World

China After Tiananmen

Understanding China's remarkable transformation

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Spring always brings new blossoms, but 20 years ago, spring brought to China an unprecedented flowering. In hundreds of cities, citizens took to the streets in peaceful protests to demand freedom, government accountability, and an end to corruption—and the government, once among the most repressive on earth, stood by and let them.

It was an intoxicating moment that didn't last. By the morning of June 4, the government had reversed course, sending the army to crush the long-running student demonstration in the capital's Tiananmen Square, leaving hundreds dead, and the Beijing Spring was over.

Since that day, China has undergone such a broad transformation that it is almost unrecognizable. The economy has opened up to markets, private property, and foreign trade. Living standards have soared. The government that once preached world revolution now provides credit to sustain American consumption. Chinese students go abroad to attend universities in bastions of capitalism.

But the bloody events of 1989 are still a live issue in China. Last month brought forth the posthumous secret memoir of Zhao Ziyang, the Communist Party chief removed because of his sympathy for the protesters. In it, he denounced the crackdown as "a tragedy to shock the world" and said his country deserved "a state more suitable to a democratic society."

Naturally, the book is not available in China, except to those who elude Internet censors. The government has gone to great lengths to suppress any discussions of the anniversary, even blocking Internet services like Twitter and Flickr.

The sensitivity of the topic, even though most young people know little or nothing about it, is a measure of the impact the 1989 protests had on the people in power. Even today, it troubles their sleep.

But the episode was not what it initially appeared to be: the end of China's evolution toward a more liberal system. It was only an interruption of that process. In the aftermath, the Chinese Communist Party grasped that it could hold onto power only by delivering a better life to its people, which it could achieve only by loosening its grip on their lives.

By now, it has had to abandon its own ideology and invoke Western principles. In his 2007 speech to the national party congress, President Hu Jintao used the term "democracy" some 60 times, while calling for the government to be more open, accountable and limited.

This declaration should not be taken on faith, but it's not just lip service. Democratic elections have become common at the village level. The government clearly strives to take public sentiment into account in making policy. When an earthquake devastated Sichuan province a year ago, foreign reporters were allowed unprecedented freedom to cover the aftermath. A system of law is emerging.

The average person now enjoys far more personal freedom and independence than the Chinese of previous generations. "I am often surprised by how accustomed people in China have grown to expressing political opinions in private, in ways that would have been unthinkable 10 or 20 years ago," Patrick Chovanec, a professor at Beijing's Tsinghua University, told me.

Chinese blogs and websites don't shy from social ills and government abuses, and some 300 million people have access to the Internet. On a recent trip to China, I found access to the Human Rights Watch website blocked. But when I searched U.S. newspapers for criticisms of the Chinese government by the group, they were freely accessible.

The demise of totalitarianism is apparent from the willingness of ordinary Chinese to express their discontent. Last year, there were 120,000 "mass incidents," such as strikes and demonstrations, and the pace has accelerated this year.

There are, however, still grave risks in challenging the government. Freedom House, the New York-based human rights organization, says China's labor camps and prisons hold hundreds of thousands of religious and political prisoners. In a basic way, the regime responsible for the Tiananmen Square tragedy has not changed.

But as societies grow richer, history indicates, they invariably become democratic, as Taiwan and South Korea did not so long ago. China's rulers clearly fear they will eventually fall to the same iron law.

In light of the government's poor human rights record, genuine rule by the people may seem as distant today as it did on June 4, 1989. But if there is one safe assumption, it's that the crucial chapters on Chinese democracy are yet to be written.

COPYRIGHT 2009 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.

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  1. This is absolutely my favorite historic moment caputured on film.

    Can't help but wonder whatever happened to the guy standing in front of the column of tanks... or if I would had the guts to stand my ground under similar circumstances.

  2. One thing to bear in mind: the vast majority of the protesters were opposed to market reforms, the pro-democracy movement was led by people who thought that through democracy they could roll back the clock to a purer form of communism.*

    The violent suppression of the protest movement followed by opening up the economy are not paradoxical - the notion that political freedom and economic freedom lead to each other is not necessarily a correct one.

    *This does not mean that I think the students deserved to be killed or that we shouldn't treat the PLA massacre as an atrocity. I merely want to correct a common misconception held out here in the U.S. of A.

  3. One day, there will be a statue of this scene in Tiananmen Square.

  4. One day, there will be a statue of this scene in Tiananmen Square.

    They're working on one. It's called "Imminent Triumph of the People's Army Tank Corp Over Western Running Dog Puppets."

    P.S. Any replies to this comment will most likely consist of ad homs, as libertarians concede my points and show their childish, anti-intellectual nature.

  5. Also, i would quibble with this: Chinese students go abroad to attend universities in bastions of capitalism. Even in such bastions, most universities are pretty staunchly anti-capitalist, so it's not like that's a good example of the spread of free-market ideas.

  6. Where exactly are there any "bastions of capitalism" for these students to go abroad to? We certainly aren't considering the US in its current state one, right?

  7. BK: Uh, Singapore?

  8. bastions of capitalism

    good luck searching, and happy trails.

    Yo - fuck dog eating tank drivers.

  9. Will economic progress ever bring political reforms? Or has it already?

    China marks Tiananmen Square with special Happy Meal toy: http://bit.ly/3mxTW

  10. tarran, are you saying the second paragraph here

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiananmen_Square_protests_of_1989

    is not accurate? Do you have a link to something else? Very curious about this and how its been reported all these years. An inaccurate assumption by western media types wouldn't shock me, but it raises many other questions about the protestors' motivations.

  11. Good grief, can't we respect that they did--as Mr. Chapman put it--"demand freedom, government accountability, and an end to corruption" without condemning them for being insufficiently capitalist? People were more worried about the government "disappearing" their friends and family than about their 401Ks.

  12. In response to Tarran:

    "One thing to bear in mind: the vast majority of the protesters were opposed to market reforms, the pro-democracy movement was led by people who thought that through democracy they could roll back the clock to a purer form of communism"

    Did you get this information from Naomi Kleins The Shock Doctrine? There is very little evidence to suggest that the protesters were petitioning against liberal economic reforms:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=76453vnomIc

  13. "Where exactly are there any "bastions of capitalism" for these students to go abroad to? We certainly aren't considering the US in its current state one, right?"

    They must mean Hong Kong?

  14. At the moment I think the PRC, Vietnam and Singapore are all better examples of Capitalism than the United States.

  15. Hmmm...

    Let's see here, China is getting more democratic while expanding capitalism. Now, they are the world's fastest growing economy. They are an economic and political power rivaling the US and the EU. Their standard of living is getting better and so on.

    Now let's look at our friends on the other side of the Atlantic. Europe has always been more socialist, Marxist, and anti-capitalism. However, these tendencies are getting stronger. Just as these faults grow, Europe really seems less desirable. As we take our tentative first steps (or should I say flying leaps) towards socialism, things are getting worse.

    More socialism and totalitarianism doesn't work on a small scale in Europe, why should it work here? More democracy and capitalism seems to be working on a larger scale in China, why shouldn't is work here?

  16. Whenever people complain about our government going red, they want to go to Canada. Why is that? Canada is just as bad as Europe. Maybe we should change "I'm moving to Canada" to "I'm moving to Hong Kong."

  17. Did you get this information from Naomi Kleins The Shock Doctrine?

    No, I got it off of a documentary where they actually interviewed the people taking part in the protests.

  18. One thing to bear in mind: the vast majority of the protesters were opposed to market reforms, the pro-democracy movement was led by people who thought that through democracy they could roll back the clock to a purer form of communism.*

    You mean people who had grown up surrounded by communist propaganda might have some skewed ideas about economics? Heaven forbid!

    I had no illusions about them being Chinese John Galts. What's important is that they acted on the instinctive human desire for freedom against a totalitarian government.

  19. """""Headtater writes
    Let's see here, China is getting more democratic while expanding capitalism.""""

    So where is there anything in the article or anyone's comments which support your claim that China is getting more democratic? It's a dictatorship run by the communist party. Even its "capitalism" is based more on getting the right person in the communist party to give you land or licenses then it is on economics.

    And since democracy and freedom is not the same China is not getting any freer either except if you have the right connections to the communist party

    You probably think that a corporation owned by the People's Liberation Army has something to do with free markets. And yes I know that they supposedly sold off these assets but we all know that it was sold to the very officers or family members who run the PLA

  20. I studied Asian politics and governments, under Professor Richard Levy, a nationally recognized expert on the PRC. As he explained it, the protests started with student intellectuals, looking for greater freedom, period; as it went on, workers got involved, protesting for a more controlled, socialist economy.

  21. Yeah, some of you are under the misguided illusion that the Party leaders throwing around the word "democracy" actually means something. Well, it doesn't. The Party only cares about maintaining that illusion as long as the economy keeps growing and dumping tons of money into Party coffers. You'll notice that anything they perceive as a threat to the Party (e.g. Falun Gong) is as ruthlessly stamped out as ever.

  22. At the moment I think the PRC, Vietnam and Singapore are all better examples of Capitalism than the United States.

    I haven't been to Singapore in the last couple of years, but I have been to the other two and I concur.

  23. The Chinese government has stopped being communist in all but name. Given their market reforms, increased reliance on nationalism, and totalitarian control of society, it would not be much of stretch to label today's Chinese government as fascist.

    Fortunately, totalitarian goverments are not well adapted to the information age, because they are always trying to control information. They are good at manufacturing, but not good at entreprenuership and developing original technologies. Once China's per capita GDP gets to the point where they need to do more than manufacture exports to keep growing, they will have to give up totalitarianism if they want to remain competitive with the rich nations of the world.

  24. Justin Raimondo wrote an EXCELLENT analysis of the events that led up to Tiannamen and the "communist" Party that followed. Much more nuanced and balanced than anything one would ever find in any U.S. Government propagandist media, um, er, I mean Mainstream Media.

    http://www.antiwar.com/justin/justinchina1.html#more

  25. @Rhywun

    Falun Gong is a rabidly anti-goverment, homophobic space-alien worshiping cult. It would never be tolerated here (look up David Koresh, Ruby Ridge, Black Panthers, Symbionese Liberation Army...)

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