Thursday, June 04, 2009

Tiananmen 20 years later: The withering of ideologies

Chinese not willing to jeopardize their prosperity by pressing for political reform

The Toronto Star
Jun 04, 2009 04:30 AM

Twenty years ago today, Canadians and people around the world were glued to their televisions to watch the tragic events in Beijing unfold as the Chinese government used force to crack down on demonstrators in and around Tiananmen Square.

Two decades later, there is much debate about the nature of the student-led movement. While Beijing officially labels it as "turmoil," some call it a forgotten revolution, or even the end of revolution. For most, however, life has moved on and memories of the bloodshed have faded. When I began teaching at the University of Alberta in 1993, all students, including those from China, could recall the live coverage of the Beijing demonstrations. Today, they learn about the event the same way they do the Korean war.

Many young people who participated in the student demonstrations now live affluent middle-class lives, with their own apartments, cars and other modern gadgets, enjoying China's new urban prosperity.

They look back at 1989 with mixed feelings of nostalgia and realism. "It was an exciting moment in Chinese history, and my heart is always with those students," a friend told me recently in Beijing, "but I won't go to Tiananmen now if the same thing happens again, and I won't donate money and time as I did last time."

"Why?" I pressed further.

"Well, I have benefited a lot from the reforms since then, and there is so much to lose if there are dramatic changes."

Indeed, the Chinese government has made providing economic benefits to most citizens its top priority for the past two decades. As Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader who ordered the bloody crackdown, put it: "Economic development is the core."

This doctrine is based on three pragmatic calculations.

First, the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist party's monopoly on power derives from continuously improving living conditions for the ordinary people. Post-1989 China, while resisting political reform, has experienced explosive economic growth at an annual rate of around 10 per cent. Beijing, Shanghai and other large Chinese cities have been transformed into modern metropolises. Several hundred million poor people have been lifted out of poverty. Today, most Chinese are satisfied with the country's material progress, and China soon will overtake Japan as the second largest economy in the world.

Second, China is becoming a modern world power not through democratization – as Mikhail Gorbachev tried in the Soviet Union – but through Western-style capitalism. Facing post-Tiananmen sanctions by Western countries, Deng asserted that the only way for China to break its international isolation was to pursue open-door economic policies. Believing that foreign multinational corporations were driven by the logic of profit, he predicted that if China could make itself a profitable place, they would return – and so would their governments. And they did. China today attracts the world's largest share of foreign direct investment, holds the largest foreign reserves, and is the largest creditor of the United States. And most Western leaders are muted about Tiananmen.

Third, political and social stability must be maintained at all cost. Zhao Ziyang, the former Communist party general secretary who lost his job in 1989 due to his sympathy with the student movement, revealed in a newly published memoir based on tapes recorded before his death that the Chinese leadership was split on how to deal with the protest: one side favoured negotiation and the other urged force. The latter prevailed at the time but the lessons were not lost on those involved. Today, Beijing does everything possible to preserve elite unity and safeguard social stability. "To nip it in the bud" has become the guiding principle in dealing with any challenges to authority.

Beneath the surface of China's brutal pragmatism, however, there is an ever-growing undercurrent for further political openness. For hundreds of parents who lost their beloved sons and daughters 20 years ago, life has never returned to normal. A group of "Tiananmen Mothers" continues to demand answers from the government. Pressure for transparency, anti-corruption, freedom of expression and other political reforms, all of them raised two decades ago, continues to build from the bottom up.

But unlike the students of the 1980s, many of whom adored the "Goddess of Democracy" and passionately advocated "total Westernization" as the answer to China's political future, Chinese youth today are more sophisticated and critical. They still share the last generation's idealism but are much less ideological.

And there is an unspoken but widely shared consensus among the Chinese people that, sooner or later, the official verdict on the Tiananmen movement as "anti-government riots" will be reversed and the patriotism of the students recognized.

In the mid-1970s, a group of foreign visitors asked long-serving Chinese premier Zhou Enlai, who had studied in France in his youth, about the historical significance of the 1789 French Revolution, which was approaching its 200th anniversary. Zhou reportedly paused for a moment and responded, "It is still too early to tell."

Those were the thoughts going through my mind when I went to Zhao Ziyang's home to pay my respects after he passed away in January 2005 and later attended his funeral – the only foreign academic to do so. I admired his final effort to avoid violent repression of the students in 1989. Today, I remain hopeful that history ultimately will deliver a fair verdict on the tragedy of Tiananmen.

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