Tuesday, June 4, 2019

The Day Democracy Died in China

Now, on the thirtieth anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, hordes of commentators are coming forth to discuss the day that democracy died in China. That China never really had democracy does not seem to phase them. They see the massacre through the lens of their favorite narrative. They saw the fall of Communism as a sign that history was ending with the advent of universal liberal democracy. And they saw the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square as an important stage of their narrative.

That it did not turn out according to their plans... was not something they are about to forget.

Of course, it is not a good idea to formulate policy by making the world fit into a narrative. Those, like Nicholas Kristof, whose careers were defined by reporting from Beijing, confidently predicted that the Chinese Communist regime was over and done, and that the people would rise up to overthrow their Communist tyrants. Evidently, his crystal ball failed him.

He was not alone. He remains one of those who still believes that China is doomed, and that Tiananmen was the catalyst.

The narrators in question have consistently missed a crucial point, point that I have occasionally pointed out on this blog. Through American eyes, the Tiananmen demonstrations looked like a frank manifestation of a yearning for freedom. To Deng Xiaoping and the leaders of the Chinese government, they looked like a return of Mao’s Red Guards. Keep in mind, they were the survivors of the Cultural Revolution. Their friends and family had been murdered by the Red Guards.

They and we were not living in the same world. We did not see the same event. Our much-vaunted capacity for empathy has failed us.

Orville Schell was there at the time. He described the atmosphere in a recent Wall Street Journal essay:

To stroll through Tiananmen Square that soft spring day in mid-May 1989 was to experience an atmosphere of excitement, hope and optimism unparalleled in recent Chinese history. Hundreds of thousands of idealistic demonstrators had flooded their country’s most hallowed public space. What had catalyzed the immense, exuberant crowd was a spontaneous impulse to memorialize the April 15 death of Hu Yaobang, the former Communist Party General Secretary, who had been cashiered two years earlier for failing to suppress student demonstrations. Now this unexpected remembrance had morphed into the longest and largest mass protest in Chinese history.

It is fair to say that the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was not a mass protest… since it was called by Mao himself. But, seriously, the waves of people filling Tiananmen Square must have reminded the leadership of the waves of students filling the Square, waving their little red books, setting off to murder and destroy.

There is nothing quite so compelling as body counts, but keep in mind, when bemoaning the carnage unleashed by Deng and his cronies, that the Cultural Revolution murdered over a million people and destroyed the Chinese economy. At Mao's death in 1976 the extreme poverty level in China was over 84%. Today it is below 10%. If the regime maintains its hold on power, the reason must have something to do with its ability to feed people.

Schell saw the protests as a reprise of past spasms of democratic activism:

China was indeed experiencing a springtime. At last, its halting tradition of democratic activism and cosmopolitan aspiration seemed on the verge of triumphing over the rival traditions of imperial rule and Leninism. Here was definitive proof that ideas of freedom were not just a foreign import or imposition. For the first time since 1949, one could suddenly imagine a China that was both more democratic and more fully integrated into the outside world.

He is trafficking an oppression/expression narrative. The Chinese people’s natural yearning for freedom had been suppressed by emperors and tyrants. Now it was bursting through its shackles and filling the central square of China’s capital city:

As protesters poured into Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989, the long-suppressed democratic hopes of the Chinese people were welling up again like a great lava vent. The square, the party’s sanctum sanctorum, had been turned into a liberated zone, creating a heady, if naive, sense of invincibility among protesters. I watched as one father sat beside his hunger-striking daughter, daubing her brow with a cool cloth. “My generation never dared speak out, much less to act out what we believed,” he sobbed. “Now my daughter’s doing it for me.” A Peking University student told me, “There’s no way the party will ever get things back into the old bottle! Just look around us. History’s sweeping them away!”

As for the American response, President George H. W. Bush chose not to offer a very strong condemnation. He decided to deal with China, and to use balance of power diplomacy:

In the immediate wake of the June 1989 massacre, President George H.W. Bush, a Republican realist more concerned with the balance of power than human rights, bent over backward to keep channels open with Deng by sending his trusted national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, on a secret visit to Beijing. The decision to keep interacting with China, even as the memory of the massacre was still raw, was controversial, but Deng’s rededication to economic reform soon afterward seemed to vindicate it.

Deng promoted economic reform. One might say that he was the most consequential economic reformer in human history. But, he promoted free enterprise without liberal democracy, and this was a severe affront to our own values. Neither he nor any of China’s other leaders ever doubted their decision. As they watched Soviet leader Gorbachev choose another path to reform, by promoting, liberal democratic values ahead of free enterprise, leading to the Russian kleptocracy and economic stagnation, they believed that they had been correct.

As for China’s leaders themselves, they have never hinted at second thoughts about the fateful decisions of June 1989. Indeed, when the Soviet Union disintegrated two years later, the regime felt vindicated: The mistakes of Mikhail Gorbachev made it clear that communist states that opened up politically were simply signing their own death warrant.

The revolution would have to wait.

Also writing in the Journal, Gerard Baker elaborates the Bush response:

Though President George H.W. Bush initially denounced the crackdown, suspended arms sales to China and announced some other sanctions, the administration decided early on that it wasn’t going to allow Tiananmen to become a turning point in U.S. policy. It became clear that the official response would be essentially to pretend that nothing had happened. “Now is the time to look beyond the moment to important and enduring aspects of this vital relationship for the United States,” President Bush said just a few days after Tiananmen. The decision to continue business as usual sparked strong opposition in Washington. In Congress, Democrats and some Republicans pushed for sanctions and a more confrontational stand against Beijing.

The verdict of history seems to vindicate the Bush approach:

China’s economic potential had already been unleashed and would be steadily realized over the next 30 years, perhaps even if the U.S. had chosen to try to isolate it. And there’s a strong argument that the U.S. has been right to seek to accommodate rather than confront and contain that power.

Unless you believe that China would ever have become a liberal democracy… dare we say that that was a pipe dream.

Baker concludes:

But by its own lights—the aim of encouraging China to become a more open, democratic, liberal society—the decision to let Beijing get away with murder 30 years ago has been an abject failure.

While we are all mourning the lives lost in Tiananmen Square, it might not seem superfluous to provide some context. Even though upwards of a thousand students were massacred three decades ago, Mao Zedong’s record was so godawful that it can barely be grasped through statistics.

Strangely enough, no one is gnashing their teeth over the famine Mao precipitated with his Great Leap Forward. The numbers are almost too large to register. Some forty million people starved to death in China six decades or so ago.

For the record, after the famine, two Chinese leaders tried to institute economic and free market reforms. They were Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. When they seemed to be succeeding in replacing Mao, the Great Helmsman declared them to be the No. 1 and No. 2 capitalist roaders and called for a cultural revolution. He unleashed student mobs. They murdered Liu Shaoqi. Deng escaped the same fate because he was protected by his friends in the military.

Also for the record, at the time of the Tiananmen demonstrations, Deng had only only one official title: Chairman of the Military Commission. Unofficially he was called the Supreme Leader… but he was neither premier nor president.

In any event, Deng and his cronies saw the Tiananmen demonstrations as another student led cultural revolution. I suspect that they believed that they had been too slow to act against Mao and his Red Guards in the sixties. And that they were not going to make the same mistake twice.

Ilya Slomin offered a picture of the Great Leap Forward in the Washington Post. He quoted historian Frank Dikotter. Consider it the background and the context for the events of three decades ago:

Historian Frank Dik├Âtter, author of the important book Mao’s Great Famine recently published an article in History Today, summarizing what happened:

Mao thought that he could catapult his country past its competitors by herding villagers across the country into giant people’s communes. In pursuit of a utopian paradise, everything was collectivised. People had their work, homes, land, belongings and livelihoods taken from them. In collective canteens, food, distributed by the spoonful according to merit, became a weapon used to force people to follow the party’s every dictate. As incentives to work were removed, coercion and violence were used instead to compel famished farmers to perform labour on poorly planned irrigation projects while fields were neglected.

A catastrophe of gargantuan proportions ensued. Extrapolating from published population statistics, historians have speculated that tens of millions of people died of starvation. But the true dimensions of what happened are only now coming to light thanks to the meticulous reports the party itself compiled during the famine….

What comes out of this massive and detailed dossier is a tale of horror in which Mao emerges as one of the greatest mass murderers in history, responsible for the deaths of at least 45 million people between 1958 and 1962. It is not merely the extent of the catastrophe that dwarfs earlier estimates, but also the manner in which many people died: between two and three million victims were tortured to death or summarily killed, often for the slightest infraction. When a boy stole a handful of grain in a Hunan village, local boss Xiong Dechang forced his father to bury him alive. The father died of grief a few days later. The case of Wang Ziyou was reported to the central leadership: one of his ears was chopped off, his legs were tied with iron wire, a ten kilogram stone was dropped on his back and then he was branded with a sizzling tool – punishment for digging up a potato.

3 comments:

trigger warning said...

"food, distributed by the spoonful according to merit, became a weapon used to force people to follow the party’s every dictate"

The SJWs at Google are helping to calculate the spoonsful now. That's Progress.

UbuMaccabee said...

There is a terrible justice that will be visited onto the Chinese Communists for the mass murder of their fellows. Their entire regime is predicated on mass slaughter. Never forget it. They are drenched in blood, bodies are in mass graves everywhere. Sadistic killers walking free, flush with cash and prestige.

Lincoln said it in 1864: "As was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

Sam L. said...

Given that there was not at any time previously when there was democracy in China...