'How Tiananmen Changed the World'

A commentary by Hu Ping
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A woman walks past a tank replica displayed in Hong Kong to symbolize China's June 4, 1989 Tiananmen military crackdown, June 3, 2014.
A woman walks past a tank replica displayed in Hong Kong to symbolize China's June 4, 1989 Tiananmen military crackdown, June 3, 2014.

Twenty-five years ago, China saw the outbreak of a peaceful democratic movement on an unprecedented scale. This movement was powerful proof that, in China, democracy wasn't just the pursuit of a handful of dissidents, but the shared aspiration of millions.

Led by Deng Xiaoping, the hard-line faction of the ruling Chinese Communist Party went far beyond the outcome imagined by the international community in its brutal suppression of the pro-democracy movement, causing a big split among the ruling class and prompting unanimous condemnation around the world.

In that same year, dramatic changes were afoot in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, with the collapse of international communism leaving the United States as the world's only superpower. Democracy had scored its most glorious victory yet, and it was widely believed that we would see the fall of the communist regime in China in the near future.

Twenty-five years have passed, and the communist regime hasn't collapsed: it remains in place, more powerful than before. Its prolonged rapid economic development in particular has been beyond most people's expectations, leading many people to speak of the "Chinese miracle."

But what has also exceeded many people's expectations has been the fact that the party didn't deepen economic and political reform in step; nor did it take a softer line as a result of its enormous economic success.

On the contrary, the recent round of crackdowns shows that the regime has become more authoritarian and more outrageous than ever before. It is no longer keeping a low profile in international affairs, but is becoming more and more aggressive in tone.

A challenge to the world

At the same time, democratic countries including the United States have encountered all sorts of trouble. There have been dramatic reversals of fortune across the global political landscape, and the so-called China model has presented a serious challenge to democracy everywhere.

Today, 25 years later, we must say that the events of June 4, 1989 didn't just change China: they changed the world.

The June 4 massacre didn't just block political reform in China; it also derailed economic reforms. After Tiananmen, privatization reforms inevitably became a blatant sell-off to the rich and powerful, owing to the severe suppression of public opinion and a lack of public participation and supervision.

Strangely, the party's elitist privatization program is probably the most egregious example of their shamelessness, morally speaking. But it was probably the most effective and efficient way to navigate the economic transition. It avoided the fragmentation that would have resulted from popular sell-offs [of state enterprises] and was able to avoid the economic downturn and ensure sustained economic growth.

What's more, China hitched its wagon to the express train of globalization, pulling in foreign investment in more advanced technology and using its low wage-and-benefits culture and its weak human rights protections to release the full power and energy of capitalism to work for the entire population. And so on.

So it was that the world's worst capitalists also became the best at competing.

Lack of legitimacy

China's economic performance has been dazzling. But it has a fatal weakness, which is its lack of legitimacy. The Chinese Communist Party came to power based on its overthrow of landlords and capitalists. Now it has become one of the world's biggest capitalists itself.

Earlier in its history, in the name of revolution, the party turned the private property of all its citizens into the public property of the people.

Today, in the name of reform, it is taking the common property of the people and turning it into its own private property.

First, plunder in the name of revolution: then, later, the division of the spoils in the name of reform. These two opposing evil deeds are in fact all that has been achieved by the party in 60 years. Is there anything more evil or shameless in this world?

China 'went astray'

Today, a lot of people still believe that with the growth of the middle class that will follow on the heels of further economic growth, China will move gradually towards greater freedom and democracy.

This view assumes that China remains on the right path. But China went astray after June 4, 1989. It is now the complete opposite of democracy and freedom. If it continues down this path, it will get further and further away.

Too many people have given up direct confrontation with the Chinese Communist Party in the past 25 years precisely because they believed these flawed economic theories.

Instead, they have sat back and watched, and even aided the rise of an authoritarian monster.

We must recognize that the very existence of such a wicked and unjust regime is a mockery of human conscience and justice. Its rise will inevitably threaten world peace and freedom.

If we wait for history to change an authoritarian government, we are just putting off the risks and leaving the danger for another generation to face.

With the passage of time, opposing it will become very difficult and the risks will probably be huge, while the victory will probably be a bitter and exhausting one.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.

Hu Ping is the New York-based editor of the Chinese-language monthly Beijing Spring, and is a member of the board of directors of Human Rights in China.





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