Communist China’s survival after the Tiananmen Crackdown

China After Tiananmen

By Gwydion M. Williams

The crack-down of 4th June 1989 was a fight for political survival by the Chinese Communist Party. Reformist party general secretary Zhao Ziyang had missed the point. Gorbachev and other ‘mild authoritarians’ who thought their power could be maintained without being reinforced were deluding themselves. Their power collapsed in the Warsaw Pact countries later that year, in the Soviet Union in 1991. The book ‘The Tiananmen Papers’, misses the point. Democrats are supposed to ‘bear witness’ for democracy, in the manner of a religious sect, and without considering the problem of establishing a functional democracy.

Deng’s people knew that the choice in June 1989 was accepting multi-party rule, perhaps disgrace and imprisonment, or else saving their own power. I’d now ask, would it have been a good thing if Deng’s group had lost?

You cannot have a functional socialist democracy spontaneously. Nor a functional bourgeois republic on the Western model without both an historic tradition and a nearby example. This was what Eastern Europe had but China lacks. You do not generate peaceful middle-class democracy spontaneously, any more than you can acquire a railway system spontaneously.

Liberalism supposes itself to be a theory of human nature. It treats as an ‘act of God’ the successful enforcement of just one of the many social natures that have been crafted out of the infinite range of human possibility. The same weakness applies even more strongly to modern ‘conservatives’, who are liberals with the benevolent and large-spirited side of liberalism rooted out

Britain’s system of parliamentary rule was born in political struggle in the 1620s, and could not coexist with the monarch. But after parliament deposed and executed Charles 1st, it found it couldn’t rule alone either and had to yield to Cromwell as ‘Lord Protector’. The restored monarchy of 1660 was no more stable, with James II having to flee for his life in 1688 and a long period of uncertainty with every prospect of yet another civil war.

Only George III in 1760 was popular and safe–and he then faced a challenge from John Wilkes, pioneer of the middle-class democracy that later became the norm. In the rougher conditions of 18th century Britain, it led to the Gordon Riots of 1780, which resembled the opening stages of the French Revolution, though it was brutally anti-Catholic as well as democratic and semi-revolutionary. The destruction of Newgate Jail set a precedent for the later French destruction of the Bastille.

It’s interesting to wonder how history might have gone had ‘Bonny Prince Charlie’ managed to father an heir or two. French revolutionary influence was weak in Britain because it was seen as foreign. A synthesis of Jacobite and Jacobin might have been different, just as the House of Orleans played a big role in starting the French Revolution.

Britain was highly repressive all through the wars with Republican France and Napoleonic France. Protestors had to resort to odd subterfuges like supporting the rights of the Prince of Wales’s unwanted wife, an opinion that not even a much-abused English legal system could find treasonable. (Not unlike the tricks used nowadays in China and other countries where the civilisation is being changed rapidly and little can be taken for granted.)

It was threat of revolution again in 1832 that persuaded a reluctant monarch and House of Lords to extend the vote to the middle class. Only after 1867 did substantial numbers of working men have a vote, and not all adult males living in Britain until 1918. Only with the independence of India in 1947 was the Westminster Parliament chosen by a majority of those it ruled over.

Before you can have functional middle-class democracy, the whole society has to be structured and made uniform, secure enough to fight a bloodless civil war every four or five years, secure against the prospect of the existing government losing power to people they dislike or despise. Britain needed more than a hundred years of turmoil, with a king executed, another forced to flee and a Lord Protector posthumously redefined as a traitor, before it could even get functional democracy for the gentry and the rich.

The USA was the inheritor of the British compromise. But to maintain this happy state, it had a bloody civil war to settle the incompatible visions of North and South in the 1860s.. And part of the deal is that all local self-sufficient life shall be undermined and the whole society restructured into standardised units of an entity known as The Individual.

China has not yet been so structured. Among other un-bourgeois features, Chinese don’t spontaneously form queues. They queue when there is some strong authority about that requires them to queue, otherwise they push. Unless and until they become a people who spontaneously queue, they are unlikely to make a good show of a multi-party democracy.

China did try modernise through liberalism in 1911, after it overthrew its emperors. But this relied on political instincts that were just not there in China, and led to chaos and Warlordism. The Western powers were far from sympathetic, just as they had helped to defeat the Chinese-Christian Taiping in the 1850s and 1860s. The pro-Western and anti-Communist Kuomintang received very lukewarm support in the 1930s when the Japanese were invading China in defiance of International Law.

Sun Yat Sen after the 1911 collapse did work out a program of transition, that a functional democracy is something you need to build, and also confine within limits. In China it failed, with the Kuomintang disgraced by their failure to defend China from the Japanese. But later, on Taiwan, they did carry it through successfully.

When Mao in 1949 declared that China had ‘stood up’, not many in China disputed it. The Kuomintang regime that Mao overthrew had looked to the Western good intentions and help found they relied upon a ‘broken reed’. China in 1949 was at about the same level as India, whereas now it is much richer and stronger. This widening gap increased under Deng but was built on the foundations of Mao’s rule.

If India has not done as well as China, it has still done well in its own terms. For a real disaster area, look at Indonesia, which in the 1960s opted to be pro-Western rather than Communist or Neutralist. And Indonesia, with its huge population and great diversity, is a much better comparison than successful but much smaller and more homogeneous nations like Thailand and South Korea.

The USA does not understand foreign countries, and tends to mismanage them even when their intentions are good. They are not just determined to make everyone just like them, but also determined it shall be done as they pretend it happened in their history rather than as the original trick was done. To resist such ‘good advice’ is very necessary.

With regard to China, it is moot if their intentions are especially good. Japan in the days before it wrecked its economy with ‘liberalisation’ was being presented as the USA’s next enemy, and China has also been considered for that role. China at its present rate of growth is by some measures already the world’s second economy, or third if you count the European Union as a single entity. Unless some major upset occurs, China should become a larger economy than the USA some time in the 21st century: some US politicians would like to see China suffer a misfortune in the way Russia and Japan did.

All of the Leninist regimes that liberalised in the 1980s then collapsed, and this was followed by a massive decline in material wealth in the Warsaw Pact countries and in Russia. For Poland, the Czech Republic etc. the price has been well worth paying, they are independent nations again. They will join an European Community in which each individual Pole, Czech etc. will have as much power and status as any German, French or English person. Even their economy has bounced back somewhat, as they as gradually pulled into the wider European system.

Russians were already expressing their national identity through the late-Soviet state, and have reaffirmed its value under Putin with gestures like restoring the Stalin-era national anthem. And this is much more strongly true of China, because pre-Communist Russia had never been humiliated and scored as pre-Communist China had been.

Defeated reformer Zhao Ziyang was open to suspicion of ‘inferiority complexes’. One issue was his support for a television documentary called ‘River Elegy’ and its theory of China including both a backward inward-looking ‘yellow civilisation’ and a prosperous coastal ‘blue civilisation’. This sounds most irrational, blaming the poor for not being in the right geographical position. As Communist veteran Wang Zhen put it:

‘Zhao Ziyang’s never paid a whit of attention to people like us. Comrade Xiaoping supports him and cultivates him, and all he does is rebel. That TV film River Elegy that was so popular last year was aimed at glorifying him.” Comrade Xiaoping never appeared in it-only Zhao Ziyang. I was against it from the start. What’s this ‘blue’ civilization, this ‘sea’ civilization, that they praise? It’s bandit civilization-bandit logic-that’s what! When a TV show like this gets shown-even shown twice!-what do you think it’s all about if not building a Zhao Ziyang cult? This student turmoil we’re seeing should’ve been stopped long ago. Would students have dared do this when Chairman Mao was around? When I reported to Comrade Xiaoping that I thought we should be more decisive, he said let’s just watch a bit longer. But what are we watching? Aren’t we just watching Zhao sit there? Quite a picture! The big number 1 boss, and doing nothing about it! On the contrary, he opposes us, opposes martial law. What he really wants is to drive us old people from power. We didn’t mistreat him; he’s the one who’s picked the fight. When he falls it’ll be his own fault.” (The Tiananmen Papers, page 258)

A note in the same book explains:

River Elegy was a six-part video production broadcast on Chinese national television in summer 1988. It addressed such issues as Chinese xenophobia and national pride, isolationism and wall building, authoritarian rule, and the contrast between a backward hinterland (a “yellow civilization”) and a thriving, outward-looking coastal economy (a ‘blue civilization’). Authors Su Xiaokang and Wang Luxiang criticized ‘feudal’ traditions of the past in order to convey criticisms of the contemporary political system that would be taboo if stated more directly.”

No one seem to know that Adam Smith in The Wealth Of Nations described China as richer than any part of Europe, a point I’ve documented in my book Wealth Without Nations. There is much less excuse for not recognising how Europe’s world-wide venture relied on at least three products of China’s ‘backward’ yellow civilisation; the magnetic compass, printing and gunpowder weapons. And the voyage of Columbus was motivated by Marco Polo’s reports of the wealth of China in the days of Kublai Khan.

The Chinese under the early Ming dynasty did try ocean explorations. These voyages rediscovered old lands with existing trade networks, and some cold uninteresting islands. Whereas both in West Africa and the New World, the Portuguese and Spanish found rich lands without sophisticated trading or a money economy, and with less efficient armies.

China had no huge demand for any foreign product, nor was there any need for the state to promote trade that would proceed anyway. Whereas Europe as a whole had a big demand for East Asian spices, trade blocked by Muslim middle-men. And Europe’s trade was for centuries dependant on state sponsorship or monopoly companies (Europe developed in accordance with New Right shibboleths would not have developed).

Europe – specifically Spain – got control of the gold and silver of the New World. This allowed a flow of trade highly favourable to Europe,  New World precious metals for Asian commodities. The second big enterprise was slave-based commodity production in the New World, labour from West Africa taken to the New World to grow crops from Europe on land that had been ruthlessly seized from its original inhabitants. This subsidised and supported the third enterprise, European settlement, which would have been much slower without it.

None of this hugely affected the advanced civilisations of Asia. Even as late as the 18th century, Europe had few goods that China wanted or needed. It was not that China was changeless. Things that fitted the existing order were accepted, including New World crops that allowed fresh territories to be cultivated and China’s population to rise to unprecedented heights. And though there was nothing like Western science or later industrialism, 18th century visitors saw China as sophisticated and impressive, not the dull backward ‘yellow’ civilisation that the Victorians claimed it to be after they started disrupting it with gunships and opium.

Many people in 18th century European Enlightenment wanted Europe to become just like 18th century China. Had they succeeded, they’d have had no notion what they’d missed out on. Is it any more sensible for Chinese in the early 21st century to want to become just like early 21st century Europe or America? History is a never-ending cycle!

The protestors at Tiananmen raised many issues, of course. Protests at corruption were valid. Deng’s modernisation had allowed a lot of it, bribes were the oil that lubricated change, much as it had during Britain’s Industrialisation. Mao had run a simple uncorrupted system, though there were privileges, these were limited. Under strict Communism this did work. But Deng’s reforms saw a considerable return to Chinese norms.

When Deng decided to reward successful entrepreneurs, this had its own logic. Why is it legitimate when the rich reward politicians, but not when politicians force the rich to reward them. Why is it fine if the exiting stratum of rich and privileged control the process, but otherwise not, even with elected officials.

Commercial societies have always been corrupt, massively so in Britain’s Georgian Industrial Revolution. And while the corrupt Georgian gentry did accept basic welfare and responsibility, the ‘moral’ Victorians replaced it with something much colder and nastier, a mean-spirited system that let ordinary Britons live in abject poverty and was content that market forces should cause food to be exported from famine zones – not just in the Irish Potato Famine but also in numerous famines in India.

The problem in the Third World is not corruption, the most successful economies are just as venal as the disaster areas. The distinction is whether a corrupt ruling stratum recycles its wealth back into the society, as Britons did in the 18th century, as most Asians do now. Or do they siphon the money off into foreign bank accounts, leaving their countries with nothing but debts, as happens in Africa and especially under pro-Western regimes like Mobutu in the Congo.

Jiang has partly corrected the corruption that flourished under Deng. And on economic matters, he does much as the USA does, rather than as they say it is good for foreigners to do. He opens the economy where it suits China, and keeps restrictions where it suits China, just as the USA does for its own relations with the rest of the world. (Even Britons are not allowed to own industries that the USA regards as ‘strategic’.)

I’ve talked so far about why it was rational for the Chinese Communist Party to act as it did, unless it planned to lose power. But I don’t regret Gorbachev’s accidental demolition of the Soviet Union, and at the time of Tiananmen I was very much hoping the Deng leadership would fall. Given what later happened in Russia and Eastern Europe, this was a mistake. But that does not mean that Chinese politics could or should remain static for ever.

Leninism took power with an early-20th century view of hierarchy and authority, and hung on to it in the Soviet empire to the bitter end. In its day, it was positive in affirming strict ‘meritocracy’ and women’s rights, and in opposing the racism that was then the norm – US President Woodrow Wilson wrote openly and unashamedly of his admiration for the Klu Klux Klan. But once the West had adapted to the original democratic / meritocratic demands, Leninism was left with nothing to offer but a frozen remnant of early-20th century views of hierarchy and authority

Mao’s positive achievement in the Cultural Revolution was to disrupt this and give the system flexibility. It is now apparent, the Soviet system was saved in 1968 at the expense of its long-term future. Also, the system stagnated and then seized up, whereas China has continued with fast economic growth. Private enterprise allows for lots of different corporate cultures, which have different strengths and weaknesses. Leninism went for monoculture, which succeeded very well for a time, then to simultaneous crisis for all descendants of the Soviet system. Mao, did succeed in getting out of the looming trap, long before anyone else saw it.

Deng had decided to allow private enterprise and commerce, but only so long as it fitted the overall pattern of strengthening China. He also made it clear after Tiananmen that he was willing to stand on the Chinese People’s republic forty years of success and power. If the outside world wanted to resume the cold war, he was ready.

The party under Deng was right to be worried that a ‘tiny handful’ among the demonstrators might overthrow them. As I see it, the underlying idea was that almost any ‘tiny handful’ could organise a mass filled with a general idea of progress and modernisation. The party were the current ‘tiny handful’, in charge of a generally well-disposed mass, but open to losing it.

Leninism meant very different things in Europe and in the rest of the world. In Europe it was an alternative path of development. In Asia it was the only available path to development short of a complete absorption of West European or American values.

Asian Leninism was as much nationalist as socialist, with an assertion of sovereign rights when these had been subverted. And it is not surprising to find Mao now added to China’s informal pantheon.   Chinese, like Pagan Greek, can deify mortals and make them symbolic of something. It would be like Lenin or even Stalin becoming a saint of the Orthodox Church, which of course will not happen.

But what will happen? What should happen? Multi-party is the world norm, and the Chinese would be wise to accept it just as they accept English as the de facto world language. China has been doing well economically, but this could change. To do nothing is to risk disaster in some future unforeseeable crisis, with the possibility of a messy civil war with China’s minority regions trying to secede with American backing.

One option is to borrow from an existing successful system of Chinese democracy, that built by the Kuomintang on Taiwan, where the Kuomintang has been able after long transition to pass over power to an opposition party without disaster. Agree that both traditions were legitimate. Since Beijing wants reunification, why not do it by stages, and also democratise by stages, allowing the Kuomintang to operate all over China as a responsible opposition party with experience of government. That way, the existing system could hope for a ‘soft landing’ rather than the sort of disintegration that the Soviet Union suffered.

It’s wise to build your bridges before you need to cross them!


First published in Labour & Trade Union Review, 2001

The notion of the Kuomintang becoming a legal opposition on the mainland was probably foolish. In any case, though the Kuomintang did let themselves be voted out of power on Taiwan, they later got their revenge by having former President Chen Shui-bian jailed for corruption.

The failure of the USA to create a new order in Iraq, the disasters following the much-praised Arab Spring and now the disintegration of Ukraine have reduced the possible attractions of multi-party democracy.

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