SPEAKING FREELY The closed Gate of Heavenly Peace
By Peter Mitchelmore
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
Another year, another anniversary of the events that, when pressed, the Chinese government describes as a "counter-revolutionary rebellion". Twenty-four years on, the events of April-June 1989 in China, specifically Beijing and Tiananmen ("the Gate of Heavenly Peace") Square, are officially resolved and not to be revisited.
Despite, in terms of lives and damage to the national psyche, being far less costly than political campaigns such as the Cultural
Revolution (1966-1976), it is currently perhaps the most taboo. While the narratives for those other tragedies have also been carefully crafted for the government's purposes, June 4, 1989, set the tone for the political orientation of the government of China ever since it took place.
The influence of those events is everywhere, driving the official response to everything, including economic issues even if those are "unrelated". It has to be remembered that double-digit inflation served to underpin the events of the mid- to late 1980s. What it did however was serve to concentrate minds on the matter of corruption, exacerbating the dissatisfaction that brought. Certain contemporary features of the economy such as inflation are more vigorously tackled, "for the good of the country", as a result.
Corruption is far less solvable in a system that seems tailor-made for it. The Tiananmen protests, often assigned the label "pro-democracy", were more an anti-corruption movement. Since none of the changes demanded by various groups at the square were implemented whatsoever, it stands to reason corruption would still be a problem. More than "still" a problem, it has now become an intrinsic part of how China functions: economic growth, followed by increased involvement of the state (albeit of a different nature than the "old days"), the increased sophistication of the digital age, and confidence that political accountability will barely increase all serve to encourage official misbehavior.
Wealth inequality is among the worst in the world in China as a direct result - it cannot be ascribed to just "capitalism" on its own. It is all now part of the DNA of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and only strengthens that other genetic feature of an unwillingness to contemplate any political change.
A rule of thumb is that if ever a dictatorship had a list of closed subjects, those would be the ones most in need of attention. The majority are caused by the system that perpetuates them, so discussing such problems is to discuss the validity of the system itself. The CCP has produced a handy list of off-limits subjects, recently given to universities in China: universal values, press freedom, civil rights, judicial independence, the past mistakes of the CCP, economic neoliberalism, the wealth accumulated by top government officials, and civil society.
Anyone writing Dictatorship for Dummies would do well to start there with chapter headings. There is no way to fully remove the features of a one-party state without changing its nature as a state monopolized by that one party.
It's the economy
In a sense, "communist" China, in order to maintain the political element of that ideology, has had to go very much against the economic principles of it. Anyone who has lived in China will among other things describe the people as the most materialistic they have met. Money is all that matters these days, and the sharpest of elbows are seen as the only attribute worth having. To go back to a time in China when this wasn't the case is to go back to the 1980s. It was a time when the country was between the lunacy of the Mao Zedong years and before those events leading to the current, greed-is-the-only-safe-mindset era.
It is hard to know whether it is ironic or just plain tragic that the "people's government" now only continues having made it abundantly clear through the People's Liberation Army and People's Armed Police that the people have no place in deciding its future direction: a direction that involves the somewhat un-communist pursuit of wealth.
Nothing else apparently matters, and straying into realms of "politics" and not sticking to "economics" became, and is still, actively discouraged. Repetition of heavily loaded terms such as "maintaining stability" and other verbal gymnastics serves to frequently reiterate that this is still the case. The hope is that this won't last, but the fear and likelihood is that it will.
Painted into a corner
One of a number of brushes that have painted the Party into a corner is nationalism - democracy now might be dangerous, say some government supporters while failing to acknowledge that it is the government's fault for whipping this up. Distraction of attention towards Japan's dark wartime past in particular - though the Opium Wars also get referred to as if they had happened yesterday - manifestly increased in the '90s. Anti-Japan protests take place with far less official hindrance than those that may threaten "stability". It's a much harder proposition to switch this off, however, and this consequence of Tiananmen has the potential to backfire one day.
Entrenched interests brought about by aforementioned corruption is another brush, probably the most significant one of all. Party infighting is very possible in response to any (unlikely) program for political reform, for purely selfish reasons on the part of individual officials rather than standing on a point of principle. One unfortunate thing that outsiders learn in China - slowly, out of a reluctance to believe it to be true - is that principle is in short supply. Government officials and the system they perpetuate lead by shameful example in this context.
Any analysis of obstacles to change, such as the present one, do indeed start to find themselves gravitating towards that list of unmentionable features listed above: both a set of hindrances to reform and concurrently reasons in favor of reform.
Unchange we can believe in
The more officially palatable reasons that no change is required stem from China being a special case, not suited to democracy. "National conditions" and an indirectly expressed myth of uniqueness entail not copying foreign ideas, starting from after the point at which inspiration was drawn from Marx and Lenin. The chaos that ensued in the former Soviet Union is also a lesson that the CCP has learned, and is portrayed as the only outcome that awaits China if political change were to occur. While that is possible, it would be more likely if there were those who fought change at all costs, even past the point at which all would be objectively lost.
Is China a nation full of frustrated democrats? Not really, but that's not to say there isn't a silent majority that does not want change if it were an option not likely to bring about a 1989-style response. It cannot be viewed as a sign of national strength, however, that it is deemed in the interests of the party-state to imprison or banish those who speak in favor of a different political structure. Brittle rather strong is the most apt adjective that befits the Chinese state.
A vague legal system and enforcement of it keeps opponents where the government wants them, but the same system stops the rest of country functioning in a way that would provide stability in its proper sense: both innovators and common people feel insecure that their ideas, land and taxation levels and even safety are at risk due to powerlessness. Once more that list of problems and the CCP stand diametrically opposed to one another.
Objectively, it could be argued that a time did exist when economic before political reform was wise, the problem is that by now that time has long since passed. A case was made with exactly that point in 1989. The CCP has stated that China isn't there "yet" for longer than many may remember, certainly since before Tiananmen took place. Twenty-four years, a generation and an Internet later, the political stagnation continues. A few minor openings have appeared on weibo (microblogs in the style of Twitter, itself blocked in China) and frustration continues or has perhaps since exacerbated with some even addressing grievances to the White House's website.
The desire is certainly there in China for something to change, but not among those who could actually make it happen, many of whom insist on China being indefinitely unprepared for it. Whether the CCP will ever bring it about, even when enough of those at the top believe that what is good for the country may not necessarily be good for the Party, is an open question. It is this question's quiet background existence that is the other present-day legacy of Tiananmen which the CCP is continually trying to ward off.
Many doubt, however, that any kind of recurrence of the 1989 movement, notwithstanding how unlikely that is, will lead to the Party relenting. Pulling the country down with it awaits, as every previous dynasty has traditionally done. A great many Chinese with an equally traditional tendency towards fatalism believe this to be inevitable. The Party, having presided over political stasis for the past quarter of a century, has made this a certainty.
Peter Mitchelmore is a former teacher and writer in China.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.