After Deng: On China's Transformation
In the spring of 1989, Deng’s philosophy faced its greatest test. Anger across China at rising corruption, inflation and slowing economic growth sparked demonstrations for greater freedom across the country, and particularly in Beijing. As conveyed by contemporary accounts of debate within the party, Deng clearly believed that, if necessary, the government should use force to maintain power. He was convinced that consenting to political reform would lead to chaos in such a large and, at times, unmanageable country, and would undermine China’s economic progress. Other communist nations that pursued political reforms before economic ones would face similar crises, he believed, and their leaders would be deposed before they could fix their nations’ vast economic problems, causing massive unrest.
Given Deng’s history of resorting to tough, even brutal decision-making when necessary, the Tiananmen denouement was not surprising. Despite having elevated reformers in the party to promote his brand of economic modernization, Deng, working behind the scenes as the protests escalated because he was no longer China’s titular ruler, sidelined and ultimately placed under house arrest his number two, the pro-reform leader Zhao Ziyang. Deng sided with Li Peng, a top hardliner, issuing stern warnings to the protesters to clear the square. Finally, on June 3 and 4, Deng oversaw a bloody crackdown on unarmed civilians, with the PLA declaring martial law and clearing Tiananmen Square but killing as many as several thousand people. “Westerners would forget” China’s tough tactics in time, Deng promised other party leaders. Deng himself, Vogel reports, apparently never doubted that he had made the right decision to violently suppress the demonstrators.
Shortly after Tiananmen, China faced its worst period of international isolation since the depredations of Mao’s regime. The United States levied sanctions, and many other Western nations cut off business ties. At the time, many foreign observers and Chinese intellectuals were convinced that the Communist Party could not last, at least not in its current form. Foreign leaders’ predictions of the party’s imminent collapse would become a staple of global diplomacy, with Bill Clinton and others warning Beijing that if it did not embrace serious reform the party would not survive. Books like Gordon Chang’s The Coming Collapse of China (2001) became bestsellers in the United States. As recently as this past spring, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was sounding the same theme: she told reporters from The Atlantic that Beijing is “trying to stop history [i.e., prevent democratization], which is a fool’s errand.”
Henry Kissinger, one of the architects of the United States’ modern relationship with China, certainly thought that Deng’s decisions in 1989 were palatable. The consummate American realist, Kissinger saw in Deng a kindred soul, the opposite of the often mercurial, unpredictable Mao. In his latest book, On China, a reflection on the history of Chinese foreign policy and on his own relationships with Chinese leaders, Kissinger fawns over Deng. “China as the present day economic superpower is the legacy of Deng Xiaoping,” he writes. Deng “fulfilled the ultimate task of a leader—of taking his society from where it is to where it has never been.”
There is truth in this assessment, but Kissinger broadens it to include nearly the entire Chinese leadership, few of whom have matched Deng’s high standard of statecraft. In fact, like many less knowledgeable China watchers, Kissinger seems wedded to an old stereotype, viewing China’s leaders as naturally skilled diplomats possessed of a wisdom unattainable by Westerners. In the most laughable instance of this stereotype, some China watchers have claimed for years that Zhou Enlai once said it was “too early to say” whether the French Revolution was a success, a story often cited as proof of Chinese diplomats’ sage farsightedness. But as longtime China hand Chas Freeman revealed during a recent symposium to mark the publication of Kissinger’s book, Zhou had simply confused the French Revolution of 1789 with the Paris demonstrations in 1968.
Still, Kissinger accepts the idea of Chinese wisdom eclipsing the shortsighted political maneuvers of Western democracies. “China’s strategy generally exhibits three characteristics: meticulous analysis of long-term trends, careful study of tactical options, and detached exploration of operational decisions,” Kissinger gushes in a typical passage. One can almost hear the senior statesman grinding his teeth over American foreign policy, which by contrast is often affected by politicians’ ideas and the will of voters, and is usually not the work of a small group of mandarins. Kissinger even seems to implicitly blame the protesters for the Tiananmen crackdown, for trying to “demonstrate the impotence of the government, to weaken it, and to tempt it into rash acts.” This remark is consistent with Kissinger’s view that Tiananmen was a blip in US-China relations: it was a diplomatic nuisance caused by protesters making nuisances of themselves. One of the first prominent American visitors to China after Tiananmen, Kissinger personally helped smooth ties by urging Beijing to show some “presentational aspects” of reform that would allow Tiananmen to blow over.
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Despite predictions by American diplomats, China seems to have defied history, affirming Deng’s decision not to allow political reform, even in 1989. Many of China’s Asian neighbors, such as Thailand and the Philippines, seemed to make transitions to democracy in the ’90s, only to revert to semiauthoritarian rule in the following decade, dragged down by economic stagnation and incompetent and corrupt leadership. Japan has endured two lost decades of stasis and increasing poverty. Russia flirted with democracy in the ’90s but soon devolved into a kind of mafia state, its industries crumbling and its international power ebbing. Even the West, which had lectured China for years about privatization and embracing political reform, has over the past three years used considerable state resources to assist industries from autos to banking.
China, meanwhile, seems to be going from strength to strength. Many authoritarian states have tried to modernize without opening up their political systems, and while few have succeeded, none compare with China. China’s economy grew by nearly 9 percent in 2009, while Japan’s shrank by more than 5 percent, and the American economy contracted by 2.6 percent. China now holds nearly $1.2 trillion in US government debt. Moreover, defying Western demands for privatization and the neoliberal Washington Consensus, the Chinese government has reasserted control over many strategic economic sectors in the past decade. Of the forty-four biggest companies in China today, only three are privately owned.
Until two or three years ago, the “Beijing Consensus” appealed mostly to the world’s most repressive autocrats—Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, Bashar al-Assad of Syria and Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan—all eager to learn how China has modernized its authoritarianism. But in recent years it is not just autocrats who have sought to learn from Beijing. Increasingly, leaders and even average citizens of young democracies like Indonesia, Thailand, Senegal, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia—countries where popular support for democracy has weakened and where leaders are looking for new models of growth after the failure of the Washington Consensus—have taken an interest in China’s model. Studying the ten countries of Southeast Asia, Indonesian scholar Ignatius Wibowo found that with only a few exceptions, each country has moved in the direction of China and away from liberal democracy over the past decade, largely because these nations had watched China’s successes and contrasted them with the West’s economic troubles.
Contrary to the predictions of scholars like Huntington and Lipset, China’s middle classes have displayed little inclination to rise up, even as revolutions sweep across the Middle East. In fact, the city dwellers among China’s middle classes have become an increasingly conservative barrier to change. In the wake of Tiananmen, the Communist Party all but abandoned its traditional ideology and instead based its legitimacy on improving economic performance and instilling a new, muscular and sometimes nasty nationalism through media campaigns, revised textbooks and public events. In study after study, the majority of China’s urban middle class, who have prospered enormously since the reform period began in the late ’70s, do not seem to want to change the government. A young generation of wealthy urban self-identified “neoconservatives” pressures the government to take tougher action toward Taiwan, Tibet, Japan, the United States and other perceived enemies. Party membership, now thrown open to private businesspeople, has become as coveted as elite country club memberships are in the West. One comprehensive analysis of Chinese citizens, by the US-based East-West Center, found that “as China’s economic reform and growth have progressed, public interest in promoting liberal democracy seems to have diminished.” Because growth has benefited urban areas the most, urbanites especially think that political liberalization might transfer economic and political power to poorer, rural areas. A poll released last year by the Pew research organization focusing mostly on urban areas found that nine in ten Chinese are happy with the current conditions in their country. Only 30 percent of Americans, normally among the more optimistic people in the world, were satisfied with the direction of the United States.
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