Signs of a New Tiananmen in China

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Signs of a New Tiananmen in China

Pervasive corruption, lawlessness among the ruling elites, and a sense of a loss of direction permeating all levels of Chinese society. The conditions for another Tiananmen may be there.

The Western media has largely missed the most significant development in Chinese politics these days.  It’s not the dramatic downfall of Bo Xilai, although the incident is one of the most important events in elite politics in post-Deng China.  Rather, it’s the stirrings that have revived contentious political issues banished from polite society in China since the Tiananmen crackdown more than two decades ago. 

Of course, one is unlikely to find the discussion of such sensitive issues in most official publications (although some media outlets affiliated with official publications have been particularly adventurous in carrying articles on these topics in the past few months). The range of issues is wide and diverse. Despite disagreement among participants in this incipient post-1989 Chinese intellectual renaissance, the discussion is fast converging on three critical issues. First, there appears to be a widely shared consensus among China’s thinking class that the country’s economic reform is either dead or mired in stagnation. Second, those who believe that economic reform is dead or stuck argue that only political reform, specifically the kind that reduces the power of the state and makes the government accountable to its people, will resuscitate economic reform (some advocate for more radical, democratizing changes, although the consensus on this particular point has yet to emerge). Third, the status quo, which can be characterized as a sclerotic authoritarian crony-capitalist order, isn’t sustainable and, without a fundamental shift in direction, a crisis is inevitable.

Such signs of an intellectual awakening are worth noting for many reasons. Its timing is certainly significant. Many people would connect this development with China’s pending leadership transition. In China, as in most other countries, pending changes in leadership usually stimulate discussions among the intelligentsia about the future of the country and the accomplishments or failures of the departing leadership. Chinese intellectuals, mostly liberals, may want to seize this once-in-a-decade opportunity to reignite a debate on whether the existing political system serves the country’s long-term needs of economic development, social justice, and national unity. 

Another, perhaps more important reason, is that more than two decades after the Tiananmen crackdown (and after Deng Xiaoping famously admonished his colleagues there should be “no arguing,” essentially ending the ideological debate among the ruling elites over whether post-Mao China was embracing capitalism), members of China’s thinking class have come to realize that the post-Tiananmen consensus, which might be characterized as giving economic reform and development a chance to solve China’s political problems (one-party rule and poor governance), has basically broken down. In other words, the post-Tiananmen model, all but intellectually bankrupt, provides no useful guidance in the coming decades.

One may be tempted to dismiss such discussions as idle chatter among marginalized Chinese intellectuals. This would be a mistake. Some of the participants in these discussions are influential opinion makers or advisors to the Chinese government. Their views reflect the thinking of at least some insiders of the Communist Party. So the frustrated tone and anxiety conveyed by their views could suggest that more open-minded elements in the party, some of whom may be in line to assume senior or important positions as a result of the leadership transition, share the same sense of crisis and urgency. 

Another reason to take the emerging intellectual renaissance in China seriously is that the ruling party actually needs a modicum of ideological legitimacy, even though it chiefly relies on political repression and economic performance to hold on to its power. No Chinese leader can survive long if he is seen or labeled by the elite members of the intelligentsia universally as an obstacle to reform. If the majority of China’s most respected public intellectuals openly challenge Chinese leaders’ reformist credentials and cry loudly that “the emperor has no clothes,” the result isn’t just political embarrassment, but fatal loss of authority and credibility for these leaders among their colleagues.

Another significance of this intellectual re-awakening is the emergence of newly emboldened liberals, who have endured nearly two decades in China’s political wilderness. They’ve obviously sensed that the tide is turning against the post-Tiananmen neo-authoritarian regime. With soaring inequality, pervasive corruption, lawlessness among the ruling elites (as the Bo Xilai story has revealed), signs of division within the top hierarchy, and a sense of loss of direction permeating all levels of Chinese society, Chinese liberals, some of whom former political prisoners or blacklisted academics who can’t publish their works in the official media, may think that they have a new opportunity to push for democratic change. If the track record of China’s pro-democracy movement in the 1980s provides any guidance, the party should be worried. In the 1980s, each episode of intellectual renaissance, such as the debate on political reform in 1986 and the “culture fever” of 1988, was followed by open confrontations between the regime and the pro-democracy movement. In the 1980s, the party was able to prevail during such confrontations, but paid a huge price (we all remember the purges of Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang and the bloody crackdown on June 4, 1989).

For now, of course, it’s too early to tell whether these intellectual stirrings are going anywhere beyond the elite publications and online forums. However, if I were a sitting member of the Politburo Standing Committee, I’d be very concerned. The voices of China’s liberal intelligentsia are now resonating among a public increasingly disenchanted with the party’s policies. In particular, such voices should appeal to China’s better-educated youths, whose numbers have increased several times since Tiananmen. Two decades of rapid economic growth, consumerism, and state-sponsored nationalism may have lulled them into political apathy. But as they experience the injustice, corruption, and incompetence of the current system in their daily lives, they’ll most likely feel increasingly swayed by voices urging a fundamental change of course.

Since the Tiananmen tragedy 23 years ago, a question on many people’s minds is whether another Tiananmen will happen. The Chinese government has done everything imaginable to ensure that it won’t. As China enters a more uncertain decade, what’s becoming increasingly apparent is that many of the social and political conditions for producing a Tiananmen-style crisis have re-emerged.  An intellectual renaissance is certainly one of them.