Posts Tagged ‘tiananmen square’

In the lead up to the Tiananmen crackdown’s anniversary, there have been a lot of articles looking back on the event – some with new interesting angles, some just dusting off stories from five years ago. But in reading this stuff, I’ve noticed that some things tend to get overlooked or remembered in a skewed way.

I think oversimplified media coverage of the protests at the beginning plays a major role. Images of Tank Man and Democracy banners in the heart of Red China offered a narrative too appealing to complicate with the finer details. This list (which is admittedly also pretty simplified) is a reminder of some of those details that we tend to neglect about Tiananmen and its legacy.

1. The whole event was much messier than it looks in hindsight
In popular memory, the Tiananmen movement was a brave stand by Democracy-hungry youth against the tyrannical Communist Party; but the reality was a bit more complex. Since the late-70s, the Party had been touting Reform and Opening up, so as the 80s progressed, political discourse became more open and “safe.” But the “reform” being touted was vague. It was akin to an American politician running on a platform of “change.” “Yeah, great,” most people thought. Just about everyone can agree to that. But once you start dissecting exactly what “change” or “reform” means and how far it should go, opinions start to diverge pretty radically.

By the time 1989 rolled around, just about every social group in China wanted some sort of “change.” Some thought the reforms had gone too fast, others not fast enough. There was a widespread feeling that, in one way or another, many government leaders had dropped the ball and were corrupt to the point that they were holding China back. But there was really no coherent set of demands among protestors about how to address this; in fact many of their demands were contradictory.

Names now synonymous with the movement like Chai Ling and Wu’er Kaixi probably didn’t mean much to the average protestor. In a sea of people, their influence stretched about as far as the sounds from their bullhorns could reach. These “student leaders” went through their own power struggles and quickly factionalized. Whatever control they had over the movement was confined to very small pockets. There were too many divergent demands for anyone to exert any meaningful leadership.

As the Beijing spring went on, the Tiananmen protests became a major social event that was seen by the public as a patriotic continuation of the May 4th Movement. People from every point on the social ladder and political spectrum – most of whom weren’t otherwise politically active – joined in with the herd. Even uber-nationalist and Confucius Peace Prize founder Kong Qingdong jumped in on the festivities, if that tells you anything. People tend to think the movement was for “Democracy,” but that’s a gross oversimplification. There wasn’t even a clear definition of what “Democracy” meant. Is it direct national elections, or is it just greater transparency within the CCP?

Few actually wanted to overthrow the CCP and replace it completely. After all, the protests started with an outpouring of support for a fallen Communist leader, and many of the protestors were Communist Party members themselves. But ultimately, there wasn’t really any agreed upon message or motive for the movement – just that it was patriotic.

2. The movement was a blessing for the CCP
With everything the Communist Party does to erase Tiananmen from history, it seems odd to think that it was actually the movement’s greatest beneficiary. The divergent demands emerging in the late 80s left the Party increasingly challenged by the public with shrinking room to operate. When hundreds of thousands of protestors took to the streets for seven weeks without any coherent set of demands, it was the perfect excuse to clamp down and re-assert absolute control. It was especially convenient for the hardliner faction of the CCP and the likes of Li Peng. They were able to pin blame for the “chaos” on liberal opponents who’d taken a soft-line on student demonstrations. Extreme measures – like purging the very highest ranked Party official, Zhao Ziyang – can only be taken in extreme circumstances. Tiananmen provided exactly this. The Politburo was cleared of those pushing for aggressive political reform, and agitators among the public were silenced. The now conservative-controlled CCP enjoyed two decades of the greatest prosperity it had ever experienced.

3. Tiananmen had some very nationalistic roots
It’s become popular to compare young Chinese of today unfavorably to the Tiananmen youth. The latter erected the Goddess of Democracy to stare down Mao, while the former throws eggs at the Japanese Embassy. But blind xenophobia/nationalism and fierce criticism of the government aren’t at all mutually exclusive, and in fact, can be directly related. This has been the case in political uprisings from the Boxer Rebellion to the May 4th movement. In fact, xenophobic protests were one of the undercurrents that led straight to Tiananmen Square.

In December of 1988, two African students at Nanjing’s Hehai University wanted to bring Chinese girls into a school dance, but were rebuked by campus security. The exact facts are disputed, but some sort of large brawl between groups of Africans and Chinese broke out. False rumors spread that Chinese women had been raped or kidnapped and a Chinese man killed. In response, hundreds gathered outside the foreign student dorm clamoring for blood, but they were dispersed by police.

This was just the latest in a series of race-fueled conflicts at universities over the preceding decade, and it incensed Chinese students. They were kept under strict control, while foreign classmates had all sorts of special privileges. Now, these Africans were apparently getting away with murder and being protected by traitorous officials. It was an infuriating highlight of China’s weakness.

The story wasn’t true, but the issues it represented struck a nerve for the students who felt corruption and disrespect all around them. They wanted to stand up and defend their country’s dignity, but once again they were thwarted by bought-off officials and an unjust legal system. It was just as their ancestors had felt before May 4th, 1919.

Thousands hit the streets with chants like “Down with the black devils.” But slogans like “protect human rights” and calls for political and legal reform soon slipped in. News spread to Beijing and Shanghai, where local students piled on the “anti-African protests.” Then with the death of Hu Yaobang four months later, the volume of these calls was cranked up at Tiananmen Square. (link)

So when you see Chinese youth of today written off politically because of their “nationalist” tendencies, it’s worth asking how much nationalism really hedges against challenges to the CCP.

4. There are side-effects from the state-induced Tiananmen “amnesia”
The Tiananmen Square Massacre raises very unwelcome questions about the Communist Party’s legitimacy, so it’s no surprise that it’s tried (pretty successfully) to airbrush it from public memory. We now frequently see reports highlighting the ignorance or ambivalence of young Chinese toward the events, and it gives a pretty sad commentary on how the rebellious idealism of youth has ebbed. But that’s an old story. What’s becoming an increasingly interesting story is the other implication of that “amnesia.”

When the CCP decided to put down the protests, it could have done so with riot gear or rubber bullets. It instead opted for machine guns with live ammunition. The bloodbath that ensued was a message that this sort of dissent wouldn’t be tolerated again. For the following two decades, that message was received loud and clear. But what happens when the next generation is shielded from it?

It’s an exaggeration to say that young people today don’t know anything about 1989, but most are indeed pretty sketchy on the details. I’ve even talked to a few students who didn’t know why it happened, but assumed the protestors must have had it coming if the government saw fit to kill them. They don’t fully grasp how the CCP was willing to send in soldiers to indiscriminately massacre hundreds, perhaps thousands, when it felt its legitimacy was threatened. And most of those protestors didn’t even oppose the CCP; they simply challenged it to reform.

These days, it’s becoming apparent that the next generation of youth isn’t as scared of speaking out (so long as they avoid directly attacking the CCP’s legitimacy). We’ve seen a steady stream of environmental street protests, a large demonstration against censorship, and recently, a dozen college students uploaded pictures of themselves supporting jailed civil rights attorney Pu Zhiqiang. In all these cases, teenagers and 20-somethings have been front and center.

This is still a relatively small segment of Chinese youth, but it’s one that’s obviously growing. None of these things were happening a decade ago. There are of course more social factors in play here than 6/4 amnesia, but as the memory of Tiananmen drifts further away, so does the instinctive fear it was meant to instill.

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When haphazard attempts to start a Jasmine Revolution failed comically in Beijing early this year, discussion over whether or not China is ripe for revolution was popular. The conclusion by most was that it’s not. But it seems that in just a few short months the situation has changed somewhat. While an uprising doesn’t look to be imminent, there seems to be many similarities between circumstances unfolding today and those that preceded the Tiananmen Square rebellion of 1989. So I want to look at some key parallels between then and now:

Corruption

Then: There was always corruption in the PRC, but Reform & Opening Up made it much easier and much more visible. In the 80’s, many price controls were lifted, but not all. The shortages of some goods allowed people with the right connections to buy at the artificially low prices and sell at market rates for huge windfalls. So naturally, the already-powerful became even more powerful. The inequality of opportunity and obvious abuse of power were two things immediately visible to those affected and were direct causes the Tiananmen protests.[1]

Now: You can click here to see a visual approximation of China’s Gini Coefficient wealth inequality over time (0 means perfect equality, 1.0 means one person has all the wealth).  In 1989 it was hovering around 0.36. It took a dip that year but has since soared to over 0.47 – well past the 0.40 danger level. China’s crony one-party capitalism and massive economic growth since Tiananmen have only increased the amount of capital involved with corruption and allowed the powerful to get exponentially wealthier.  This is perhaps best felt when local officials make illegal, undercompensated land grabs to raise capital for their city (and often take kickbacks from developers). A recent survey found the number of disputes over these land grabs is at an all-time high. Favoritism, graft and inequality of opportunity are in some ways better than the Tiananmen era, but in many ways much worse.

The Media

Then: The Chinese media of the 1980’s covered issues that had never been touched in the PRC previously; even dabbling in corruption cases. Single essays or TV programs could stir up fiery political discussion on college campuses. A documentary called River Elegy played on CCTV in 1988, which subtly criticized Chinese culture and sparked nationwide debate. When the protests themselves started, the press covered them extensively and even portrayed the student protestors sympathetically. These factors shined a light on many issues intellectuals were concerned about and brought together like-minded activists.

Now: Though the official press was reigned in after 1989 – where it’s more or less stayed ever since – new avenues of disseminating information have sprung up. Mobile phones, blogs and microblogs have put reporting in the hands of those directly affected – shining a light on things never before seen by most common people. Shrewd online political commentary on these issues by bloggers like Han Han may be playing a role similar to programs like River Elegy in the 80’s.

Education Failure

Then: After the Cultural Revolution, universities re-opened and were a sure ticket to a better life. However, with further reform and opening of the markets in the mid-to-late 80’s, many college students graduated to find their education gave them no real advantage in the new business landscape. In 1988, the system that assigned college graduates jobs was also amended to where private companies could reject those top students assigned to them in favor of those who had connections inside the company.[1]

Now: Educational prospects improved after Tiananmen, but now the situation is coming to resemble 1989 again. An overabundance of college graduates has left one-fourth of them unemployed without any better prospects than those who didn’t go to college. Many have also criticized the university system as useless, largely focusing on theory and failing to give students useful practical guidance. With labor wages rising China needs to move up the value chain in order to keep its people employed. Some think the innovation and collaboration needed to achieve this won’t be possible under the current intellectually repressive atmosphere.

Inflation

Then: Inflation was at an astounding 18.5% in 1988 because of panic withdrawling and buying on rumors of what relaxing price controls would mean. [2]

Now: Inflation is sitting at about 5.5%, down from a high of 6.5% in July. Not nearly as bad as pre-Tiananmen, but food is getting less affordable and housing is off the charts. With a roughly 32 million surplus of marrying age men, great pressure is being put on those who need to buy a house (and often a car) to compete for potential wives. And the poorest of the poor are having to cut food from their diet in order to stay on top of their finances.

Competing Party factions

Then: In the lead up to Tiananmen there was an obvious rift in the party between progressives like Zhao Ziyang and Hu Yaobang and hardliners like Li Peng. This rift was absolutely apparent in the days leading up to the crackdown. The protestors saw this split and sniffed weakness; which emboldened them further.

Now: After Tiananmen the party learned to present a united front in public and keep disputes between factions – or even the existence of factions – behind closed doors. That era seems to have ended now though with Bo Xilai’s left wing and Wang Yang’s right wing both making very public criticisms of each other’s models. The bulk of the Chinese public has yet to express an interest  (or knowledge) in this feud, but that could change as factions push harder for influence and citizens begin to take sides.

Banking System Cracks

Then: In the late 80’s Chinese banks flooded the market with loans. As could be expected, a great deal of them went bad and an estimated 1/3 of factories were unprofitable.[1] The government brought this to an abrupt halt in 1988 by cutting the cash flow – a kind of austerity measure many didn’t take too kindly to.

Now: Take that same situation and multiply the figures involved to equal more than seven times China’s entire 1989 GDP. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, China pumped $586 billion into the economy as a stimulus. This is part of an overall $2.7 trillion Chinese banks have extended in loans over 2009 and 2010. Up to now that stimulus has looked pretty good in economic recovery terms, as it always does…until the loans start going bad.

The Street recently had a piece that said, “Economic-related news coming from China is a page-turning thriller. Ponzi schemes, zombies, off-balance-sheet reporting, subprime and mafia-style lending; rising inflation, declining asset values, slowing growth — it’s all there. Add in government meddling in market mechanisms and official denials and China sounds like it has the makings of a perfect economic storm.”

Wenzhou has recently had dozens of bosses flee bad debts – something that’s being read as a preview of larger things to come. Tsinghua economist Patrick Chovanec has said he’s not sure if China can make it through next year’s power transition before a major banking crisis hits.

Key differences between Tiananmen era and now

Nationalism and affluence

Since Tiananmen the government has pretty successfully educated nationalism into the youth and trained them to regard any talk of democracy or human rights as a western ploy to make China implode. The relatively well-off youth of today also seem far more interested in video games and pop stars than politics anyways. And the population as a whole is undeniably better off than they were in 1989 (though some studies suggest they’re not any happier). Most have a lot more to lose than they did at that time.

A paranoid and highly technological government

The technological improvements may work to the Party’s advantage more than any would-be revolutionaries. The government has the capability to monitor and immediately clamp down on dissent – a capability that improves by the day. If they were truly threatened by a spontaneous movement, they could temporarily shut down cellphone service, microblogs like Weibo, or even the entire internet – as they did in Xinjiang in 2009. And as the Beijing attempt at a Jasmine Revolution earlier this year demonstrated, the government will come down hard on any threat – real or imagined. And they’re very careful not to allow any large gatherings that they can’t fully control; as the turnout for Hu Yaobang’s funeral in 1989 was the final spark for the Tiananmen Protests.

Conclusion

Given the vast similarities between now and 1989, another go at a revolution seems possible. If history is any indicator, an iron fist can’t succeed by itself if grievances are too great and you have the right catalyst to bring the disenfranchised together quickly.

Probably the only leader popular enough to create this Hu Yaobang-like catalyst in death would be Wen Jiabao. But again, if that happened the party would be overly cautious; and it probably wouldn’t be enough anyways. It would have to be something big that directly affected a huge number of people.

A large scale disaster that could be linked to corruption or official incompetence might do it. The Wenzhou train crash earlier this year and Shanghai fire last year made a lot of people angry and concerned for their safety. They weren’t big enough to spark an uprising, but they were two of many small aggravators that are slowly ebbing away people’s patience with corruption and government cover-ups. If something like a nuclear meltdown, a mass public health incident or a large dam collapse happened, that just might break the camel’s back. In 1975, the Banqiao Dam in Henan collapsed killing 171,000 people. And if you think that’s something relegated to the incompetence of the Mao-era, an average of 68 dams still collapse every year in China, according to one official.

But an even more likely scenario would be a poorly timed financial crisis; one like the aforementioned banking crisis that many are predicating. Life is already getting rough for the post-80’s/post-90’s kids who grew up spoiled taking economic security for granted. The job market is shrinking, their time/money intensive education is often useless and the gender imbalance is leaving many men hopelessly single. To make matters worse, the 2010 ratio of five workers for every elderly person will drop to 3-to-1 by 2020 in what Time Magazine has called “China’s Demographic Time Bomb.” For many only children that means completely supporting two parents financially and physically amid some of the least affordable housing prices in the world.

If a housing bubble burst robs these people of the investments they’ve become slaves to, they might all-of-a-sudden take a very keen interest in politics. And if there’s a banking crisis, it would likely cause a run on banks and panic buying similar to what caused the massive inflation of 1988. Fitch has estimated there’s a 60% chance of such a crisis by mid-2013. If it comes any earlier than that, it would be right during the leadership transition when the party is at its most vulnerable.

I’ll give my standard disclaimer for any internet police or fenqing that might be reading: An uprising isn’t something I’m hoping for. It’s not even something I’d venture to predict. Predications of a CCP collapse have a way of making you look like a fool (See: Gordon Chang).  And even if an uprising did happen, it doesn’t mean the party wouldn’t survive it. But there are many cracks beginning to show – financial, political and social; figurative and literal. The Beijing Consensus of authoritarian led economic growth has delayed the Party’s need to address their legitimacy shortfall for a solid 22 years, but one way or another that growth eventually has to slow and the legitimacy issue has to be addressed. If I were in charge I’d focus a bit less on the iron fist and a bit more on the root problems distressing and disenfranchising those without financial and political influence.

Non-linked sources

[1] Silenced Scream: a Visual History of the 1989 Tiananmen Protests. Donna Rouviere Anderson, Forrest Anderson. p. 1

[2] Dingxin Zhao. ‘’The Power of Tiananmen: State-Society Relations and the 1989 Beijing Student Movement’’. Chicago: University of Chiacgo Press, 2001. ISBN 0-226-982600-2. pp.127.