To pessimists among longtime China watchers, this is a time for Beijing’s Communist rulers to celebrate. Today marks 15 years since the People’s Liberation Army stormed into Tiananmen Square to ruthlessly crush the student and worker movement of 1989, and the party’s prestige appears to have reached new heights. China is the world’s star economic performer. Its neighbors view it as a rising regional superpower. Even the United States now welcomes China’s new status as a linchpin of global stability.
Yet there are also good reasons for Chinese leaders to worry. Increasingly, Beijing is fighting an uphill struggle against the forces of change that have been unleashed by its economic awakening and opening to the outside world. Its continued repression is a sign of weakness, not strength. China is approaching a critical juncture in its development: The next few years may stretch the contradiction between economic reform and rigid political control to the breaking point.
The Tiananmen tragedy marked the starting point of this great contradiction. To be sure, ever since China initiated its market reforms in the late 1970s, the party has sought to maintain its iron grip on politics. Nonetheless, in the decade between the launch of Deng Xiaoping’s “four modernizations” and Tiananmen, political reform was a subject of spirited debate and discussion throughout the nation–among the intelligentsia, on university campuses, and most significantly, within the liberal wing of the party itself. The latter, led in the 1980s by General Secretary Hu Yaobang and his successor, Zhao Ziyang, boldly flirted with concepts such as freedom of expression, greater transparency and accountability in government, and others deemed subversive by party hardliners.
Hu Yaobang’s death triggered the student demonstrations of April 1989; within weeks they had spread nationwide, engulfing all sections of Chinese society. The crackdown and its aftermath resulted in the complete destruction of the party’s reformist faction, with Zhao Ziyang and his subordinates replaced by Jiang Zemin and other apparatchiks Deng selected for their expected pliability. In the years since, even as the semi-market economy charged forward, nothing approaching genuine political change has taken place at the national level.
Since 1989, the party has adopted an essentially hands-off approach to controlling the population. Personal and economic freedoms have increased considerably. Chinese citizens freely criticize their leaders, and even the media has been liberalized in certain respects. Beijing’s red line is drawn at organized political opposition, none of which it will tolerate. To date, its carrot-and-stick approach has been highly effective: There is no shortage of angry Chinese who are willing to publicly express their grievances, yet despite the daily occurrence of strikes and protests across the nation, virtually none of them have overarching political aims. Indeed, throughout the 1990s it was common to see protesters carry signs saying, “We don’t want democracy!”: Forsaking demands for true reform is a prerequisite to gaining any chance of winning concessions from the authorities.
Beijing has been especially successful in appeasing its politically dangerous urban elite. In 1989 it was the students and intelligentsia concentrated in the wealthiest cities that spearheaded a wider movement involving urban workers, with the rural masses mostly a non-factor. Since then, this urban elite has reaped the lion’s share of material benefits from the ongoing economic boom, which has given China one of the most lopsided distributions of wealth in the world. Confident of ever-increasing economic prosperity, today’s young elites eagerly digest the party’s nationalist propaganda, which glorifies the Middle Kingdom’s return to great-power status and asserts its rightful sphere of influence. Where students once marched against repressive rulers, they are now more likely to march against the United States over controversial geopolitical incidents–or against Japan over outrageous orgies by its tourists.
Despite these factors working in the party’s favor, however, the Communists realize that the system remains fundamentally brittle. Stability relies heavily on raising the standard of living and confronting the supposed challenges to territorial integrity (such as Taiwanese independence), and there is no guarantee that the next 15 years will be as good as the last. While instability may or may not lead to broader system failure, it is always an unsettling prospect for a dictatorship, particularly one emerging from a period of hard-earned (relative) calm.
Perhaps the most unnerving factor for the regime is that survival depends more than ever on crisis prevention, not crisis resolution. Beijing’s ability to weather another storm of Tiananmen proportions is highly questionable–hence the importance of stopping a crisis before it starts.
There is also far less cohesion in the party and government now than there was in 1989. The center’s control over local governments has loosened, and local governments in turn enjoy varying degrees of control over their subjects. More importantly, leadership at the national level is in particularly awkward shape following the 2002-03 transfer of power to Hu Jintao and the “fourth generation.”
In 1989 it was the unquestioned paramount authority of Deng Xiaoping and the gang of “elders”–first-generation cadres who had taken part in the revolution–that held the regime together under massive pressure from the populace and the threat of internal party strife. In Deng there was one man who held enough levers of real power–most formally through control of the Central Military Commission (CMC)–to issue a crackdown order with confidence that it would be carried out. Such a dominant figure does not exist today.
Two years ago, speculation abounded that Jiang Zemin had tried and failed to block Hu Jintao’s ascent to the positions of party secretary and president. He still managed to squeeze a number of his supporters into top positions, while remaining chief of the CMC. Ever since, China watchers have wondered to what extent Hu and other new leaders have been able to move out of Jiang’s shadow. Hu has steadily developed his own power base and Jiang certainly does not enjoy as much influence over the military as Deng did. Unless Jiang’s and Hu’s respective factions reach a long-term “cohabitation” accord–almost unheard-of in dictatorships–they will be at odds with each other at some point in the future (if they are not already, privately).
China’s national leadership is thus in an ambiguous state, with potentially serious implications for how it reacts to a political crisis. Both factions find it critical to maintain stability while the task is manageable, but should it someday require drastic measures that risk alienating the people, fissures will very likely emerge. A decision to intensify repression will originate from one side, but if neither side can outmuscle the other, both must consider the possibility that the other will do what Zhao Ziyang felt powerless to do in 1989: play the democracy card. With battle lines thus drawn, the hardliners will be staring at the prospect of going down in history as the disgraceful final obstacles to China’s freedom. More likely than not, they will fold.
In fact, it is even possible that, as either Jiang’s or Hu’s faction loses ground in a shadowy power struggle, it will resort to political liberalization as an ace in the hole: Autocrats would probably prefer to lose power to democrats than to other autocrats.
Today, Tiananmen remains etched in our collective memory as a tragic failure to bring democracy to the world’s most populous nation. But it may not be too long before the ideals for which the massacre victims died become a reality. What China lacked in 1989 was a political power structure conducive to pushing democratization over the top. In the coming years, that will not be the case. This is why, despite everything they have to celebrate this June 4, the hardliners cannot sleep easily: They rightly fear that they no longer control their political destiny. True power already lies with the people–the question is whether and how they will use it.
–Pan Hu is an IT analyst living in the Washington, D.C., area.