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The End of the Chinese Revolution

When Deng Xiaoping suppressed the Beijing Spring last month, he thought he was putting down a new Cultural Revolution. Pirated notes from a Party meeting in late April quoted him as telling his colleagues:

This is not an ordinary student movement. It is turmoil…. What they are doing now is altogether the same stuff as what the rebels did during the Cultural Revolution. All they want is to create chaos under the heavens.

As the leading living victim of those ten years of terror Deng could not tolerate chaos or a revival of mob rule. What he did not and does not comprehend is that Tiananmen Square 1989 was virtually the mirror opposite of Tiananmen Square of 1966.

The million-strong Red Guard demonstrations at the outset of the Cultural Revolution re-created the hysteria of Nazi Nuremberg; this year’s protest was redolent of an urban Woodstock. The Red Guards were conjured up by the revolutionary incitement of Chairman Mao; this year’s demonstrations were a genuine grass-roots protest, if one skillfully organized by student activists. The Red Guards worshiped the living Mao; the prodemocracy protesters worshiped nobody, though they sprang into action out of affectionate respect for the dead “liberal,” Hu Yaobang. The Red Guards rallied to Mao’s drumbeat for proletarian egalitarianism; this year’s students called for universal freedom, symbolized by their styrofoam goddess of liberty. The cultural revolutionaries, fueled by hate, marched forth from Tiananmen Square to “drag out,” abuse, and frequently murder “capitalist roaders.” This year’s would-be democrats demanded the resignations of Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng, but showed pacifist solicitude even for troops sent to suppress them.

For all these stark contrasts, both protesters and repressers of 1989 acted within the dark penumbra of the Cultural Revolution. Deng and his accomplices were obsessed with the memory of the disorder and destruction unleashed by the Red Guards in the cities of China a quarter of a century ago. The upheaval exhilarated Mao who initiated it, but still unnerves his surviving colleagues of the Long March generation, most of whom were purged and disgraced, along with virtually the entire upper echelon of the Chinese Communist party (CCP).

Mao’s onetime heir apparent, head of state Liu Shaoqi, died in anonymity after a long period of medical neglect. Others were persecuted to death or committed suicide. Deng himself escaped relatively lightly, with public humiliation and exile to a menial job in south China. He was probably saved from a worse fate by three decades of loyalty to Mao as a member of his innermost circle. One of his sons, however, was thrown out of a window and crippled for life. Yang Shangkun, today China’s president and Deng’s hatchet man, the man who has been calling for harsh treatment of the students, was a key Central Committee official then, and one of the first to be dismissed, followed by Peng Zhen, then the mayor of Beijing, now, at eighty-seven, one of the hardest of the old warriors behind Deng.

Chinese chroniclers of the Cultural Revolution claim that 100 million people were affected by it, though that figure may have been inflated by including the entire populations of cities where the Red Guards were active. Rough estimates by foreign scholars point to a death toll of up to half a million. Whatever the numbers, for China’s elite, it was a deeply traumatic experience.

It was also an institutional trauma for the Chinese Communist party. The evident disarray of China’s top leaders during the weeks before the tanks rolled in and the popular disdain for the strictures of martial law were reminders that the Party has never regained the cohesion and authority of its reign before the Cultural Revolution started. Mao, in setting it off, may have wanted simply to rid himself of some senior colleagues and to transform the rest into born-again revolutionaries. But the humiliation of thousands of members of China’s “new class” inevitably sapped the respect for the Party itself in the eyes of its subjects. For much of the Cultural Revolution, the Party was an empty shell. In practice, the Party consisted of a set of warring factions: a military clique, headed by Defense Minister Lin Biao; a bureaucratic faction under Premier Zhou Enlai; the radical Gang of Four; and, later, the so-called “whatever faction” of younger Mao loyalists, led by his short-lived heir, Hua Guofeng. Thirty years of unity, forged at the Yenan revolutionary base, had been shattered beyond repair.

The erosion of Party authority had its corollary in an invigoration of people-power. At first, in 1966, students spoke out, as they had in the brief blooming of the Hundred Flowers in 1957, because Mao had licensed and encouraged them. But eventually they began to act autonomously, if mindlessly. Yesterday’s Red Guards are now a generation of thirty-five- to forty-five-year-olds who cannot have forgotten the heady experience of challenging authority, taking initiatives, and relying on their own resources. Mao’s admonitions to “dare to think, dare to speak, dare to act” because “to rebel is justified” resonated long after 1968 when the Red Guards’ internecine warfare led the Chairman to consign them to the countryside. It also produced a redefinition of the relations between subsequent generations of students and the state.

Toward the end of the Cultural Revolution, on April 5, 1976, there was truly spontaneous combustion in Tiananmen Square when students and citizens exploded in wrath over the removal of the wreaths they had brought there to mourn the recently deceased Premier Zhou Enlai. The demonstrators were severely beaten by police and militia for defying the Gang of Four. Mao was also an implicit target of their anger and Deng Xiaoping was their implicit hero, as the man who had just been deprived of the succession to Zhou and was most likely to have ruled in the same pragmatic style. When Deng returned to power after his second disgrace, he insisted that the Tiananmen incident of 1976 be redefined as a popular uprising rather than a counterrevolutionary event. Thus he added his imprimatur to Mao’s on the legitimacy of mass protest, even in the heart of the capital.

Deng benefited from spontaneous mass action again two years later with the emergence of the Democracy Wall movement. There were few determined dissidents among the activists of 1978. Most simply wanted a more relaxed political atmosphere, and they saw Deng’s return to power as the way to ensure that. They created a pro-Deng bandwagon that undoubtedly helped him triumph over the last Maoist holdouts at the decisive meeting of the third plenum of the eleventh Central Committee in December 1978. But three months later, the Democracy Wall was closed down, and a few outspoken activists like Wei Jingsheng were later sentenced to long periods in jail. To this day, it is unclear whether Deng had simply used the movement cynically for his own ends, or whether he was persuaded to suppress it by more conservative gerontocrats as part of the price for their support. What is certain is that every time Deng has had to choose between power and democracy he has chosen power.

Guns and tanks were not required to deal with the young people who put up posters in 1978. But military men were already entrenched in top Party councils at that time as a result of Mao’s earlier resort to PLA peacekeepers to subdue the Red Guards. The contradiction between army power and civilian control is an old theme in Chinese Communist history. The military establishment has always wielded more political clout in China, where it won the civil war, than in the Soviet Union, where the Red Army was created only after the Revolution. Mao struggled hard, not wholly successfully, to ensure that the Party commanded the gun. It was one of Deng’s greatest achievements over the past ten years that he managed to cut army politicians down to size. His biggest success came in 1985, when he persuaded large numbers of Long March veterans to retire, reducing the proportion of PLA officers on the Central Committee—50 percent at the height of the Cultural Revolution—to under 20 percent.

But like Mao before him, Deng failed to impose full civilian control on the Party’s Military Affairs Commission (MAC), which Mao chaired from 1935 until his death, and which is responsible for issuing orders to the army. The generals refused to allow the PLA to be run by a new body responsible to the National People’s Congress, and they also resisted Deng’s attempts to hand over his own chairmanship of the MAC to his chosen successors, Hu Yaobang and then Zhao Ziyang. When Deng retired from the Politburo at the Thirteenth Congress in 1987, the army’s obduracy forced a change in the Party constitution which entitled him to continue to chair the MAC. Zhao Ziyang was made first vice-chairman, an honor never conceded to his predecessor as Party boss, Hu Yaobang, but it was the old military man Yang Shangkun who was Deng’s real deputy as permanent vice-chairman.

In a revealing and hyperbolic passage in a secret speech last month, Deng underlined how the chairmanship of the MAC was more important even than the nominally top job of Party general secretary. “I have kept an eye on Zhao for quite a few years,” said Deng. “He has wild ambitions. Had he become the chairman of the Military Commission, all old comrades like us would have been beheaded.”

Deng’s inability to bring the military to heel was only the most obvious proof of his failure to revamp China’s political system. Yet the economic reform program which he masterminded beginning in 1979 demanded a more flexible political structure, one that could respond to new pressures from the outspoken groups within an increasingly autonomous, self-confident, and compartmentalized society. These included farm families liberated by decollectivization; private entrepreneurs and industrialists providing much-needed services and employment; international traders confronting their foreign opposite numbers with increasing sophistication; and students and intellectuals fired up by access to the new ideas that filtered in through China’s newly opened door. Instead of the radical restructuring of the polity which these new interest groups required, the old system was retained but put under unsustainable stresses.

Ideological certainty, already eroded by cultural revolutionary overkill, was further weakened by Deng Xiaoping’s marginal interest in ideology though Marxism–Leninism–Mao Zedong Thought was still enshrined as one of the four sacrosanct national principles. More importantly, Party cadres were told, in Deng’s famous motto, that practice was the sole criterion of truth and furthermore that technical competence was to be a condition of employment. For the 19 million Party members recruited during the Cultural Revolution, many for their skills as political agitators, this was a threat to their careers. For the Party as an institution it was delegitimizing. If its claim to power rested on getting the economy right, this was a very shaky foundation indeed.

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