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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 25, June 14, 2014

Contours of China Crisis

Saturday 14 June 2014, by Nikhil Chakravartty

From N.C.’s Writings

Twentyfive years ago, N.C. had left for China when the Tiananmen bloodbath took place on June 4, 1989. Apart from his despatches which appeared in The Times of India on the tragedy that befell that great country at that time, he also wrote this detailed piece which was published in Mainstream (June 17, 1989). This was an enlarged version of an article in The Times of India (June 12, 1989).

The contours of the emerging set-up in China are still very blurred as the country is yet to recover from the searing shock of the ghastly massacre at Tiananmen Square on the Black Sunday of June 4 while those in authority have started their purge and persecution in their so-called crusade against counter-revolution. As such, the review of the shattering happenings has to wait until the picture becomes clearer and the high tension subsides.

However, certain broad trends are discernible which perhaps provide the clue as to what went wrong. Despite the claim made by the Chinese authorities and China-watchers all these years, it is now becoming clear that the legendary Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has lost its elan as well as its moral authority. The recovery after the body-blow suffered during the Cultural Revolution has been only formal in the last decade-and-a-half since the ouster of the Gang of Four. The moral stature which the Chinese Communists commanded before the masses has been eroded as careeism and corruption became rampant. It has been common talk in China in recent years that corruption pervaded all tiers of the ruling hierarchy. The stories about the exploits of Deng Xiaoping’s son, Deng Pufang, rival those of Brezhnev’s son-in-law. Even at the provincial level, corruption became rampant both in the Party and the government. The Department of Foreign Trade became a byword for kickbacks. There was, therefore, a genuine ground for widspread mass discontent over corruption which the students focussed in their pro-democracy campaign.

Secondly, the authority of the government as distinct from the Party has never been very marked in the traditional Communist set-up, because the Party is regarded as the fountain of power, the more so in China. The vulnerability of the government in the case of China was compounded by the fact that Prime Minister Li Peng, though known for his technocratic competence, has had no mass image except as one of the adopted sons of Chou Enlai. He came to limelight in last year’s September Plenum which ordered go-slow on economic libera-lisation. Though the government under him noted the deleterious effects of inflation and corruption, it hardly launched a mass drive on the issues. Besides, Li Peng has had no experience of reading the mood of the masses, which was evident from his peremptory declaration of Martial Law at the height of the pro-democracy campaign.

Thirdly, the Chinese liberalisation drive in the last eleven years was undertaken purely as an economic palliative without integrating it in the overall power set-up. The stress on individual farming by abandoning collectivism, leave alone the commune; the dirve toward privatisation via cooperatives in place of centralised economy; the recklessly open-door policy towards foreign capital with come-hitcher invitation to giant multinationals—all these were undertaken by totally abandoning the principle of checks and balance. As the World Bank-IMF experts have noted, the Chinese open-door policy went far beyond anything done in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The basic point of such an economic transformation is the stress on individual enterprise. The Chinese Govern-ment went further in price reforms relying on the market forces which Gorbachev has not yet undertaken in the Soviet Union.

What was lacking in China’s economic liber-alisation dirve was a corresponding democratic functioning. Individual enterprise demands more elbow room for the individual—discarding of straitjacket political control. While some amount of discussion was permitted, it did not go far enough to act as the safety valve. Putting it simplistically, one may say that perestroika without glasnost can create a short-circuit leading to explosion. The economy was moving towards free-enterprise while politics remained subjected to totalitarian control.

Fourthly, the ideological campaign for a new order in the economy to be reflected in the productive relations was totally lacking. On one side, there remained the old guards in the Party and government who are highly suspicious of the new-fangled talk of democracy; and on the other, there was an avalanche of democratic ideas as well as crass consumerism of an up-and-coming Westernised elite in an essentially peasant-oriented society. In that situation, a dangerous cultural-ideological gap was wide-ning between the elite at the top and the vast peasant-ridden countryside.

If one may venture into comparison, Deng Xiaoping has persisted as a mere pragmatist in contrast to Mikhail Gorbachev who has emerged as a thinker applying the tenets of a new age to the realities of the times. Deng’s economic reforms went far in copying and adjusting to the Western approach earning Western appl-ause, while Gorbachev’s New Thinking under-scored the point that economic reforms have to be brought about by the consent of the masses, and hence the initiation of democratic rights and the intensity of passionate debates openly conducted. Had such an orientation permeated the Chinese leadership, no doubt the gruesome blood-bath of June 4 could have been avoided. One could not have possibly brought about a new economic order while continuing with the worship of Stalinism as the Chinese leaders pathetically tried to do.

It is this dilemma which was shown up in sharp relief in the handling of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to crush the pro-democracy movement. Although the reforms on the Defence sector constituted one of the pillars of Deng’s Four Modernisations launched in late 1978, this was in reality confined to modernising the weaponry, not reorientating the mind of the soldier. It needs to be noted here that the People’s Liberation Army always loomed large in the psychological make-up of Mao’s comm-unism. Most of the veteran Party leaders were military Generals, and the glorification of the PLA has always been an essential part of the Chinese Communist Party’s history. An Army of 34 lakhs, the PLA’s ideological base was essentially that of the Chinese peasantry. Mao himself was never tired of emphasising that the PLA soldiers must be always linked in service to the masses. Out of this approach was born his famous metaphor that the Army’s relations with the people should be that of fish with water, that is, that the Army has to draw its sustenance in service to the people. The outlook has worn out in the forty years since liberation. Besides, through all the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, the Army was kept in a state of quarantine, that is, away from the people.

Thus, the winds of change that blew over the country under the modernisation drive hardly touched the PLA cadre just as it largely neglected the Chinese peasant. To despatch such an Army to suppress a massive unprecedented movement for democracy was to invite a terrible disaster. At the beginning, the soldiers were confused and at places fraternised with the students. At other places, their high-handedness led to instant angry attacks by pro-democracy protestors who had until then been maintaining exemplary discipline. And then, when the PLA commanders found themselves divided on the question of handling the demonstration, came the order from the Central Military Commission for the bloody crackdown—underlining once again how far out of touch the leadership had become about the temper of the people.

The leadership of the entire operation is being provided by the Central Military Commi-ssion whose Chairman is Deng Xiaoping and the executive Vice-Chairman is the republic’s President, Yang Shangkun. One of the prominent operators in the set-up is Qiao Shi who is known to be in charge of State Security and therefore regarded as the right person to put down the upsurge. Incidentally, this had led to the speculation that Qiao may become the Party chief replacing Zhao Ziyang who is branded as a reformist.

Whether the new arrangement will succeed is actually a moot question. The massacre and armed repression at Beijing have forced violent unrest to spread to other centres, some of which like Shanghai and Canton have a great past in revolutionary heroism.

A theory is being trotted out among China-watchers abroad that the peasanty will stand by the leadership and the democracy movement will be ultimately crushed. This is of course the tactical approach of the Deng leadership. The television, which is the most effective medium to reach out to the vast peasant masses, has now been concentrating on showing how the ‘counter-revolutionaries’ attacked the soldiers, while the ravages of military attack on civilians are totally blacked out. The whole idea is to indoctrinate the peasantry about the spectre of counter-revolution.

This theory—a variant of Mao’s dictum that the countryside can overpower the cities—is based on a superficial generalisation in the present case. For one thing, the student movement in China has a strong revolutionary tradition. In fact, this year’s democracy campaign was stepped up on the seventieth anniversary of the celebrated May Fourth Movement which had dealt a shattering blow on the old order in China. Secondly, it is to be noted that not only Beijing but also in many other centres; the workers and common citizenry have stood by the students and are still doing so. This combi-nation can hardly be overpowered by sheer brute force. It may be put down temporarily, only to break out somewhere else. Thirdly, the summary removal of Zhao Ziyang from the post of the Party chief gives reason to believe that there are elements within the Communist Party who will strive for ending the line of repression pursued at the moment.

From the beginning of the students’ upsurge, the Chinese Communist leadership has taken the posture that it was all engineered by the counter-revolutionary forces. A provocative eidtorial in the official party paper, People’s Daily (April 26, 1989), called for action against “conspiracy” and “turmoil”. Soon after the proclamaition of Martial Law, Li Peng was reported to have spoken about the American hand behind the democracy campaign. In contrast, on the very eve of the imposition of the Martial Law, the Party General Secretary, Zhao Ziyang, took a “sympathetic and mild view”, according to Beijing Review, which is by no means a counter-revolutionary outfit.

It is worth quoting from Zhao Ziyang’s talks with students when he visited them on May 19; “We are getting old and don’t count much. But you young people have a long way to go.” While stressing that things were “very complicated”, Zhao assured the student demonstrators: “The problems you raised will eventually be solved.” Two days before, on May 17, Zhao has assured that there would be no reprisals against demonstrators and that the students’ goals were positive. The two demands that the students put before Premier Li Peng on May 18 were the recognition of the student movement as a patriotic and democratic one and for live broadcast of their dialogues with the government—both of which were rejected by Li Peng. Let the Beijing Review reporter describe the upshot: “The drama became even more intense when people watching the midnight TV programme on May 19 (the same evening) discovered that at the emergency meeting (of Party and government functionaries) where Li Peng was announcing tough actions to curb ‘turmoil’, the Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang was conspicuously missing.” That was the starting point of the widely held suspicion that he (Zhao) had been summarily ousted by the hardliners.

It is absurd to call this massive student movement as counter-revolutionary. They were engaged in non-violent protests—including hunger strikes—and had the open support of many distinguished personages: 12 members of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress; four leaders of non-communist parties; ten university presidents—all urging the autho-rities to open a dialogue with the students, while a number of armed forces Generals appealed against the use of armed forces against student demonstrators.

Where are the seeds of counter-revolution? There was no doubt pro-American feeling among the student demonstrators. That was mainly because in the last few years, thousands of Chinese students were sent by the Chinese Government for training in the US institutes and campuses. Their ideas of democracy were naturally coloured by what they had seen and felt in the USA. Even the Goddess of Liberty which they set up at Tiananmen was a replica of the Statue of Liberty in New York; however, this Statue was not the symbol of US imperialism, but of the democratic aspirations of the American people.

It is through forceful media drive, the Party leadership blacked out everything about the students, doled out blatant lies that there were no deaths of students and citizens at Tiananmen Square as a result of the military action—a claim which is totally contradicted by eye-witness accounts and pictures taken on the spot. On the other hand, the official Chinese media has been plugging hard the line that only the PLA soldiers were killed in large members by counter-revolutionaries.

This propaganda about counter-revolutionary conspiracy in China has a familiar ring for the present writer. In the winter of 1956, when he visited Budapest he came back with the definite impression about the Hungarian people’s national urge for independent identity which had been ruthlessly sought to be smothered by Stalin’s minions who were then the bosses in the Hungarian Communist Party and Govern-ment. But the die-hard Stalinists in Budapest called the mass uprising a “counter-revolutionary” conspi-racy—and they were backed by hardliners in Peking at the time and also the ones in Moscow fighting against Khrushchev. Life has proved that their myth about counter-revolution could not deceive history as the Hungarian Communists now admit with candour and responsibility. In the case of China, this mythology can hardly hold as the Party itself is divided on the issue, and Deng’s patched-up quilt can hardly protect his regime.

Once the Kuomintang under Sun Yat-sen overthrew the effete imperial order. In turn, Maoism succeeded because it confronted and overthrew another cruel and effete order represented by the Kuomintang under Chiang Kaishek. Perhaps the hour has now arrived when the new forces, the new revolutionary zeal for democracy will triumph over the decrepit Maoism. No matter all the prattle about the threat of “counter-revolution” by the old men and old-world outlook of the present Maoist mandarin leadership at Beijing, we are today witness to the agonising birthpangs of a new revolutionary democratic China. The wave of New Thinking that is sweeping over the entire communist world can hardly leave China untouched.

(Mainstream, June 17, 1989)