Friday, June 05, 2009

Anniversary of Tiananmen

The twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre- and massacre it was, of that there is little doubt- has been marked by ritual on both the western and Chinese sides. Western commentators want Beijing to allow more democracy and they also want the communist regime to come clean on what happened. China has responded with a clampdown- on BBC yesterday, I saw their Beijing correspondent being politely but firmly being shooed away from the Square by Chinese cops.

What has been the outcome of Tiananmen? China is incomparably stronger and more powerful today than it was 20 years ago. But has the communist party maintained its brutal ways and refused to learn? Not really, suggests the newly started Banyan column in the Economist (which is devoted to matters Asian). It responded to the movement in appropriate ways:

It is a commonplace that the party’s legitimacy is built on economic growth. Yet China’s leaders have long considered that to be merely the (simplistic) half of it. After the massacre, the Communist Party set about transforming itself. It launched a vast historical investigation into how political parties fall, and how they stay in power. Everyone was scrutinised, from Saddam Hussein to Scandinavian social democrats. The conclusion: adapt or die.

The outcome is a wholesale reinvention of the party, a process accelerated after Mr Hu stepped up as paramount leader in 2004. Shortcomings that were identified included corruption (a chief complaint of the Tiananmen students), lack of accountability in decision-making, no convincing ideology, and an ossified structure.

..Bright technocrats and entrepreneurs have been recruited. Retirement rules have been revamped (the Soviet Union’s gerontocracy was noted). Party members have gone back to school: three weeks a year and three months for every three years of mid-career training. More appointments are open to peer scrutiny before they are filled. The Communist Party is vastly more able to govern

......This is little comfort to Westerners projecting their hopes for democratic change on to China. Nor is there any sign that Chinese intellectuals identify with the myriad grievances of their poor countrymen, as they did during the Tiananmen protests. And the growing middle class appears more fearful of the great unwashed than of the depredations of a party that once was at war with the bourgeoisie.
FT's China expert, James Kynge provides a slightly different perspective. He questions the very characterisation of the Tiananmen protests as being "pro-democracy". The reality, as always, was more nuanced, more complicated, he suggests:

Almost everything fell within its (the movement's) scope: campaigns against corruption, nepotism, inflation, police brutality, bureaucracy, official privilege, media censorship, human rights abuses, cramped student dormitories and the smothering of democratic urges. But to say the demonstrations were to “demand democracy” is an oversimplification.

The truth is that the students in the square had only the haziest understanding of western-style democracy. To the extent that the protests were directed at abuses of an existing system by an emerging elite, they were motivated more by outrage at the betrayal of socialist ideals than by aspirations for a new system.
In other words, the protesters were asking for reform, better governance, an improvement in the quality of their lives. They were not necessarily asking for more democracy. It appears from the Economist's interpretation that the communist party got the message and responded appropriately.

When the western world pushes for democracy, what it means is the right to vote in a multi-party system. But, if a monolithic party can make itself responsive to people's needs, it can contain disaffection. It appears the communist party has managed this. The world's understanding of Tiananmen and what followed, its continued focus on "human rights" in China and prognostications about the inevitable collapse of communism there, may thus be badly flawed

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