The consequences of Tiananmen
Andrew J. Nathan talks to Maria Elena Viggiano 3 June 2009

What impact have the events surrounding Tiananmen had on Chinese politics since 1989?

The impact of Tiananmen has been paradoxical. Instead of marking the beginning of the end of authoritarianism in China, through a series of direct and indirect Tiananmen led to the strengthening of authoritarianism in China – what I have called “resilient authoritarianism” in an article in the Journal of Democracy in 2003. First, the events impressed upon the CCP leadership the necessity to stay united, and that lesson has been so strong that the ruling party managed the power transition from Deng Xiaoping to Jiang Zemin and then from Jiang to Hu Jintao (and now, prospectively, from Hu to Xi Jinping) with few public signs of power struggle. Second, the events of Tiananmen taught the regime the need to improve its repressive apparatus; thus the People’s Armed Police (which existed but were not used in 1989) have been strengthened, the Public Security Ministry has created a special political police unit called the guobao (state protection service), and with the rise of the Internet the regime has created a very effective Internet police. Third – not as a direct result of TAM but as an indirect result – the regime rededicated itself to the importance of economic growth as a way of maintaining popular support, and with Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 “trip to the South” the policies of economic reform and opening were reaffirmed. With successful management over the years this policy has produced sustained high level economic growth which has enabled the regime to maintain popular support. Thus at the end of twenty years we see a regime that is apparently more secure than on the eve of Tiananmen. We see a general public mood that places less value on the idea of democracy than was the case twenty years ago (although of course there are some Chinese who are exceptions to this generalization). And we see a younger generation that has almost no idea of what happened twenty years ago or why it matters.

You wrote The Tiananmen Papers, an analysis based in part on a new understanding offered by the publication of hundreds of previously secret memos, minutes of meetings and other internal documents. What really happened in June 1989 in China?

We already knew what happened in the Square, what the students did and what they demanded. What we had not known previously was what went on within the leadership circles, although some parts of this had also previously leaked out. What really happened was that Party secretary Zhao Ziyang believed that the students were asking for reforms that the Party itself wanted to make and that he could dialogue with them and persuade them to end their demonstrations peacefully. Premier Li Peng held a more pessimistic view, that the students harbored the goal of overthrowing the regime and were aided by hostile outside forces. While Zhao was on an official visit to North Korea, Li brought his concerns to Deng Xiaoping who ordered publication of the April 26 People’s Daily editorial labelling the demonstrations a “turmoil.” This backed the students into a corner because they now felt they could not leave the Square until this characterization had been withdrawn. So the crisis was prolonged. It was intensified by Gorbachev’s previously scheduled summit-level visit to China. The five-man Politburo Standing Committee deadlocked on the question of what to do next, so Deng ordered martial law and then, after two more weeks, ordered the military crackdown.

What perspectives did the Chinese leadership have of these events and the students’ point of view?

I think I answered this in the preceding section. One view was that the students were acting out of good motives and idealism, that the leadership should speak with them, assure them that their concerns were shared, and then persuade them to disband peacefully. Zhao was sure he could carry this off, but before he got a chance to do it, the situation was polarized by the 4.26 editorial. The view of Li Peng, the State Security Ministry, and the Elders (Deng and others) was that it was dangerous to allow a spontaneous social movement to start intervening in high affairs of government by demonstrating. Once you went down this path there would be no order, and the authority of the Party would collapse. They also believed that foreign governments (e.g. the US through VOA) and NGOs (human rights groups, etc.) and the international media were taking advantage of the students to sharpen the confrontation and weaken or overthrow the regime.

What impact have events in Tiananmen Square had on China’s relations with the world?

Of course, in the immediate aftermath public opinion in the wealthier countries was shocked, and the G7 governments imposed sanctions on China. In the rest of the world, however, less attention was paid and Third World governments and those of the then socialist camp not only did not impose sanctions but regarded the actions of the Chinese government as appropriate. As time went by and China resumed rapid economic growth, the memories of Tiananmen in the West faded. Business communities and governments placed emphasis on maintaining good relations with the Chinese regime. However, I think TAM did leave a permanent mark on the regime’s image. It remains a vulnerability for this regime that it is the successor of the regime that cracked down with military force in 1989, killing a still-not-accurately-known number of its own citizens. The regime has made no accounting of the dead and wounded, has not allowed independent discussion of the event, and shows by its sensitivity to any discussion of TAM that it recognizes this unresolved historical event as a weak spot in its legitimacy.

Nowadays China´s leaders have further opened the economy, reduced inflation, and generally improved the material lives of the Chinese people, yet they have not reformed its rigid political system. Why?

The current political system is functioning effectively. It has produced political order, economic growth, and a string of foreign policy successes. The system has been able to produce qualified new leaders. With the economy growing most people are better off and are optimistic about their personal economic futures. This could change during the current global economic crisis but so far China has done well economically. But for now, the public is not calling for change. To be sure, there are lots of problems, of which the most pressing is probably corruption. But so far, since Tiananmen, there has occurred neither an internal crisis of the regime nor a crisis in state-society relations. Thus nothing forces the regime to change the rules of the political game.

What are the expectations of individual Chinese and what is their attitude towards government and democracy?

At this point, based on the surveys reported by the Asian Barometer Surveys project in a new book that I co-edited, How East Asians View Democracy, I would summarize the view of most Chinese citizens as saying that (a) they value and believe in democracy; (b) they accept the regime’s official position that it is in fact a democracy, not perfect, but fundamentally a democracy, because (c) the regime works to provide benefits (or care for) the people. Although there are some sharp critics of the regime, heroic fighters for human rights, and political dissidents, these are a small minority and their voices are effectively barred from reaching the majority.

Why is the Tiananmen Square massacre still a taboo in China? When will the Chinese confront the past?

The TAM crackdown revealed a basic vulnerability of the regime and open public discussion of that crackdown would remind people of that vulnerability – namely, the vulnerability that this is a regime that does not subject itself to dialogue with or accountability toward the people. As the regime has itself officially said, the Chinese people made a historic decision for CCP rule back in 1949 and this question cannot be reopened. Second, many beneficiaries of TAM are still either in power (such as Hu Jintao) or have prestige and influence within the Party as elders (Jiang Zemin, Li Peng, and others). A reopening of TAM would hurt these people’s interests and hence reawaken intra-Party factional struggle which would be very damaging to the regime. Third, discussing TAM would be taken by the public as, indeed, a sign of intra-Party disagreement and hence would be likely to trigger civil disorder. Given all these considerations I don’t expect the regime to allow open discussion of TAM (or any other similarly sensitive political issue such as the cultural revolution) for a long time, basically as long as the unbroken lineage of CCP rulers chosen by their predecessors persists.

What is the link between human rights in China and the strategic interests of the United States and the rest of the world?

The link is seen more clearly by the Europeans than the Americans. Because Europe is geographically near many zones of instability that produce numerous traditonal as well as non-traditional security problems (South Eastern Europe, Russia, the Caucasus, North Africa, and the Middle East) and because European military power is quite limited, the EU has formally recognized in its security policy the importance of promoting European values, so that over the long run these neighboring areas will become zones of peace, stability, and prosperity. The US is far away from such regions and also has a more robust option of military power to address what it perceives as security threats. Yet in the long run, the same logic applies – the US as well as Europe will be more secure when other political systems are open and stable. The Chinese political system today is stable and for the most part functions effectively, but without rule of law and real human rights its political system is constantly vulnerable. And the Chinese regime also in various direct and indirect ways encourages the persistence of authoritarian regimes elsewhere.



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