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China's Communist Party is preparing grand celebrations in October for the 70th anniversary of Mao's victory over Chang Kai-shek and his founding of communist China. However, 2019 is also the 100th anniversary of the "May 4" student protests of 1919 (the birth of Chinese nationalism), the 60th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising and massacre of 1959, the 10th anniversary of the Muslim riots in Xinjiang, and, last but not least, the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre (that began in April 1989 and was crushed in June). The Tianamen Square anniversary will be kept silent in China. Not a single word will be uttered on the official media and any reference to it will be promptly erased on social media. In fact, the vast majority of Chinese citizens wouldn't know what it is about: the memory of the massacre has been scientifically erased from the younger generations. But the Tianamen Square massacre was much more important than Mao in shaping today's China. Today's China is not the China of 1988. Something important happened after 1989, and it wasn't necessarily planned.
External observers (which includes everybody, not only Westerners) often underestimate how divided the Communist Party of China has always been. One could argue that the Communist Party has never reached consensus on anything. Mao himself hardly had the full approval of his party when he launched the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution (many in China give him the benefit of the doubt about the latter, suspecting that it wasn't his idea at all). Deng Xiaoping's purge in 1966 and Lin Biao's death in 1971 were spectacular demonstrations of the divisions within the party. So was of course the arrest of the Gang of Four after his death, the four who in theory had inherited power from Mao in 1976, and so was the third Plenum of the 11th Party in 1978 during which Deng Xiaoping's reformist and modernizing ideology defeated Hua Guofeng's old-fashioned socialist ideology, turning Deng into the most powerful man in China.
It is important to realize what Deng's original goal was: modernizing, not turning China into a democratic and capitalist country like Western Europe and the USA. The opening of the Chinese economy happened at a much slower pace than most imagine. Deng's reforms (enacted slowly from 1979 on) granted citizens the right to start their own business but didn't change the traditional perception of the "merchant" class and of greed. The one thing that Confucius and Mao had in common was to vilify greed. Confucius was more interested in family values and Mao in social values, but they reached the same conclusion: greed is evil. Chinese citizens were encouraged to produce for the good of the nation, not for their own wealth, and this greatly reduced their motivation to invest in business. Zhao Ziyang, appointed prime minister by Deng in 1980, was the leader of the economic modernization program, but his goal was to "modernize" China, not to turn it into a capitalist country. A little bit of capitalism was the tool to modernize, not the goal.
Deng was hardly a liberal thinker either. There is little evidence that he favored democratic ideas. Democratic ideas, or simply an aspiration to more freedom of speech, preexisted his reforms. Following the death of Mao's right-arm man Zhou Enlai in 1976, viewed as more reasonable than Mao, there were widespread demonstrations that the army eventually crushed in April. Then in September 1976 Mao himself died and Hua Guofeng ousted the "Gang of Four" (led by Mao's widow Jiang Qing). There followed more demonstrations against the Communist Party. While Deng was engineering the economic reforms, a grass-roots movement started writing controversial opinions on the "Democracy Wall" of Beijing. Far from encouraging freedom of speech, Deng approved the arrest of Wei Jingsheng (in March 1979), the intellectual who had written the most popular pamphlet, known as "The Fifth Modernization". In 1979 Deng was also busy with a brief border war with Vietnam and the one-child policy.
Note for those not familiar with Chinese history: the history of Western history is a history of great speeches (from Caesar's "Alea iacta est/ "The die is cast" to Churchill's "Finest hour") whereas Chinese history is a history of great documents (from Confucius' "Analects" to Deng's "Uphold the Four Basic Principles").
The liberalizer within the Communist Party was the new secretary general, Hu Yaobang, who in 1980 began by admitting Mao's atrocities in Tibet and in February 1980 delivered a six-hour speech on Sha Yexin's play "If I Were for Real". He critizes the play but the fact that a top politician spent six hours discussing a work of literature inspired writers and artists. In May 1981 Hu stopped criticism of the film "The Sun and the Man" directed by Peng Ning, who in 1979 had authored a pamphlet about "artistic democracy", a film that was based on the novella "Kulian" by the writer Bai Hua. In June 1981 Hu became the party chairman replacing the disgraced Hua Guofeng. When Deng launched a vicious campaign against the same Bai Hua for a film titled "Portrait of a Fanatic" (1982), even before it could be shown to the public, Hu saved Bai Hua's career (and possibly life) by personally siding against Deng. While Hu was seen in the West as a man appointed by Deng, he was more likely the head of an anti-Deng faction. De facto, this episode split the Communist Party in a hard-line faction led by Deng and a liberalizing faction led by Hu. The hard-line faction was responsible for crushing the October 1987 insurrection in Tibet. And one month later they forced Hu Yaobang to resign from the post of general secretary of the Communist Party. Deng replaced him with Zhao, whose economic reforms were rapidly bringing benefits from the country (in 1984 Zhao had expanded to 14 the "special economic zones"), while appointing the hard-liner Li Peng as premier of China in place of Zhao. In April 1989 the disgraced Hu died. He had become a symbol of freedom for thousands of young people: students started gathering in the Tiananmen Square of Beijing to mourn and commemorate him. How that slowly became a country-wide pro-democracy movement is a mystery, since there were no social media and the Chinese at the time (especially poor students) didn't have enough home telephones to spread ideas quickly over long distances. It is hard to tell how many ordinary people understood and approved the protests, but there are stories of bus drivers blocking the streets as the tanks were advancing on the square. Deng, however, had little patience for the protesting students, especially after crushing yet another Tibetan insurrection in March. The West underestimated how close China came to a real revolution. The Communist Party felt that it was very close to losing the power. It could have collapsed the way Eastern European communists were collapsing (the Berlin Wall fell a few months later).
This is what happened behind the scenes. On June 2, two days before the military crackdown on Tiananmen Square nine of the country's top leaders The June 2 Politburo Standing Committee meeting, and particularly the words of leader Deng Xiaoping, "Deng argued that force would end the unrest but only economic reform could prevent it in the future " June 4 military crackdown was almost certain by June 2, the survival of Deng's economic reforms was not. Combination of liberal-minded economics with at-all-costs authoritarianism On June 1 the Communist Party sent every member of the Politburo a report titled "On the True Nature of the Turmoil", redacted by the hard-liner Li Peng and his staff. The report accused the demonstrators of being Western-backed agents hired to stage a coup against Communist China. Most likely everybody knew that this was false, as probably many members of the party had their own sons or nephews in the square, but the message was clear: this was a military matter, and intervention by the army was therefore justified. The following day Deng summoned the top leaders of China to discuss Li Peng's report. Li Peng's main supporter was former president Li Xiannian, who had been Hua's chief economic adviser. In 1978 Li Xiannian had introduced a Ten Year Plan to modernize China's manufacturing industry that Deng killed a few years later with his own reforms. Li Xiannian also disapproved of Deng's choice of Zhao. In 1988, just one year earlier, Li Xiannian had been convinced to retire, and replaced as president by Yang Shangkun (who had been purged like Deng during the Cultural Revolution and rehabilitated by Deng in 1978). There was certainly no love lost between Li Xiannian and Deng. Li Peng simply wanted to crack down on the demonstrations, but Li Xiannian was also blaming Deng's economic reforms for bringing about the demonstrations. Linking the protests to economic liberalization was perhaps correct, and it would have probably cost Deng his job. But Deng prevailed: at the meeting he approved Li Peng's military plan, and pretended to agree that China was facing a Western conspiracy, but at the same time he defended his own economic reforms. (The transcript of Deng's speech can be found in both John Garver's "China's Quest" and Gideon Rose's "Tiananmen and After") There were only two dissenting voices: Zhao and Yang Shangkun. They both argued that there was no need to send the army, but they were voted down by Deng and the others. Yang Shankun was given the unpleasant duty to order the military to clear Tianamen Square with the tanks. Zhao Ziyang, who had tried to negotiate with the students, was removed as prime minister (it didn't help that he was busy fighting an anti-corruption campaign). The army killed an estimated 2,600 protesters in Beijing alone.
The West underestimates how scared the regime was of the Tiananmen Square protests and how influential they were in shaping Deng's next move. Deng realized that the Communist Party was doomed unless it could find some kind of distraction for the masses. In 1989 Taiwan's per capita GDP was $7,500 while mainland China's per capita GDP was $350: more than 60% of the people of mainland China lived in extreme poverty. In 1990 China accounted for only 3% of global manufacturing output. Deng's economic reforms had been big news because they came after Mao's brutal communist orthodoxy, but they had accounted for very little. Tiannamen Square convinced Deng that "greed" could become the new opium to control the Chinese masses. After 1989 he became serious about turning China into a (one-party) capitalist system. For example, In 1991 Deng's protege Jiang Zemin, mayor of Shangai, launched an ambitious plan of economic development in his city.
There was still an obstacle to Deng's plans: the widely respected Li Xiannian, who still thought that Deng's reforms were the cause of the Tianamen Square protests. But Li Xiannian died in June 1991 and his influence waned in a few months. In January 1992 Deng left for the "southern tour", probably the most famous trip of a Chinese politician since Mao's "great march". Deng spent almost one month evangelizing in places like Shenzhen and Shanghai about the merits of "socialist market economy", i.e. economic liberalization; not quite capitalism, because almost the entire economy was still controlled by the state, but also not communist at all.
In 1993 Jiang Zemin, the brain and muscle behind Shanghai's economic miracle, was appointed president of China. And in 1994 China's GDP started growing at an annual rate of 10%, the highest in the world.
Tiannamen Square was important for changing the Communist Party's attitude towards greed. Deng literally changed Chinese civilization that for more than two thousand years had been hostile to commerce, business and accumulation of wealth. Today the Chinese are a completely different people from the Chinese of 70 years ago, of a century ago, of a thousand years ago. They are so frantically busy with business activities that, even if they wanted, they have no time to criticize the Communist Party; and no reason after all: their country has become much richer since Tianamen Square.
Deng's philosophy has remained the central dogma of modern China: let people get rich but never allow people to doubt the Communist Party. Modernization has failed to democratize China for the simple reason that political opening was never the goal. Modernization always and only meant economic opening. The core value of the nation is still the preservation of the party. Deng famously said that it doesn't matter whether a cat is white or black as long as it catches the mouse. That was not true: the cat has to be a member of the Communist Party.
Those who compared communism to religion were partially right. Chinese communism is not a religion (very few people believe that Marx and Lenin were right, and the official mantra is that Mao was only right 70% of the time), but the Communist Party is in many ways similar to the Catholic Church that, over the centuries, always acted, first and foremost, to preserve its power. The Catholic Church is the oldest institution in the world, still exerting power over a billion people. China's Communist Party may have learned more from Rome than from "Das Kapital".
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