Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Tiananman: Days of Hope

And the Night When The World Took a Turn for The Worse
by Ira Straus

I would like to make this posting in memory of my friends who were involved in the Chinese democracy movement of 1989. Their cause was one of great importance for the prospects for global solidarity. Alas, they lost.

It was a night the world took a turn for the worse. The demonstrations in Beijing had been going on for weeks, with about a million people in the square on many days and evenings. Then, 30 years ago to the day, it was suppressed, with a number of dead; estimates range from the quasi-government one of 300 (conveniently limiting the count to the square itself) to 10,000 in all of Beijing. The leaders were subsequently hunted down and jailed for years, those who were not able to escape abroad.

It was as entirely peaceful as I have ever seen for a large demonstration. Its participants were deeply law-abiding, apart from the lack of a demonstration permit. They did not try to do civil disobedience or "non-violence", or make attempts to provoke the police, or break laws gratuitously, or disrupt daily public life beyond the square, or undertake to make the government look incapable of keeping public order.

The Tiananman phenomenon grew out of similar large demonstrations in Shanghai, both that year and earlier.

In 1987, there had been democracy demonstrations of about 100,000 people in Shanghai. Those demonstrations, together with the budding momentum of Gorbachev’s reforms, inspired The Economist to comment that, suddenly, everyone nowadays knows what democracy is, despite the difficulty of a precise definition and despite a few ideological stragglers from the Communist era; the long ideological war of the century, when radical totalitarians were claiming the title to a higher form of democracy against the Western liberal democracies, was over.

In 1987, too, China’s regime had suppressed the democracy demonstrations. It punished them, and punished their friends in the councils of the regime. It removed the leading democratizing reformer, Hu Yaobang, from his position as General Secretary of the Communist Party.

Hu had gone through being suppressed during the Cultural Revolution, along with Deng and millions of others. It was Hu's death in 1989 that sparked the new wave of demonstrations; they began as a way to commemorate him.

After the suppression of Tiananman, repressions were revived on a larger scale. It has not been on the scale of the tens of millions who perished from Mao’s repressions; at least not yet. But it has been many millions who since 1989 have been thrown into the Laogai system of concentration camps and slave labor, sometimes explained simply as the Chinese Gulag. It was not just political dissidents who were jailed. The Tibetans continued to be suppressed. The Falun Gong -- Chinese Buddhists -- were for a time fostered by the regime as good for public health, then the regime turned around,
designated them as a dangerous enemy, and suppressed them en masse. (There is an illuminating discussion on youtube, by an Australian living in China, of the Party’s practice of creating enemies to suppress;

It is instructive, perhaps particularly for those who think this is how Western societies think and operate.) Estimate of the Falun Gong imprisoned range from hundreds of thousands to several millions; estimates of those killed, through torture and organ harvesting, range from tens of thousands to over a million. Under Xi, the mass imprisonment of the Muslim Uighurs has reached a similar height, finally arousing the alarm of the world.

China's regime worked after Tiananman to rebuild its ideological base by making a mass nationalist campaign, which continues to this day. After the 1987 demonstrations there was a campaign against "bourgeois liberalization"; after 1989, the slogan of the campaign was against "total Westernization". Those slogans for the attack on democratization showed the two axes of the regime’s ideological reconstitution: the Leninist one against bourgeois liberalism, the nationalist one against Westernization. Considerable Westernization proceeded anyway, seemingly inevitably; Deng himself after some time put a limit on the regressive trend and saw to coupling the renewed dictatorship with continued social and economic modernization. But just as Westernization had been deformed and turned into something different and monstrous by the mix of modernization with full-scale Communism by Mao and Stalin, so it was again after Tiananman turned into another novel phenomenon, a modification of the old one. The Maoist and Stalinist mix was a constant crisis regime, one that proved ultimately unsustainable, but for decades endured as a novel phenomenon and horror despite its constant sense of insecurity. Who is to say how long the new mix, still deeply insecure in its political foundations but no longer a constant crisis system in the
economic sphere, can endure?

The renewed ideological campaign was a portentous turn in history. New generations of Chinese were brought up on a fervent nationalism. Anti-Japanese and anti-Vietnamese riots would flare up -- half-sponsored by the government, half-restrained by it --
demanding a more aggressive uncompromising diplomatic stance against China's
neighbors when there were disputes with them. The regime kept shifting its ideological
foundations toward nationalism, with dangerously unpredictable consequences.

Under Xi, the nationalism was further boosted, yet supplemented by a revival of Maoism as a major part of the regime ideology. Will this prove a stabilizing admixture, or an even more volatile mix? The regime has taken on an Orwellian aspect, one that, in its technological intrusiveness, exceeds even that of the years of Mao. Under Deng’s reforms, China had made tremendous progress from totalitarianism to authoritarianism. Yes, authoritarianism counts as progress in a totalitarian society.

Authoritarianism normally aims at stability, sober management of the varied forces and interests within society not annihilation of some groups for the benefit of others, and sober pursuit of national interests not nationalist sentimentalism. It puts to the side the ideological impulse to dangerous experiments on society, an impulse that keeps totalitarian regimes unstable no matter how hard they repress dissent.

China under Deng also had democratizing aspects and potential. This was in keeping with the logic of countries emerging from Communist ideology everywhere. Democracy is the first in line as a replacement ideology, authoritarianism second: Democracy had been always a loud part of the rhetoric of Communist ideology, coerced “democratic” participation had always been a part of Communist practice, and democracy could be seen working in a genuine, stable way in the West.

There was reason for optimism about China’s democratic potential. Its culturally closest neighbors, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Japan, had all made a quite successful go of democracy, or, in the case of Hong Kong, of the rule of law. But with the suppression of the democratizing wing of the regime in 1989, China turned away both from its democratic hopes and from its relatively benign authoritarian practices. Under Xi the regression has brought it to a new form of totalitarianism.

From April to May to June in 1989, the Tiananman demonstration grew in four stunning stages. It began in Shanghai as in 1987, then was taken up in Beijing with a few thousands; then quickly reached a hundred thousand demonstrators. It mushroomed to a million people when Gorbachev visited China on a state visit, and remained on that scale day after day.

Masses of Chinese came to the square with slogans and posters "We want Gorbachev". They did not get Gorbachev.

China chose not to go the way of the democratization that was taking place in its former mentor, Russia. Soviet officials, for their part, spoke of how they looked at the Tiananmen massacre and made the choice not to go China's way of suppressing the people.

The years afterwards were dominated by an ideological competition as to which choice would turn out better: the Russian path or the “Chinese model”.

In American foreign policy, there was a similar debate over whether to favor China as the continued strategic hedge against the Soviet Union, or to help Russia and try make its huge traumatic transition a relatively happy one. The former policy was the main one: the Bush Administration, with its dominant wing led by Scowcroft, Eagleburger, Gates, and Kissinger standing behind them as their outside theoretician, viewed the Soviet Union as the main enemy, the reforms there as more dangerous than hopeful, and the Chinese regime to be supported against it. There was also a parallel Baker wing of the Administration that welcomed Gorbachev in Russia and the student democrats in China, but it was the weaker wing. Baker kept coming back and shaping the language, since he kept proving right against the dominant wing, but the latter held the main levers of executive power. Some help to Russia was tried after 1991, but on an order of magnitude smaller than what would have been needed; Kissinger explicitly opposed any help on the ground that we wouldn’t and shouldn’t do enough to make a difference.

Russians in those years commented with bitterness on America’s continued relative tilt toward China against themselves. They could see that it was done out of a habit inherited from Kissinger’s 1970s opening to China, one that ran opposite to the logic of what ought to have been done after 1989.

Our tilt to China helped push Russia to end up giving up its Western tilt and making the same tilt toward China. Our own media and academic were saying that the China model of authoritarian reform worked much better than the Russian one of democratization; why shouldn’t Russian nationalists have held out for a more truly Western view instead? Russia's depressing experience in the 1990s, when it had a fully pro-democratic pro-Western leadership, encouraged its elite to revert toward authoritarianism and anti-Western ideologies, of a populist-nationalist sort much akin to China's.

There were already some in Moscow who went in for the temptation in 1991 to do something more authoritarian: to merge Communism with nationalism, and start civil wars in its neighboring lands emerging out of the Soviet empire. That was how Milosevic was doing it in Serbia's neighboring lands within Yugoslavia. Many Russian nationalists and Communists advocated the same sort of thing. It was Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Kozyrev who prevented this. Now their achievement may be unraveling; Kozyrev says that Putin is following in the path of Milosevic.

The classic books of Alexander Yanov's, written in the 1970s and 1980s about the
danger of a merger of Communism with nationalism to save the old Soviet totalitarian
regime and give it a new vicious energy and lease on life: these have gained a renewed
importance, decades after the Soviet Union disappeared. Yanov has been a friend of
mine since the late 1980s and a collaborator in my work (it was he who made me a
public figure in Russia, getting my paper on Unipolarity published in 1997 in Polis, the
main political science journal in Moscow, with a symposium organized around the
paper). What hope he retains is that Putin may be only another stage in the
disintegration of the old totalitarian order, not the long-term renewal of a nationalist-
authoritarian regime, the potential for which he had shown in his pioneering works
decades ago.

China's experience has been far from without terrible pains in this same period, but it looks a lot better than Russia’s on the surface. The authoritarian regime hid the pains; the world advertised the China miracle. There are those Chinese who still see that 1989 was a wrong turn and say so; one of them recently said it was the moment when China lost its chance for balanced development, and instead maintained an unbalanced authoritarian regime and an unbalanced crony state corporatism in its economy and its massive state-owned industries. Meanwhile, by a miserable set of coincidences (well, mostly coincidental, but not entirely; in the early 1980s, there was a deliberate American policy to push down oil prices, and they stayed down till the late 1990s), the democratizing regime in Russia mostly coincided with low oil prices, the Putin regime with high oil prices, making authoritarianism seem to have proved a better economic bet for Russia, too.

Well informed scholars understood that China was bound to do better in many respects than Russia, considering where it was starting from. It was so poor that huge economic progress came easy for a long time. Economic reform and redevelopment was far simpler in China, with its mostly agricultural population that needed merely to be freed from the communes in order to produce, than in Russia. The peasants had lived only a generation under Communism when Deng effectively freed them; in Russia, old productive peasant memories had been gone for several generations by Gorbachev’s time. Political reform should also have been less costly in China, since only 2% of China's population is non-Chinese and resentful of Chinese rule, while in the Soviet empire it was 50% of the population (75% counting Eastern Europe) that was non-Russian and ended up unwilling to stay under Russian rule. And China was allowed, thanks to the policy of tilting to its side as a power to be built up for balance against Russia, to exploit trading relationships with the West, including massive cheating and technological theft, in a manner that Russia was not. The policy came with time to be rationalized on the academic modernization theory that economic growth and global engagement would lead to democratization. It was mostly opposite to the Western policy had been applied to Soviet Russia; it was not anticipated that it would enable China to grow into an economic superpower with neo-totalitarian characteristics, one that the West would have to seek balances against.

But most people didn’t know or think about these differences between the causal factors in Russia and China. Most people accepted the simpler conclusion -- that China’s authoritarian policy worked, Russia’s democratic policy failed.

We see the consequences today all around us -- in Ukraine, in the South China Sea, in the growing alliance of Russia with China.

It could get considerably worse. But we should remember that the better potential is not completely gone. The Chinese people have not said their last word. To the democrats among them, it is vitally important that we keep that in mind.

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