scheme is that Tiananmen allowed the 84-year-old Deng to press on his reluctant co-elders in the party a neoliberal economic agenda, by which he means a kind of savage capitalism, with low wages, reduced social welfare benefits and yawning gaps between the rich and the poor. All the well-publicized ills of globalization thus originate in China’s decision to go for rapid economic growth no matter the costs.
Could Deng’s economic reforms have succeeded—and succeed they certainly did—if the nation had introduced openness and democracy? It is true that China put economic growth ahead of all other considerations. It did not turn out very badly, after all. China was an international basket case when Deng took over. It is now a world power. After thirty years of free enterprise, the extreme poverty rate had dropped to around 10%.
We like to think that it would all have taken place in a more democratic regime. We would certainly like to think that it could have happened with less pollution. We do not know whether that is true. After all, China does not have a democratic tradition. It does not have a tradition of republican government. And it does not have an environmental movement.
Note the following. While we in America were watching the events at Tiananmen unfold, we imagined that Woodstock had come to China. We believed that it was all about liberty and democracy, about exporting our values to China. We imagined that the world needed to adopt our values. We assume that the leadership was facing a choice between authoritarian repression or liberal democracy.
If so, we were certainly wrong and short-sighted. And we failed to see things as they looked to the Chinese. Call it cultural chauvinism or call it a failure of empathy. It was also a failure of compassion.
For all of our talk about empathy we in the West have not asked ourselves the salient question, the question that we need to answer before we have any idea what was going on in China in 1989. Whatever we thought we were watching, what did the Chinese leaders see? I promise you that, given their experience, they did not see glasnost and perestroika.
If they looked at the scene in Tiananmen Square and saw their nation disintegrating, they did not see kindly pacifistic students demanding sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. Far more likely, they saw a new group of incipient Red Guards amassing. They were not afraid of democracy. They were terrified about a reprise of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.
A minimal knowledge of Chinese history will tell us that the leaders, especially Deng, had seen this play out before. After the Great Leap Forward led to the Great Famine of the early 1960s, Deng and Liu Xiaoqi had tried to take control of the economy and to move it toward capitalism. Their efforts were thwarted when Mao empowered student radicals in a Cultural Revolution that blamed the economic catastrophes on the bureaucracy and the elites. Many of China’s mandarins were publicly humiliated. Many were exiled to the country to clean out pig sties. Others were killed. Still others were cannibalized. With the exception of Mao's thoughts, all books were banned.
Liu was labelled the No. 1 capitalist roader. Deng was the No. 2 capitalist roader. Liu was murdered by the Red Guards and Deng was saved by…his close associates within the military. One of Deng’s children was interrogated by the Red Guards and dropped from a third floor room. He was rendered paraplegic.
We and they had no guarantee that the students in Tiananmen Square would have become Red Guards. The question was: were they willing to take the risk? Would they risk over a million dead in another Cultural Revolution or a few hundred dead in the Square? We would all like to believe that another option would have been offered, a negotiated solution. And yet, the student leaders were unwilling to negotiate. The question was how much risk was Deng willing to accept. And how long could he allow it to go on before the Chinese people would believe that the dynasty had lost the Mandate of Heaven.
Even during the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards got so completely out of control that Mao had to order the military, the People’s Liberation Army, to put them down.
So, when we say that Chinese officials did not believe that massed student radicals were an anodyne force that yearned to be free, we know that they had reason for their view.
Note the following from 1989. Chinese leaders had initially tried to reason with the students. Premier Li Peng even engaged in a televised colloquy with a 19 year old student leader named Wuer Kaixi. If you are old enough you recall the scene. Wuer was sitting there in his pajamas berating and harassing the Premier of China.
A leader who allows himself to be humiliated by children is not going to be able to exercise leadership for very long. If Deng and his cohorts were looking for a sign that would tell them whether the students were interested in liberal democracy or in a new cultural revolution, they saw their worst fears realized in Wuer’s antics.
One also recalls that many Western thinkers declared that the massacre would surely provoke a rebellion against China’s rulers. By now most of them have understood that they were wrong.
Lagerkvist argues that the current authoritarian wind rustling through the West comes to us from China. Western nations, and certainly developing nations, seem more likely to want to emulate the Chinese example than the Gorbachev liberal reforms.
And yet, we simplify the issues too much if we see in terms of a struggle between authoritarianism and liberality. We might as easily see a struggle playing out between free enterprise and democratic socialism. And we might also ask whether our own culture warriors, leaders of their own cultural revolution, are contributing to prosperity or tearing the nation apart. Years ago Arthur Schlesinger-- not a member of the Tea Party-- warned against the disunity produced by multiculturalism.
Are our own student radicals upholding the values of democracy by trying to shut down and to censor everything they consider to be hate speech? Are they willing to humiliate and to destroy anyone who says the wrong thing? Are they upholding the values of democracy by refusing to accept the results of the last election? Are they more like Red Guards or like Jeffersonian democrats.
Are they a force for democracy or are they abusing democratic freedoms in the service of more radical ends?