Tiananmen’s Legacy

The belief that economic growth will lead to political liberalization has long been a pillar of Western policy toward China. So far that hasn’t happened. Two recent essays argue that it can’t due to decisions taken in connection with the June 4, 1989, assault on democracy protesters, the anniversary of which passed last week.

“The Tiananmen massacre did two things,” wrote Hu Ping, a liberal intellectual now based in New York, on the English-language website China Change. The massacre “stunted China’s political reforms, and it put the country’s economic development on a deviant path.” According to Hu, “the Party encouraged the masses to forget about politics and simply make as much money as possible.”

The problem, Bao Tong wrote in a separate article for the New York Times, is that the people in the best position to get rich were those in power. “Party-led economic liberalization was supposed to unchain both workers and business owners, unleash their energies and permit profit-making and profit-sharing.” Instead, after 1989, according to Bao, “Deng Xiaoping transferred national assets, at generous and largely symbolic prices, to party elites. As a result today’s ‘princelings’—the descendants of the party’s founding revolutionary generation—control much of China’s wealth.” Bao, who wrote his Times op-ed in circumvention of his house arrest, was an aide to General Secretary Zhao Ziyang. Both men were removed from power for sympathizing with the democracy movement, and Bao served seven years in jail.

Bao recalled reading official press accounts of the 1992 “Southern Tour,” in which Deng announced a new tolerance of economic activity. “What made a deep impression was his hard tone, exemplified by three lines, quoted everywhere: ‘If we don’t change, we are at a dead end! Whoever doesn’t reform will have to step down! Some people will get rich first!’”

Westerners might mistake Deng’s willingness to allow certain incentives for tacit endorsement of economic freedom. Instead, Bao writes, Deng would have approved that “profits and resources were distributed according to power.” The policy expressed in Deng’s aphorism “Some people will get rich first!” set China on a path toward its current problem of monumental official corruption.

Neither Hu nor Bao credits the idea that China’s economic growth, even if accompanied by the expansion of a middle class interested in legal and property rights, will bring about political liberalization. “This long-held narrative presupposes that China is on the right path now. But it isn’t,” Hu wrote, “because of choices made through political expediency after the Tiananmen Massacre.”

Another anniversary of June 4th passed last week—the 26th. The party’s crackdown has not ended resistance to its rule. Dozens of participants in the 1989 protests are in jail for their continued human rights activities, according to Chinese Human Rights Defenders. Once again this year, others were detained or warned against marking the anniversary. Bao was one of them, removed from his home where he was already under house arrest.

China’s economic growth has not changed China in the way many expected would be inevitable. The economic liberalization Deng set in motion was never intended to have that effect. “Waiting for history to do its work is merely postponing the time to make a stand,” according to Hu. Many inside China already have.

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