It was 20 Years Ago Today

On every 20th anniversary of a major world event the old line from the Beatles goes through my head.   Twenty years is a long time.   People born in 1989 are now sophomores and juniors in college.   It also is long enough to start to develop an historical perspective on events.

Twenty years ago today the world awoke to news that China had cracked down on the protests at Tiananmen Square, the main square in Beijing, which for weeks had seen a growing protest movement demanding democracy and freedom .

In China economic restructuring had started a decade earlier, and had been extremely successful.  Ten years of growth and modernization was about to give way to (at least) a two decade span of near 10% a year economic growth and increasing internal prosperity.

China’s leaders did this in a very carefully planned manner.   Unlike old bureaucratic communism, they didn’t attempt to control markets or micro-manage.   They worked with markets, guiding the economy on a path towards export led growth, mimicking what Japan, South Korea and even Taiwan had done earlier.

Many Chinese believed that growing prosperity should be complimented by political openness, freedom and democracy.  Some leaders in the Chinese Communist Party agreed.  They knew they were no longer Marxists in their economic philosophy — “communism” was now used as a rationalizing principle for keeping the elites in power.  In fact, by 1989  the new entrepreneur class was earning more and living better than the average bureaucrat or party leader.

Others, however, were afraid of the change.   They knew their country was soon to be well over a billion people.  Their fear was not ideological, but historical.  China has a history defined by periods of stability, associated with stable but strict imperial rule, and periods of instability and chaos caused by regional rivalries and incompetent central government.  If they allowed the nascent democracy movement to gain support, could it destroy the country?  After all, over 700 million Chinese live in poverty.   The educated middle class were (and still are) a minority.   Could some radical movement mobilize the poor against both the Communist party and the economic reforms?    Would the regions start fighting amongst themselves?

Leaders decided that 1989 was not the time for democracy.   The crack down at Tiananmen was brutal, bloody, and efficient.   They knew they risked reprisals — they relied on external investments and external markets to keep their economic reforms moving.   But despite outrage and initial threats, the world response was mild and temporary.  US President George H.W. Bush had been ambassador to China and understood how the leaders were thinking, and thought their fears were legitimate.   China might not be ready for the kind of change being demanded.   Investment from abroad and purchases of Chinese goods, on an ever upward ride since 1979, paused a little, but continued their climb.  By 1990 the US needed China to support the American led expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait, and in exchange for that support, reprisals over Tiananmen became virtually nil.  By the mid-nineties, it was all but forgotten as Chinese economic growth went into overdrive.

China’s 1989 movement was not very broad.  Intellectuals and students made up the lions’ share of its supporters.   The growing middle class simply wanted to get rich, and the government was allowing them to do just that.  They did not want to jeopardize their new found wealth.   China could crush the protesters and most of the population, even if disappointed, weren’t willing to do anything against the government.

Yet China’s middle class has continued to grow.   As more Chinese move into prosperity, they will start questioning why the party and its bureaucracy remain in control of the country.   Meanwhile, the children of the first generation of middle class Chinese are coming of age.    They are less likely to be as satisfied with simple prosperity; they will be more likely to cast a critical eye on government policy, especially as problems caused by the world economic crisis intensify.

China in 2009 is therefore in a different place than in 1989.   There is no major protest movement, but the potential support base for reform is far broader now than it was twenty years ago.

The danger is that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will be unwilling to adapt to these changes.  To the extent they try to hold on to power, they risk alienating the middle class, and causing rifts between different parts of the country.   Moreover, corruption in China has become intense.   The government’s ability to control economic development has created opportunities for bureaucrats to make out big on graft and “favors.”  This not only lines their pockets but makes them feel important: the big shot who can stop a project with a stroke of a pen.   Such folk balk at reform efforts and cling to their positions — parasites don’t let go of the host without a struggle.

A western style democracy was not viable for China in 1989.  That would have been a risky experiment that might have sent China in the wrong direction.   Communist control, however, is unsustainable.

The longer they wait before beginning a power sharing process with the middle class through nascent democratic institutions, the more difficult change will become.   The protesters in 1989 overreached, but it would have been better for China if both they and the government had recognized the need for gradual reform, and had been able to compromise and work together on that path.

The US, of course, has an interest in all of this.   We should not expect an American style democracy in China — their culture and history is very different from ours, their political system will reflect who they are.   Too often we’ve made the false assumption that what works for us should work for everyone; we cannot make that same mistake with China.    We need to avoid being seen as a threat (the Chinese military tends to be far more keen to view the US as a potential enemy, often butting heads with the political leaders who focus on economics), and respect the fact China will have to control their own process of reform.

China, it has been said, looks at history different than the West.   Where we see history behind us, with our eyes and focus forward, Chinese are said to back into the future, keeping their eyes on the past.  Most people have forgotten the events of 20 years ago.  In China, however, these events are not only remembered, but are recognized as part of a dilemma China has yet to solve.

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