Communist China’s 1989 Fight for Survival

China Blues

A review of The Tiananmen Papers, by Gwydion M Williams

Two questions need to be asked about the crack-down of 4th June 1989. Was the Chinese Communist Party fighting for simple survival as the ruling party? And would it have been a good thing if they had lost?

The answer to the first question should be obvious, of course political survival was the issue. The ‘mild authoritarians’ who thought Leninist power could be maintained without being enforced were deluding themselves. Their power collapsed in the Warsaw Pact countries later that year, in the Soviet Union in 1991.

As for the second, it’s much less clear. But even if you see a Western multiparty system as the best final end, it’s moot if it was really on the cards in 1989. Nor was reformist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang willing to go so far:

“Times have changed, and so have people’s ideological views. Democracy is a worldwide trend, and there is an international countercurrent against communism and socialism that flies under the banners of democracy and human rights. If the Party doesn’t hold up the banner of democracy in our country, someone else will, and we will lose out. I think we should grab the lead on this, not be pushed along grudgingly. We must, of course, insist on Communist Party leadership and not play around with any Western multiparty systems. This basic principle can allow no compromise.” (The Tiananmen Papers, p107)

Zhao Ziyang was later blamed for having encouraged protests without having anything very definite to give. And paramount leader Deng Xiaoping decided as early as 17th May that staying in power was now the issue, tried to involve Zhao Ziyang with declaring martial law in Beijing:

“Deng Xiaoping. “Of course we want to build a socialist democracy, but we can’t possibly do it in a hurry, and still less do we want that Western-style stuff. If our one billion people jumped into multiparty elections, we’d get chaos like the ‘all-out civil war’ we saw during the Cultural Revolution. You don’t have to have guns and cannon to have a civil war; fists and clubs will do just fine. Democracy is our goal, but we’ll never get there without national stability. This whole incident pushes in the wrong direction. That was clear from the start. But still some comrades don’t grasp the nature of the problem; they still think this is about how to handle students. Our adversaries are not in fact those students but people with ulterior motives. Their two basic slogans are ‘Down with the Communist Party’ and ‘Overthrow the socialist system,’ and their goal is to set up a bourgeois republic on the Western model. Not to understand this basic question is to mistake the nature of the movement.” (Ibid, p187-188)

Zhao Ziyang had been sharing day to day leadership with Premier Li Peng, but both of them still subordinate to Deng Xiaoping and the other Party Elders who had stepped back from active leadership. Zhao Ziyang’s decision to resign when Martial Law was proposed made him clearly distinct, the alternative to Li Peng and even to Deng himself. But what else did he have in mind?

You cannot have a functional socialist democracy spontaneously. Nor a functional bourgeois republic on the Western model without an historic tradition, which Eastern Europe had but China did not have and does not have. Or else a cultural hegemony such as the USA has over Latin America and parts of East Asia, so that the fashion is for coups or for autocrats or for elections and ‘people power’, as the US chooses to dictate.

The USA in the wider world tries to train its dependencies to be democratic within the USA’s notion of proper limits. Coups, invasions and the threat of the same are used wherever democracy produces a result that the US finds unacceptable. The current fashion for democracy is based on democratic elections generally producing results the US is happy with. If that changed, coups might once again become the norm.

You do not get peaceful middle-class democracy spontaneously, any more than you can acquire a railway system spontaneously. Britain’s system of parliamentary rule was born in political struggle in the 1620s, could not coexist with the monarch, and went through much turmoil before settling down after 1688 as rule by the small minority who were rich enough to vote.

Only in the 20th century was the British parliament actually elected by a majority of adult male Britons (with female rights taking rather longer). Only with the independence of India in 1947 was the Westminster Parliament was actually chosen by a majority of those it ruled over.

The USA was a democracy from the start. A democracy that supported slavery for blacks and genocide for Native Americans, but why on earth should democracies be nice to minorities? It was popular protest and especially the Gordon Riots of 1780 that kept Roman Catholics legally defined as second class citizens until well into the 19th century

Western-style democracy also requires that all local self-sufficient life shall be undermined and the whole society restructured into numerous standardised units of an entity known as The Individual. (Which is why respect for the rights of ‘The Individual’ is quite compatible with harassment of those who try to be individuals in an unacceptable and non-standard way.)

China may not want such an end, and in any case has not yet been so structured. Chinese in Taiwan have been, and in Singapore likewise, but that was due to being swamped by other much larger cultures. Singapore keeps much more of an authoritarian system, there are elections but no plausible opposition.

Chinese don’t 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 anything coherent out of a multi-party democracy.

China did try modernise through liberalism in 1911, after it overthrew its emperors. This 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. Even 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.

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.

The USA does not understand foreign countries, and tends to mismanage them even when its intentions are good. With regard to China, even the intentions are moot. 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. It is already the world’s second economy, or third if you count the European Union as a single entity. It’s on course to become a larger economy than the USA some time in the 21st century: there are US politicians who’d be pleased to see China suffer a misfortune in the way both Russia and Japan did.

In 1989, it still looked as if Gorbachev might succeed in reviving the Soviet Union. But if Zhao Ziyang had aspirations to be China’s Gorbachev, then he was a fool who jumped on board a sinking ship, and deservedly sank with it. Conceivably he was a covert liberal who only pretended not to want Western multiparty systems even as he tried to push China down the slippery slope to such things. But that seems unlikely, he probably understood no more than Gorbachev turned out to know. If initially Zhao Ziyang might have seemed well placed to return after Deng’s death, as Deng did after Mao died, the humiliating fall of Russia into poverty and powerlessness must have changed perceptions.

There was also no question of following the Gorbachev trail while Deng was still alive, and quite willing to tough it out. Mao had condemned him as ‘following the capitalist road’, Western commentators supposed that this was what he was doing. But when the chips were down, Deng turned out to be a Maoist after all.

“Deng Xiaoping. “Those countries like to come up with resolution after resolution about how to interfere in our internal affairs. But the interference is no big deal for us; we can ignore it if we like, or we can fight back. Those countries want to apply sanctions against us? All right, but first, let’s ask them why this is any of their business. And second, if it is, then we can fight with sanctions, too. Our economic growth might suffer, but not all that much. We’ve done all right under international sanctions for most of the forty years of the People’s Republic. So we don’t have to worry too much; we can take it all calmly. This little tempest is not going to blow us over. We’re not trying to offend anybody; we’re just plugging away at our own work. Anybody who tries to interfere in our affairs or threaten us is going to come up empty.

“We Chinese have self-confidence; inferiority complexes get you nowhere. For more than a century we were forced to feel inferior, but then, under the leadership of the Communist Party, we stood up. No behemoth out there can scare us now. We fought the Japanese for eight years and fought the Americans in Korea for three. We have a tradition of winning even when we’re outnumbered or under-armed. Our people are not going to cower before foreign invasions or threats, and neither will our children or grandchildren.” (Ibid, page 423).

Zhao Ziyang was open to suspicion of ‘inferiority complexes’. There is brief mention (page 258) of 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 seems most irrational, blaming the poor for not being in the right geographical position.

From the Internet I got the following comment from New China Broadcast, 1 August 1989:

“’River Elegy’ declared that ‘after thousands of years of loneliness, the Yellow River has seen the blue sea (capitalist civilization) and will go into it.’ The series praised at length the history, geography, race and culture of the capitalist countries. As for capitalism’s exploitation, oppression, aggression, and killing of people both at home and abroad, the authors do not even mention it.”

Neither side in the debate seem to know that Adam Smith in The Wealth Of Nations regarded 18th century China as richer than any part of Europe, a point I’ve documented in my book ‘Adam Smith: Wealth Without Nations’. He was one of many in the European Enlightenment who’d have liked 18th century Europe to become a lot more like 18th century China. Only with the French Revolution and the parallel Industrial Revolution in Britain did Europe start making its own distinctive way in the world. Early 21st Chinese should take note and be wary of slavishly copying a social model that may well be near the end of its useful life.

Though the students called for ‘democracy’, they didn’t necessarily understand this as them showing any tolerance for those who disagreed with them, violent threats were made against anyone who criticised them. And the ‘Goddess of Democracy’ was blatantly modelled on US Status of Liberty – I wonder how Americans would react if someone placed a huge mask of Chairman Mao on the face of Miss Liberty in New York?

The Tiananmen protestors were demanding ‘all or nothing’, seeking to topple Deng’s Leninist regime in the same way the Europeans Leninist regimes were to be toppled. But China is not Europe, and all of the Asian Leninist regimes survived the crisis, as has Castro’s Cuba.

There is also a widespread belief that if Deng had not taken a hard line, there were others who might have stepped in and done so. Perhaps also rolling back the whole process of reform. Deng had to worry about a polarisation that might have left him dependant on hard-liners.

The outcome turned on a few key individuals. After refusing to accept Martial Law, Zhao Ziyang was out of office and a virtual prisoner, but also well placed to be restored if the protests succeeded. And in this, Wan Li was the key. He was Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, theoretically had the right to topple the existing system. He had also sounded like he agreed with Zhao Ziyang, and was out of the country visiting America at the time. And the students occupying Tiananmen assumed that when he returned to Beijing, he could lead them in the overthrow of the existing regime.

Wan Li however did not return to Beijing. He obeyed the instructions of his fellow leaders to go instead to Shanghai, where Party secretary Jiang Zemin had successfully asserted Party authority, closing a Shanghai newspaper called the World Economic Herald when it ignored party rules.

Jiang was given the key task of handling Wan Li, as is described on pages 278-9. He was surprised that no one more senior was sent to help. But evidently the Party elders decided that he had shown competence where Li Peng had been arrogant and Zhao Ziyang weak or disloyal. And Jiang was being prepared for the leadership role he was to exercise later on:

“Yang Shangkun: “Shanghai’s stance has been most clear-cut. Jiang Zemin was very direct in the World Economic Herald matter… Shanghai’s taken a lot of heat. Personally I think Shanghai could have handled the matter more tactfully.”

“Deng Xiaoping: “Comrade Chen Yun told me after Jiang Zemin shook up the Herald, ‘We should handle the student demonstrations the way Jiang Zemin would.’ And Xiannian said, ‘Jiang Zemin insists on the Four Principles but sticks with reform and opening up at the same time. He’s got it just right politically, has strong Party loyalty, and can see the big picture. ‘Xiannian completely approves of Jiang’s methods.’

“Yang Shangkun: “Jiang Zemin knows how to handle protests. I remember last time, when Jiang Zemin spoke with students at Jiaotong University, he recited passages from Marx in English.” (Ibid., page 143)

Wan Li had the power to reconvene the National People’s Congress, China’s Parliament, and perhaps start the sort of slide towards Western forms as occurred in Eastern Europe later that same year. Or perhaps start a civil war, Deng later talked of a civil war that he was sure his side would have won, but which would certainly have been much bloodier and more brutal than the actual crack-down. And so Jiang Zemin was delegated to talk Wan Li round, after he was brought first to Shanghai. This was the key moment, seen so at the time, there was an expectation and prediction that Wan Li could secure a victory for the protestors.

It was said at the time on the BBC that he fell into a trap, but this seems wrong. Deng had already decided that he wanted Jiang to succeed him, with Li Peng as Jiang’s deputy. Wan Li was talked round by Jiang Zemin and that was decisive. Only then did Li Peng organise the clearing of the square – not a massacre, but involving fighting and killing outside of the square itself, with the protestors hoping they could start a civil war. But it didn’t happen, and Jiang Zemin who had handled the Shanghai protests without bloodshed or serious strife was made the new Party Secretary, as Deng Xiaoping had wished.

It is notable that Deng could not find a successor from his own people. Bringing in Jiang was an acceptance of defeat on that point. But it was also a way to preserve the reform package as a whole, since Jiang had been running it successfully. He emerges from it so well that I can’t wondering if it was Jiang Zemin’s supporters who were behind the leak, and the best way of getting a favourable picture to middle-ranking Party people who would trust a Western source much more than their own media.

The only apparent point against Jiang is that the 2nd generation of leaders chose him ahead of the people with formal authority to do so. But so what? Who the hell would care, in a Leninist party? No one in the West was put off by the rumours that Khrushchev shot Berea at a party meeting – but then Khrushchev was moving the Soviet Union in directions the West approved of.

Deng had tried to force Zhao Ziyang to support the suppression of the students, and successfully dropped the man into political limbo when he balked. Li Peng accepted the logic of events, but Deng also decided that this made him unacceptable to too many people. So he designated Jiang as his heir, a man who had handled protests in Shanghai without either bloodshed or loss of party authority.

That Deng together with the other ‘elders’ had the right to make such decisions was not seriously disputed. Jiang was made Party General Secretary though proper procedures, but no one doubted that Deng had the last word for as long as he lived.

That Jiang Zemin would keep supreme power after Deng died had seemed less certain. In Leninist regimes, power is much more often taken than given. But Deng had been clever in keeping Li Peng as Number Two, an ‘insider’ with contacts and loyalties that Jiang lacked. Li Peng remains a loyal Number Two because his part in mishandling the original protests and then in the crackdown makes it almost impossible for him to get the top job. While Jiang Zemin without Li Peng would be as vulnerable to overthrow as other designated heirs of supreme Leninist leaders.

The Tiananmen Papers also say that the intention was to end the occupation with a show of force but without bloodshed. The editors do not dispute that this was the intention. They even say – unrealistically – “the killings occurred, despite orders to the contrary, when inadequately trained troops went out of control.” (Ibid, page xxiii). And Yang Shangkun – originally Zhao Ziyang’s sponsor among the ‘elders’ – says he thinks the job can be done without bloodshed. (Page 361.) Deng says no such thing, he’s probably figured this is no more realistic that Zhao’s earlier belief he could talk down the protests without abandoning Leninism.

Leninism was abandoned everywhere in Europe, and in the Soviet Union’s Asian dependencies, including Mongolia which was formally sovereign. But not where there ruling party had made its own tradition and would have fought for it. And some of what Deng says to party inner circles might have been tailor-made to be leaked at the time to the inner circles of Western decision-making and persuade them not to challenge his authority. (Sometimes enemy spies in your own camp can be even more useful than your own spies in the enemy camp, the kind of political sophistication that Chinese understand rather better than Americans.)

“Imagine for a moment what could happen if China falls into turmoil. If it happens now, it’d be far worse than the Cultural Revolution. Back then the prestige of the old generation of leaders like Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou still loomed. We talked about ‘full-scale civil war,’ but actually no large-scale fighting took place, no true civil war ever happened. Now it’s different, though. If the turmoil keeps going, it could continue until Party and state authority are worn away. Then there would be civil war, one faction controlling parts of the army and another faction controlling others. If the so-called democracy fighters were in power, they’d fight among themselves. Once civil war got started, blood would flow like a river, and where would human rights be then? In a civil war, each power would dominate a locality, production would fall, communications would be cut off, and refugees would flow out of China not in millions or tens of millions but in hundreds of millions. First hit by this flood of refugees would be Pacific Asia, which is currently the most promising region of the world. This would be disaster on a global scale. So China mustn’t make a mess of itself And this is not just to be responsible to ourselves, but to consider the whole world and all of humanity as well.” (Ibid., page 359)

No one in the West had wanted the Vietnamese refugees. Britain shut the door on the Hong Kong Chinese, and was then disappointed when they reached a friendly settlement with Beijing. No one now wants Russians and East Europeans fleeing the chaos and poverty that followed the peaceful and briefly hopeful overthrow of dictatorships. And no one at all would have wanted the flood of refugees that Deng threatened.

Deng made it clear in 1989 just what he would and would not accept: “Once the turmoil passes, we will owe the people some explanations… The new Central leadership structure should present a brand-new look and should project an image of hope and of commitment to reform… Workers, farmers, intellectuals, and students all want reform. We’ve heard all kinds of slogans recently, but nobody shouts ‘Down with reform!’

“Some people, of course, understand ‘reform to mean movement toward liberalism or capitalism. Capitalism is the heart of reform for them, but not for us. What we mean by reform is different and still under debate. But in any case, to present a fresh, reform-oriented face is of paramount importance when we select members of our new leadership team.” (Ibid., page 325)

Jiang Zemin delivered what Deng promised. And most Chinese seem happy with it, at least for now.

(The Tiananmen Papers, Compiled By Zhang Liang, edited by Andrew J. Nathan and Perry Link. £20 from Little, Brown And Company 2001)

First published in Labour & Trade Union Review, 2001.

Elsewhere, I also predicted that the Arab Spring would definitely fail, except perhaps in Tunisia.  And I’d said from early on that overthrowing Saddam in Iraq would remove the only effective force there for Western values.

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