The Myth of Tiananmen Square





Bao Tong, former director of the Office of Political Reform of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee, was the highest party official imprisoned for opposing the Tiananmen Square crackdown, in the WSJ (June 1, 2004):

It's fashionable in some quarters today to argue that China owes its present prosperity, at least in part, to the Tiananmen crackdown. That the supposed threat to social stability posed by the pro-democracy protests in 1989 had to be crushed before China could experience the economic growth of the past 15 years.

That's a dangerous myth, propagated primarily by Chinese leaders, which needs to be firmly debunked. Not only does it ignore the fact that much of this economic growth was inevitable, as soon as China began to abandon decades of Mao Zedong's backward-style socialism. But its corollary is terrifying. For if turning tanks and machine guns on innocent civilians can be justified as a price worth paying in 1989 in return for economic growth, the logical consequence is that the government should be ready and willing to do so again today. Worse still, in a world where so many countries wish to emulate China's economic success, it encourages them to copy such repressive measures.

Nor is it true to say that the story of post-Tiananmen China is one of the Communist Party conceding economic reform in return for continuing repression in the political arena. The truth is the leadership had no choice in the matter. By 1989, economic reform had already passed the point of no return in China.

What remains largely unrecognized, even 15 years after the massacre, is how close China came to following a different path in 1989 -- one which would have avoided the bloodshed. How the leadership was initially prepared to deal with the protests in a peaceful manner.

Persuading the majority of the students to end their protests was never the problem, despite the presence of a few radicals among them. Rather, the real difficulty lay in formulating a consensus within the leadership that would suppress the powerful undercurrent in the party that favored using force.

Initially it seemed that 1989 would finally see the party break with its habit of trampling on all forms of public dissent. New ways were formulated to deal with the situation as it changed rapidly from day to day, especially after a hard-line editorial in the April 26 People's Daily provoked anger among protesters.

On May 4, Zhao Ziyang, the party's General Secretary, publicly praised the protesters for reflecting "the same sentiments as those of us within the government," on issues such as introducing democracy and fighting corruption. He pledged the demonstrations would be handled according to the "principles of democracy and law."

On May 8 and 10, Mr. Zhao won the support of the Politburo Standing Committee for using these principles to begin a dialogue with all levels of society. National People's Congress Chairman Wan Li also voiced strong support for this decision. And ten of China's most senior generals sent a letter to Deng Xiaoping, who was then the chairman of the Central Military Commission, calling for a peaceful response to the student protests.

With such an extensive consensus among senior officials, what could previously have scarcely been imagined suddenly became a real possibility. The proposed dialogue between the different levels of society in China could have given a much-needed boost to political reform and wiped out residual resistance to further economic reform. A new orientation in the relationship between government and people seemed possible. China's future had never seemed brighter than at that moment.

But only a week later such hopes were crushed. On May 17, Deng, China's unofficial but paramount leader, took the decision to use force and, from that point on, most of those who had previously supported dialogue fell silent or abruptly changed their stance to fall in line. Deng only needed the support of key figures with control over the military in order to carry out his order. So everyone else was sidelined and practically all institutions within the government, and even the party, effectively ceased to function.

The fundamental flaw in China's governmental structure, that allows absolute and unchecked power to be wielded by the likes of Deng, had once again inflicted an unnecessary tragedy on the Chinese people.

It would be a mistake to see the Tiananmen crackdown as a total victory for the conservatives. They still lost the battle to preserve their vision of socialism, since their efforts to reverse the process of economic reforms collapsed within a few years. But they did succeed in preserving the ugliest political reality of modern Chinese history -- the government's refusal to accept direct criticism of any kind from its people, and its readiness to subvert, frustrate and finally crush any critics.


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