HONG KONG - The June 4 crackdown in Beijing's Tiananmen Square on pro-democracy
protesters 20 years ago brought an abrupt halt to China's fledgling political
reforms, shored up authoritarian rule and steered the country onto a path
which led to crony capitalism, rampant corruption and social instability.
The 1989 student-led Tiananmen movement, which called for freedom, democratic
reform and a clampdown on official corruption, ended when the Chinese
government sent in armed soldiers and tanks to crush the protest, killing
scores of civilians.
In the aftermath of the crackdown, political reforms in the making were
stalled; press law legislation was quashed and the consensus reached at the
13th Communist Party Congress in
1987 to separate the functions of the party and government was abandoned.
With the reform-minded leaders and cadres purged - deposed party general
secretary Zhao Ziyang was kept under house arrest for nearly 16 years until his
death in 2005, while his top aide, Bao Tong, was jailed for seven years -
politics in China took a sharp turn.
"In the 1980s, the direction of our development was quite clear, but after the
June 4 incident the tide was turned," said dissident writer Chen Ziming, who
was accused of helping organize the Tiananmen protests and sentenced to 13
years in jail after the crackdown. "Constitutional democracy has not been
talked about for 20 years since then, not one measure of political reform has
Political reform has since become a sensitive topic. Having to justify the
legitimacy of its rule and maintain social stability in the aftermath of the
crackdown, paramount leader Deng Xiaoping resorted to a strategy of high-speed
But one-party rule remained and market reforms were only partially carried out,
with the state still maintaining control of lucrative economic sectors.
“Political reform was stopped and never resumed, but economic reform continued
so their developments were out of sync - while one wheel was turning, the other
basically stalled and lagged behind for 20 years,” said Zhang Lifan, a
historian with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
"Official corruption got worse, because there was no political or legal
mechanism to keep it in check," he said.
China's stellar economic performance during the past two decades has indeed
been touted as a success and a model for other developing countries, but
analysts say unbridled economic development amid the lack of democratic reforms
under an authoritarian regime has also planted the seeds of corruption, a
yawning rich-poor gap and social instability.
"They realized that they would not be able to survive if they couldn't deliver
economic growth," said veteran Hong Kong journalist Ching Cheong, who was in
Beijing covering the pro-democracy movement in 1989. "But to maintain their
power they became politically very conservative and this resulted in a
development model that is economically free and politically repressive."
The combination of a market economy and unchecked political power is a lethal
one: the majority of society's wealth is taken up by a small elite class of the
powerful and well-connected while ordinary people end up having to pay a high
price for the economic boom.
"The result is that it has formed a class that enjoys special privileges and
can trade their political power for money," Chen said. "This has formed a
confrontational situation with ordinary people."
Masses of workers are made redundant with little compensation as state assets
are sold to powerful and well-connected individuals at a huge discount;
millions are thrown out of their homes and have lost their livelihoods as vast
areas of rural and urban land is sold off to property developers by officials
who take their bribes.
According to an official research report in 2006, 90% of China's rich list -
those who owned assets over 100 million yuan (US$15 million) - are the
offspring of senior officials.
China also has one of the largest rich-poor gaps in the world: official data
from 2007 showed China's Gini coefficient, which measures the inequality of
income distribution, has surpassed the warning level of 0.4. According to
figures compiled by the World Bank and the Chinese government, less than 1% of
Chinese households enjoy more than 60% of the country's wealth.
The inequality has fueled anger and discontent among ordinary Chinese people -
tens of thousands of ex-workers of state-owned factories still petition the
government over jobs losses, while even more are up in arms over having their
farmland or properties forcefully taken from them.
According to unofficial estimates, there are at least 100,000 "mass incidents"
- ie riots, strikes or street protests - happening across China every year.
But even though the government knows that rampant corruption is often the root
of these protests, it regards the protests themselves as "destabilizing
elements" that need to be nipped in the bud. Under Deng's dictum of
"development is the core value" (fazhan shi ying daoli) the ordinary
people's rights and the cost to the environment often have to be sacrificed.
"The speedy development is built upon a situation where resistance is not
tolerated, and a small group of people are allowed to exploit farmers and the
environment," said Ching Cheong.
Every year millions of so-called petitioners from all over the country - many
of whom had their land confiscated or houses demolished with little or no
compensation - try to go to Beijing to air their grievances to the central
government. But most end up detained, while some are even beaten and tortured.
"To deal with unfettered market forces, society needs mechanisms of self
protection - but these are considered [by the government to be] destabilizing
or hostile forces," said Chen.
Ideologically, things also took a dramatic turn after the Tiananmen crackdown.
Whereas pluralism and liberalization were encouraged in the brief reform period
in the mid-1980s, after the crackdown China abandoned its pursuit of liberal
mainstream values such as democracy and freedom.
In the few years before the Tiananmen incident in 1989, Chinese people were
able to enjoy a brief period of relative political freedom. Books and magazines
were allowed to be published by non-government organizations, intellectuals
were able to express their views openly without fear and opinions aired in the
ubiquitous salons were often taken up by the then reformist-minded officials.
All that came to a sudden halt after the crackdown: the authorities issued
arrest warrants for liberal intellectuals, magazines and publishing houses were
closed and the vibrant salon scene vanished overnight.
Amid the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the government instead looked
to nationalism and Confucianism as a uniting force to secure the loyalty of its
"People's faith in communism has collapsed and they need to fill that void,"
said Ching Cheong. "We could see a return to the traditional Confucian culture
from Marxism and Leninism, at the same time, nationalism has replaced
Analysts say that from then on, the regime was preoccupied with safeguarding
their one-party rule and subsequent policies have been centered on this
purpose. China was no longer willing to assimilate into the mainstream of
modern civilization and there was little tolerance for voices of dissent.
The suppression of Charter 08, a high-profile signature campaign late last year
that called for more freedoms and political reform, is just one example showing
that rights issues still touch a raw nerve with the Chinese government. Most
signatories were questioned by the authorities over their involvement.
"Efforts to stifle public opinion have been developing at an incredible speed,"
Chen said. "They are putting more and more energy into suppressing society's
dynamism and resisting the emergence of destabilizing forces."
China spends a hefty amount of resources on public security. Around sensitive
anniversaries, Beijing's main streets are heavily guarded by large numbers of
police officers, paramilitary and security forces. It also invests heavily on
filtering and policing the Internet, with an estimated 50,000 cyber-police
monitoring the web.
But this so-called China development model has been touted as a success and is
even seen as an alternative model for other developing countries. "Its success
is that it's relatively stable, and under this stability, the economy is able
to develop quickly,'' said Ching Cheong. "But is this a sustainable model? I'm
very dubious of that."
Analysts say China is prevented from achieving its full economic potential by
its capitalist cronyism and the lack of political and social freedoms its
people have. Corruption fuels widespread discontent among its people and is
rapidly eroding the legitimacy of the Communist Party's rule.
But at least for now, even with tens of thousands of street protests every
year, ordinary Chinese still have little bargaining power and the government is
unlikely to share its power with them any time soon.
"I can't see the regime getting threatened," said veteran journalist Willy Lam,
who witnessed the Tiananmen crackdown. "Its state machine, the monitoring and
suppression machines are so huge that even with 100,000 mass incidents every
year ... it's not enough to make its leaders feel the need for reform."
Verna Yu is a Hong Kong-based journalist.
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