The Tiananmen Massacre, and Democracy in China, Taiwan, and the U.S.

It is easy for public incidents of more than a generation ago to recede into the historical background and slide from relevance, or even public awareness. Some events though, leave scars on the fabric of a nation’s consciousness, psychological wounds which hint at ugly and unpalatable truths that stain the sheer veneer of nationalist revisionism. They are not just history, they are Historical.

Tiananmen 1976

This year marks the thirty-eighth anniversary of the government-ordered bloody suppression of mass public grief and protest at Tiananmen Square - an action that undermined the moral authority of the leadership of China at home and abroad, but which was later followed by a series of economic reforms greatly expanding the nation’s levels of international interaction. The sequence of events that led up to this political massacre serves as an illustration of the limitation of the Chinese Communist Party’s ability to respond to public expression of protest or dissent: a powerful and popular liberal politician’s death sparked an usual public outpouring of grief which then extended to anger at the brutality and corruption of the ruling authorities. Following an occupation of part of the Square, Government forces moved in during the night and cleared the protesting crowds with lethal force, resulting in the deaths of an unknown number of people.

If you’re worrying whether time has passed a lot more quickly than you thought, or whether the author is unable to do a simple calculation, it is because the political massacre at Tiananmen Square that reaches its 25th anniversary this year was not the first time blood was spilled at that location. The ascension of Xi Jingping as President of the PRC, and the apparent swing to more confrontational and direct power politics, has thus far failed to dispel the impression that it may not be the last either. The events of Tiananmen Square, and elsewhere in China in June 1989, are remembered differently in Taiwan and the U.S., yet both countries are linked to them, and engage with them in their own ways.

To understand the impact of June 4th 1989, and why President Xi and the CCP are particularly sensitive about this anniversary this year, it is instructive to look back at April 5th 1976 and beyond. In 1966, Mao Zedong initiated the Cultural Revolution, a brutal decade of social upheaval that saw many Chinese, including Xi Jingping and his father, jailed and ‘sent to countryside’ for hard labour and ‘re-education’. Xi was later to emerge as a rising star of the CCP, allegedly spurred by the belief that the best way to keep out of trouble was to be ‘redder than red’.

By 1976, many Chinese had had enough. Aside from suspicions that Mao had all but given the reins of state power over to a small cabal (later dubbed the ‘Gang of Four’) headed by his wife Jiang Qing, there were serious concerns over the direction the nation should take, especially in the post-Mao era. Then central standing committee member Deng Xiaoping had written about the need for Four Modernizations (industry, agriculture, science and technology, and national defense), an act that made him powerful enemies who were soon to move against him.

The death of Zhou Enlai was the spark. Zhou was a popular and respected statesman with a distinguished domestic and international reputation. Crowds gathered at Tiananmen Square and placed floral tributes and poems, many of which indirectly criticized the Government. Disturbed by this unscripted and unsolicited display of mass public sentiment and criticism, the Government dismissed it as an attempted capitalist counter-revolution, conducted a hasty funeral and then cleared the Square of all dedications overnight. Angered by the perceived disrespect, crowds gathered the next day and protested. Later that night, a mob of police officers and militia surrounded the crowd and attacked. Many were hurt, with reports of scores killed. Deng was perceived to be sympathetic to the protests and was promptly purged from party positions.

When Mao himself died later that year, a second purge occurred with jailing of the Gang of Four, the end to the Cultural Revolution, and the rise of Deng to Chairman of the CCP, President, and eventually Paramount Leader. In October 1978, artist Huang Xiang and his friends travelled to Beijing and posted some of their poetry to a wall in an alley near Wangfujing Avenue, and later put up statements in prominent locations near the Mao Mausoleum critical of the still revered leader of the revolution. Ironically, this remarkable outburst of public dissent was not immediately quashed but rather tacitly encouraged by Deng and his allies as a way to cement his new found power. On December 5th 1978, Wei Jingsheng added his contribution to the wall - an essay called the Fifth Modernization that called Deng’s ideas into question. Wei's basic theme in the essay was that democracy should be also be a modernization goal for China along with the other four proposed by Deng. It is Wei’s words below which illustrate why authorities in China and Taiwan are instinctively fearful of democratization, public protest, and student activism:

Wei Jingsheng“Do the people have democracy now? No. Do they want to be masters of their own destiny? Definitely yes. This was the reason for the Communist Party's victory over Kuomintang [KMT] …. But what then happened to the promise of democracy? The slogan "people's democratic dictatorship" was replaced by the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

Of course, internal problems cannot be solved overnight but must be constantly addressed as part of a long-term process. Mistakes and shortcomings will be inevitable, but these are for us to worry about. This is infinitely better than facing abusive overlords against whom there is no redress. Those who worry that democracy will lead to anarchy and chaos are just like those who, following the overthrow of the Qing dynasty, worried that without an emperor the country would fall into chaos. Their decision was to patiently suffer oppression because they feared that without the weight of oppression, their spines might completely collapse!

To such people, I would like to say, with all due respect: We want to be the masters of our own destiny. We need no gods or emperors and we don't believe in saviors of any kind… we do not want to serve as mere tools of dictators with personal ambitions for carrying out modernization. We want to modernize the lives of the people. Democracy, freedom, and happiness for all are our sole objectives.”

Interestingly, a Deng ally and victim of purging under the Cultural revolution, Hu Yaobang, supported the Democracy Wall protesters, inviting two of them to his home. By the early 1980s Deng had promoted Hu, who in turn quickly rose to become a charismatic and popular leader first as Party Chairman and later General Secretary of the CCP. Hu implemented many of Deng’s policies of economic modernization and liberalization, whilst striving to build greater transparency in Government. This earned Hu powerful enemies in Zhongnanhai for whom liberal reforms were analogous to the CCP conceding the failure of the party’s core ideology. Accordingly, following student protests in 1987, Hu was again purged from the party and replaced with Zhao Ziyang, another liberal politician who continued to enact Hu’s economic and political reforms. Both Hu and Zhao had worked to investigate and sanction corrupt officials, many of whom were children of former leaders labelled the ‘Crown Prince Party’, earning them great public support from Chinese who did not enjoy privileges or connections to the ruling clique. Hu had also gained acclaim for rehabilitating hundreds of thousands of victims of the Cultural Revolution.

Although reforms were seen as necessary for the economic stability of growth of the nation, these reforms brought about a radical change in the economy, one that also increased wealth disparity, and crucially opened the door for rampant corruption by CCP officials. On top of this came inflation, currency problems, and unemployment. Further, the succession of failed former ‘communist’ states in Eastern Europe was placing great ideological and political pressure upon the Chinese Government’s authority and legitimacy, and the justifications for continued tight control of all aspects of economy and politics. Thus, the scene was primed, and discontent amongst the general population sufficiently endemic, for the next explosion of public anger. Adding fuel to the fire, the promotion by Deng of anti-reformist Li Peng to Premier was a sign of a reactionary backlash within a CCP unsettled by the ailing health of Deng and internal rivalry for influence and position.

In 1989, Hu Yaobang died. Just as in 1976, this prompted a wave of public grieving. This grief then transmuted into a call for reforms, democracy, and an end to official corruption, protests which were primarily led by students and workers. The protesters who occupied Tiananmen Square for weeks in the summer of 1989 had seven main requests: (1) Affirm as correct Hu Yaobang's views on democracy and freedom, (2) admit that the campaigns against spiritual pollution and bourgeois liberalization had been wrong, (3) publish information on the income of state leaders and their family members, (4) end the ban on privately run newspapers and stop press censorship, (5) increase funding for education and raise intellectuals' pay, (6) end restrictions on demonstrations in Beijing, and (7) provide objective coverage of students in official media.

Again, akin to the 1976 Tiananmen Square Incident, the Government was both unprepared for, taken aback, and threatened by the public support for the protests. Initially Zhao tried to take a conciliatory approach and entered into indirect dialogue with the students but his departure to North Korea left a vacuum of support for the protestors inside the party. Zhao was later pushed aside by Li Peng and his allies and ultimately made his last public appearance at the Square, ending up in permanent house arrest until his death. His smuggled audio tapes reveal a man who strongly disagreed with the Government’s hardline response and condemnation of the subsequent massacre. With Zhao out of the way Deng allegedly gave Li and other leaders the authority to declare the protestors as counter-revolutionaries, to declare martial law and to clear the streets in Beijing and elsewhere with extreme prejudice (in Shanghai, Mayor Jiang Zemin, Deng’s successor, had been hailed for his direct and physical response to protests there). Hundreds if not thousands died in the ensuing crackdown. For the last twenty-five years the Chinese Government has sought to erase memory or commemoration of the events of 1989 through a rigorous framework of censorship. When the party is at its most candid, it sometimes admits that there was a ‘disturbance’ but that it was ‘for the greater good’, and justified by the economic growth that followed.

Democracy Wall in Beijing, August 20, 1979

This quick summary does little justice to the hundreds of thousands of people who played a part in the 1989 protests, and after in securing the freedom of student leaders and dissidents, and only scratches at the surface of what was a very complex and shifting event which at times pressured the CCP to seriously consider substantive concessions. Sadly, the only lesson it appears Deng took from being purged in 1976, or from the Democracy Wall in 1978, was not that the Chinese people desire greater freedom and their own form of representative and uncorrupt democratic politics. Instead, he appeared to have learned that popular protests are dangerous, destabilizing, a threat to the power of the CCP, and an embarrassing demonstration of the Government’s lack of domestic legitimacy and authority. Thereafter, Presidents Jiang and Hu all but abandoned Mao’s focus on class conflict and revolution, and instead embraced an ideology of Chinese exceptionalism. The former vanguard against capitalist roaders put down the Little Red Book and sought security in a potent mix of economic nationalism, historical revisionism, and checkbook diplomacy, all funded by and constructed by the massive growth of the Chinese economy.

Twenty-five years after the Tiananmen Square Massacre, with President Xi’s Government facing a another round of economic and political problems, the CCP has intensified its efforts to silence original participants in the 1989 protests, and to heavily quash a growing number of mass public protests, strikes, and demonstrations. Instead of allowing open and honest public discussion of issues such as corruption, financial instability, housing bubbles, and environmental degradation, the Xi Government appears more interested in cleaning house of potential opponents (under the guise of an anti-corruption drive). If an apple a day keeps the doctor away, then in China a purge a decade keeps democracy (or pretenders to the throne) away. Xi is also testing the limits of U.S. engagement in the region, as well as signaling China’s military assertiveness to its neighbors, bringing to mind the long list of nations in history who have sought to avert their citizens’ eyes from domestic discontent towards constructed enemies and border disputes. The first sign of a nation struggling to avoid internal collapse is outward power projection.

In Taiwan, students rose up just two years after Tiananmen Square to contest the undemocratic nature of the ROC’s rule of Taiwan, and were fortunate to have in then President Lee a person who shared their interest in democratization. Against the advice of now President Ma, Lee allowed reform and constitutional amendments which democratized state institutions, and permitted direct votes for Legislative Yuan and President. Following Ma’s election in 2008, Taiwanese students have rallied against police repression of dissent during the visit of ARATS Chairman Chen Yunlin, they have successfully resisted attempts by United Front and pro-China company Want Want to monopolize the media (2012), they held massive rallies against abuse and bullying in the military (2013), and this year students occupied the Legislative Yuan, and briefly the Executive Yuan (2014). They did so over the issue of Government transparency and anti-democratic abuse of legislative procedures concerning the KMT Caucus’ promotion of a trade agreement with China which they felt would ultimately severely undermine Taiwan’s economy, and the country’s economic and political sovereignty. In all recent protests, the focus has not been ideological or universal but focused and specific. The students, and the public who supported them, were not protesting against China but rather at the undermining and bypassing of their institutions of democracy. They opposed the Government using its power to implement far reaching changes to the political economy, and relations with China, that have no majority consensus support or electoral mandate.

<imgclass="caption" src="13537694573_2c60fa5007_o.jpg" alt="Taiwan Protests, photo by Jimmy Kang" />

Why have protests in Taiwan, and China, increased in frequency and size? One answer might lie in the reactionary ideology of Chinese nationalism favored by Presidents Ma and Xi which places more importance on the symbolic importance of maintaining social ‘harmony’, the unity of the Chinese nation, and the statistical growth of the economy, rather than the substance of that stability and growth. They also share an instinctual suspicion of democracy as a weakening force upon a nation, one that must be managed carefully to achieve ‘consistent results’. Ma and Xi have also purged opponents, although Xi’s drive appears to be far more successful. Ma tried to have KMT Legislative Speaker Wang removed from the party but the high profile and unpopular move was blocked by the courts, and has in turn allowed Wang to emerge as a kind of Zhao Ziyang figure in Taiwanese politics. Unable to oust Wang, Ma has instead downsized the Central Standing Committee and replaced the party’s Vice-Chairmen in an effort to marginalise and suppress dissent in the party.

The demands of the students in Taiwan today have some similarities to those of the 1976, 1989 protests, and also with the nascent Charter ‘08 Movement. Broadly, what is sought is a more representative democracy, freedom and diversity of opinion in publishing, transparency in Government, accountability of officials, an end to corruption and crony capitalism, land rights justice, and competent, environmentally aware management of the economy. What the students have called for is a further democratization of Taiwan’s political economy, not as part of an ideological struggle for the dominance of western capitalist values but in reaction to the existent economic side-effects of them, in particular the capture of their State by a plutocratic elite for whose profit the political economy is manipulated.

For Taiwan, the message of Tiananmen remains relevant today: “protect your democracy and your freedoms, and don’t take either for granted”. The deteriorating democratic rights context in Hong Kong has clearly illustrated to Taiwanese that moves by either the KMT or CCP to cut a deal, or sue for peace, and annex Taiwan into the PRC under any formula are fraught with dangers, never mind lacking any meaningful level of public support. Moves by the Ma administration to prioritize cross-strait relations as the solution to Taiwan’s sluggish developed economy are now greeted with outright skepticism if not cynicism by many Taiwanese. Many of the myths that previously helped the KMT and ROC build and maintain public support in Taiwan have been sternly challenged or have crumbled altogether. Over in China, the risk remains that the Chinese economy continues to slowly contract until economic nationalism will no longer have any utility in maintaining public support for the Xi Government or the CCP.

Occupy Wall Street, March 15, 2012

The U.S. should reflect on the Tiananmen Square Massacre and consider it less as a hammer by which to embarrass the Chinese, and more a lesson. In the same way Taiwan can learn from the causes of the Tiananmen Square protests and see the importance of improving and deepening their democracy to make it more representative, the U.S. should consider whether its own economy is structured to provide the optimum conditions for generating economic growth whose benefits are experienced more equally by all sectors of society, or whether it is ultimately acting as an engine for greater wealth & income disparity, unequal participation in the economy, and high levels of social conflict. Why, for example, were the Occupy protests so successful and why did they occur at all? Why are so many students in the U.S. involved in shooting incidents or end up in jail? The answer might lead them back to Tiananmen Square and the link between a fair economy and a truly participative & representative democracy.

President Clinton once famously remarked “It’s the economy stupid”, but that’s not quite right. What matters is the structure and sustainability of the economy, and whether it gives citizens hope and more equal opportunity for access to, and dignified participation in, it. A stable and just economy is one which is supported by a Government that is flexible, genuinely responsive to public opinion, and one which supports and defends a democratic system that allows citizen direct engagement with local and national economic planning and development, even if that sometimes results in mass public protests and the scrapping of some of the Government’s preferred policies.

The protests that Deng and the CCP brutally suppressed in 1989 mostly asked the Government to just trust the people to lead themselves, to equally own and benefit from their economy, and for the ability participate and have their opinions represented. A generation later, the U.S. and Taiwan should ask themselves whether their citizens still have more, not less, in common with their Chinese counterparts in this regard. They would do well to learn from history and not perceive mass public protest as a threat but rather as a chance to take bold steps to democratize further and deeper, to fully engage with the principle and practice of economic and political subsidiarity. Until Governments learn to trust the people they should be representing and serving, it is not certain that there will be no repeat of the events of 1976, or 1989. In 2014, it’s time for those who can to lead by example.

Ben Goren is a long term resident of Taiwan and owner of Letters from Taiwan, one of the most prominent blogs on Taiwan in English. He tweets @BanGaoRen.
  • Ben Goren
    published this page in Blog 2015-12-30 12:39:29 -0800

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