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Desperately seeking democracy

For almost a century, the Chinese people have called for freedom. Personal liberty has grown since T

On 4 May 1919, more than 3,000 students set out from Beijing University and marched to the Tiananmen Gate in the heart of the imperial city, inaugurating a movement that was to resonate in China for almost a hundred years.

Outraged that the German concessions in China had been handed over to Japan at the Versailles peace conference, instead of being returned to China, the students unleashed a protest that launched a fierce debate about China’s weakness and how the new republic could become a modern nation.

Many other sectors of society saw the students’ action as patriotic and justified, and they rapidly gathered support. Except perhaps during the Cultural Revolution, protesting students have been regarded with respect in China ever since.

In April 1989, setting off once again from Beijing University, a column of students marched to Tiananmen Square, the symbolic heart of the Communist Party’s power, initiating the largest and most sustained pro-democracy movement in history. When the People’s Liberation Army tanks finally cleared the square on 4 June, at the cost of a still unknown number of dead, China’s political future was set on a wholly different course. The Chinese Communist Party is still struggling with the aftermath of that decision.

A few days ago a Chinese friend came to meet me, wearing a T-shirt on which were printed three two-digit numbers: 90 30 20. To anyone who has studied China’s century-long search for an accountable political system, the numbers will be familiar: 90 marks the number of years since the May 4 Movement and 30 pays tribute to the Democracy Wall movement of 1979. That year, Deng Xiaoping announced his list of “four modernisations”, all of them economic.

In the extraordinary weeks that followed, a stretch of wall near Xidan in central Beijing became the forum for a passionate debate about China’s political future. The hero of the hour was Wei Jingsheng, an electrician from the Beijing Zoo, with his now famous call for a fifth modernisation to be added to Deng Xiaoping’s list: democracy. Wei was to spend nearly 18 years in prison, writing a long series of closely argued letters to Deng before he emerged, still defiant, in 1997, and was sent into exile.

The last number – 20 – is, of course, the most immediate and most painful reminder: it commemorates the democracy movement that was crushed on 4 June 1989.

The name of Tiananmen Square is used as a kind of shorthand for the movement that took place there. For six weeks, the square played host to debates, drama, demonstrations and hunger strikes, witnessed by China’s recently enlarged foreign press corps.

From there, the final, horrifying chapter was filmed, photographed and broadcast to the world. But the demonstrations in 1989, by government admission, took place in more than 80 cities across the country. Those events represent the most controversial and divisive moment in China’s recent history, when the party could no longer claim to be the party of the people, when citizens’ faith in communism as the national ideology died.

In China, student protests are rich with histor­ical meaning. The Tiananmen demonstrations were triggered by the death of Hu Yaobang, the reforming party secretary who had been purged in 1987 following student protests the previous year. A decade earlier, another demonstration, now little remembered, had been triggered by the death of Zhou Enlai, China’s long-serving premier and a loyal ally of Mao Zedong. Zhou was seen as a liberal and credited with trying to steer China back to sanity after the Cultural Revolution. His hasty funeral – the hearse bearing his body raced through Beijing at an unseemly speed – prompted demonstrators to come to Tiananmen Square to lay wreaths for him.

The students also tied bottles on to the trees with red thread, a significant gesture: Deng Xiaoping’s given name is a homonym for “little bottle”. In the political struggle between Mao’s heirs and the reformers, the demonstrators had chosen their man.

Mao used to accuse Deng Xiaoping of being a deviant “capitalist roader”. Unlike most of Mao’s accusations, this one turned out to be true. Deng was intent on discarding Mao’s economic theories. Crucially, he outlived his tormentor by several years, and bounced back after the Cultural Revolution, only to be ousted again in the early 1970s.

But once Mao was safely dead, he came back to lead China out of the era of millenarian socialism and into a version of a market economy – albeit a peculiarly Chinese one. While the economic model to which Deng subscribed, and for which he laid the foundations, was entirely different from that under Mao’s governance, he remained an authoritarian at heart. He promoted economic liberalisation, but only as long as party power remained unchallenged.

In the 1980s, however, the question of China’s future direction still seemed open. It was the country’s most optimistic decade, a time of in­tellectual excitement and growing prosperity. Despite the opposition of party conservatives, the work of dismantling Mao’s China began. But the limits of reform were not clear. They were only to be decided finally in 1989.

Deng Xiaoping has gone down in history as the man who led the transformation of China into a country that has enjoyed 30 years of rapid growth, changing the entire balance of world economic and political power. But the more radical reformer was not Deng Xiaoping, but Zhao Ziyang, prime minister from 1980 to 1987, who then served as party secretary from 1987 until Tiananmen brought his political life to a close.

Zhao was an unlikely candidate for martyrdom to the liberal cause. For most of his career he was an unconditional, and at times ruthless, party loyalist. He had been a party member for several years when his father, a relatively wealthy landlord, was murdered by party officials during land reform in the 1940s, yet his loyalties seem not to have been affected.

In the 1950s, when intellectuals were purged and China was forced into a disastrous accelerated dash for socialist modernisation, Zhao worked for the ultra-leftist party secretary Tao Zhu. He supported the creation of the People’s Communes that Mao forced on a reluctant peasantry in the catastrophic Great Leap Forward. And he was prominent in the forced seizures of grain that resulted in starvation for tens of millions of people between 1958 and 1961.

Zhao had been involved with the worst that the party had inflicted on its subjects. Perhaps as a result of that experience, he began to change his views and to shift towards the reformist wing of the party – a move that was ultimately responsible for his final, tearful appearance in Tiananmen Square in May 1989.

By the mid-1960s he was allowing peasants to cultivate private plots of land. This deviation from Maoist orthodoxy cost him sorely during the Cultural Revolution: he was subjected to the humiliation of being marched through the streets of Guangzhou in an oversized dunce’s hat. But when the tide turned again, he was re­habilitated, and in 1975, he became governor of Sichuan, China’s most populous province. From then until his final disgrace, he initiated a remar­kable series of reforms that was to become the model for the transformation of China.

He gave peasants responsibility, though not title, for specific plots, and grain production soared. The hated communes dissolved. Promoted to prime minister, Zhao spread his policies across China. He developed a theory of “primary-stage socialism” to address the opposition of party ideologues that carried the day at the 12th Party Congress in 1982. He was instrumental, too, in creating the experimental special economic zones in southern China that were to attract foreign investment and launch the rapid industrialisation that fed a long export boom.

The 1980s were a political spring for Beijing ­after the long winter of Maoist repression. Those years are remembered as a time of hope and ­excitement, when entrepreneurs tested their new freedoms, and writers and artists began to challenge long-established cultural straitjackets. There were problems, too: inflation began to eat away at living standards; corruption and prostitution flourished. The main frustration for young Chinese intellectuals, however, was that China remained a one-party system, and the party-state continued to display the repressive, coercive side of its workings through petty ideological and social controls.

Inside the party, the reformers were battling hardline traditionalists who were resisting economic liberalisation, and for whom political liberalisation was a betrayal of the revolution. The students and intellectuals were growing impatient with the slow pace of reform and chafed against continuing constraints on personal liberty.

Passports were not easy to get, studying abroad was difficult, rock music and sexual freedoms were frowned upon, and the sense that the party was always watching continued to bear down on the population. The government and its bureaucracy were no more responsive or transparent than before.

In December 1986, inspired by the speeches of Fang Lizhi, a professor of physics who became known in the west as China’s Sakharov, students summoned up the courage to protest, demanding faster and more fundamental reform. It seemed to confirm the party diehards’ worst fears. Hu Yaobang, the liberal-minded party secretary who sympathised with the students, was blamed and Zhao Ziyang replaced him.

Yet Zhao, like Hu, believed that economic progress demanded political reform. He argued that China had to make serious moves towards democracy, starting by permitting other parties to form and promoting contested elections within the Communist Party. It was a project that would die with his disgrace in June 1989.

The split at the highest levels of the Communist Party over what to do about the 1989 protest movement is recorded in The Tiananmen Papers, the collection of government documents from that time first published in 2001. One issue was fundamental: was the movement making justified demands to which the party could respond, or was it a counter-revolutionary movement that should be crushed?

The party made its decision. After the tanks moved in, after the manhunts and the trials, political reform was closed off and Deng led China into two decades of rapid economic liberalisation and great personal freedoms – but with no margin of tolerance for political opposition. This state of affairs has been described as the Leninist market economy.

Twenty years on, while China’s position in the world has changed, shadows remain. Last year the Beijing Olympics, which were supposed to be a celebration of China’s status as the economic force of the future, were marred by the Tibetan uprising and the hostile reception the international torch relay received. It was a stark reminder that China’s peaceful rise has not been a blessing for everyone. The European Union maintains the arms embargo imposed in 1989, and in the United States congressional sanctions still restrict US aid to China.

According to the scholar Minxin Pei, the party drew a number of lessons from the trauma of Tiananmen. Glasnost in the USSR, followed in 1989 by the collapse of the Soviet empire and eventually of the USSR itself, were seen as object lessons in the dangers of even the slightest political liberalisation.

Authoritarianism, therefore, was essential to the party maintaining control. The party also recognised, Minxin argues, that its rule was vulnerable if it was not broadly supported by elite groups – the professionals and the intelligentsia – and therefore it adopted a strategy of co-option. Party membership among students has grown; intellectuals are appointed to well-rewarded government posts. The intellectuals and students who were at the forefront of demands for political reform throughout the 20th century have become noticeably less prominent since 1989. For now, those who call for political reform – or even ask that China respect its own constitution, as the Charter 08 group did last year – are in a small minority.

With the exception of the absolute prohibition on political activity outside the Communist Party, the growing middle class has greater personal freedom, more disposable income and more information than ever before. In many ways, there has never been a better time to be young and Chinese. But what the population is not offered is anything to believe in, beyond the attraction of money and a sometimes truculent pride in China’s growing power.

The government must struggle to equate this emerging nationalism with its official position on foreign policy: that China’s rise is peaceful and poses no threat to other nations. It is boosted by a dubious historical narrative, with which the party, having abandoned its own ideology, no longer seeks to claim legitimacy from Marx and Lenin, but instead from “antiquity ” and Confucianism.

This official line is fiercely defended, but full of doubtful assertions. Chinese exceptionalism, it claims, derives from an unchanging culture and polity that stretches back at least 2,000 years (the more extravagant versions of the story assert up to 5,000 years). Throughout this sweep of “antiquity”, the story goes, China was rich and powerful, until the arrival of foreign im­perialism in the 19th century humiliated and all but dismembered the great nation; but nonetheless, the country’s current borders are sanctified by history.

It is true that rising western powers, including the British, took advantage of and exacerbated China’s weakness during the 19th century. The Chinese decline, however, had begun 200 years earlier, around the time that the conquest of China by the Manchu had in effect doubled the size of the country. China’s current borders derive from that empire and are no older than the 17th century.

The strategy has bought 20 years of relative calm, but at a price.

In an economy that requires greater freedom of information and innovation in order to move away from low-wage exports as the principal engine of growth, ideas and intellectual freedom are both necessary and dangerous. As people acquire more rights, as they travel and surf the web, the tensions between the party’s imposed view of history and the alternative versions are evident.

As the space to think and discuss grows, the argument for the eternal rule of a self-appointed elite becomes ever more dubious. As freedom of information slowly expands, the endemic problems of corruption and arbitrary power become more conspicuous. Co-option is expensive, and there is always the risk that a new reformer might rise from within the ranks.

Twenty years on, a whole generation remains marked by the experience of Tiananmen. Men and women now in their forties have learned to live with, but not to forget, their bitter disappointment when that moment of hope died. With every anniversary, the families of the dead recall that fearful night, and security police follow the more prominent of those who continue to call for a reappraisal of the movement.

And, on this 20th anniversary of the massacre, the ghost of Zhao Ziyang has returned to haunt Beijing: his memoirs, secretly recorded over music cassettes and smuggled out of China, have been translated into English and are about to be published. It is the first time that a memoir of such a prominent party leader has got into print, an unwelcome reminder to readers in China and abroad that China’s leaders had a choice in 1989 over the country’s future, and they chose repression and authoritarianism.

Isabel Hilton is editor of

Isabel Hilton is the editor of 

This article first appeared in the 01 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Big Brother