Deng Xiaoping
Deng Xiaoping; drawing by David Levine

To try to understand is not to condone or forgive. Quite the contrary. In this bicentennial year when a euphoria for democratic rights seemed to be sweeping the world, why was it stopped in Tiananmen Square? Why do China’s rulers attack their students like enemies when in our view they are the hope of the future? The answer lies farther back than Deng Xiaoping’s aversion to the Red Guards who manhandled him in the Cultural Revolution twenty years ago. The sad fact is that China’s twentieth-century modernization of learning and the student class got started in two different directions at cross purposes. A brief look back may show us why Chinese politics is so out of step today.

Government in China is still elitist, not electoral. Behind the Tiananmen massacre of June 1989 lies the continuing modern conflict between the two wings of China’s political elite—the power-holders over the Party and army, on the one hand, and the intellectuals and student trainees for government service on the other hand. The tragedy was that the aged power-holders were stuck in the tradition of imperial autocracy, while the young students were modern-minded patriots.

A century ago these two wings of the elite were not yet split apart. The imperial autocracy of the last dynasty at Peking could still get its recruits for government service through the examination system, which used the Confucian classics as an ideological binding medium. Through study over many years the examinees indoctrinated themselves in the ideology of imperial Confucianism. Even in the 1890s they could still be relied upon to serve the Peking autocracy. Learning and politics were still mutually reinforcing in the Chinese equivalent of the Western style.

After Japan’s sudden victory over China in 1895 and the inroads of the imperialist powers, who made loans and secured concessions in their spheres of interest, the reformers of 1898 still sought to achieve their modernizing reforms through reinterpreting Confucianism, not discarding it. After 1901 the dynasty tried to begin the process. But in 1911 the Manchu dynasty collapsed. Parliamentary government in the Chinese Republic was torpedoed by the simple expedient of assassinating the would-be parliamentary leader (Sung Chiao-jen) in 1913.

In the twentieth century the institutional successor to family dynasties proved to be Party dictatorship, first as attempted rather loosely under Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang and second as achieved more tightly under Mao Zedong and the CCP. Chiang Kai-shek’s ideology of Sun Yat-senism was never very effective. But when the Communists came to power in 1949 they could use Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong thought as a new ideology to indoctrinate loyal party officials and soldiers.

Unfortunately about the time of the founding of the CCP in 1921 a deep split occurred among China’s intellectuals. They had broken free of the Confucian restraints and resolved to modernize China through “Science and Democracy,” their slogan when they demonstrated at the Tiananmen on May 4, 1919. By that time modern learning and universities had made great beginnings in Republican China. The old Confucian-trained scholar class had diversified and been succeeded by specialists in all the modern disciplines and in the professions. The students, however, still retained a self image of the dual role of their scholar-official predecessors under the empire. Some felt their learning as scholars would make them of essential value as public servants. Others saw their duty to save China by organizing a new polity. The more activist-minded like Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping joined in the Communist movement from the USSR while the more academic-minded pursued generally scientific and liberal studies of Western origin. In Communist parlance the CCP members eventually became loyal Reds while the academic wing studied modern learning more broadly and became independent-minded Experts. This split gave the CCP after 1949 its central problem, how to combine Red and Expert.

In the early years until 1957 Mao tried to make the Experts Red, but met frustration and he penalized most of them as “Rightists.” Then from 1966 in the Cultural Revolution he tried educating peasants, workers, and soldiers so as to make Reds into Experts, but again he failed to succeed. Since 1978 Deng Xiaoping, with less fanaticism, has supported an educational system that could produce Experts and has tried to recruit enough of them into the CCP to ensure that the modernizers of China will be loyal to the Party. But he has not been able to bridge the gap between blind Party loyalty and modern independent thinking. The recent growth of education has left Chinese politics still hopelessly split.

When we in the West see the talented and modern-minded Chinese scholars who come to our countries for academic training, we find it hard to conceive of the imperial autocracy whose attitudes still survive in the aged Party leaders in Peking. On this point historical perspective may help us. China’s imperial autocracy over the centuries developed three noteworthy features.


First, the power-holder was above the law and could do anything he could get away with. He found it particularly useful to kill opponents as a necessary means for his staying in power. Under the emperors of successive dynasties, year after year, officials in China were cashiered and in early times often beheaded even for suspected disloyalty to the ruler. Meanwhile peasants who rebelled were simply wiped out along with their relatives pour encourager les autres. Since the Confucian scholars were constantly proclaiming how the autocrat must rule by benevolence, culture, ritual, and proper decorum, we have been less aware that the autocrat ruled also and more fundamentally by terror and intimidation. The Confucian-trained officials expected to take orders, to show initiative only when asked to, and for example to discuss policy matters only when the emperor so ordered. Officials might propose but the emperor would dispose. The system was still working well when scholar-officials at the top level in the provinces could be entrusted with the killing of rebels, like Governor General Zeng Guofan’s extermination of the Taipings in the 1860s.

The emperor had complete power over the examination graduates even more than over the ordinary peasant because they were ideologically loyal and entirely dependent upon the imperial whim. This tradition of loyal passivity, of waiting to serve, has been inherited by the student class of modern times. Until recently graduates in the PRC expected to be assigned to their jobs. It has been a great forward step when they have been able to express their desires in the matter.

A second feature of the imperial autocracy was the lack of institutional processes for limiting and controlling the conduct of the ruler. Confucian scholar-officials acting as censors could try to check his actions only by polite but perilous remonstrances. They could of course have strong moral influence and even practical effect in the form of passive resistance to the ruler’s errors of judgment. But even today there is still no institutionalized channel through which the elite of students (to say nothing of the mass of the people) can peacefully join in final political decisions.

Third, since the power-holders under both the dynasties and the Party dictatorships had to answer to no one but themselves, their loyalty to the dynasty or Party tended to take precedence over a more general concern for the people. As Deng Xiaoping says today, if the CCP loses control how can the people be saved from chaos and civil strife? By this rationalization the group in power become in their own minds indispensable and the preservation of their power becomes an end in itself, basic to all other efforts. Coupled with the Chinese respect for age, this means that leaders can seldom really retire and the result is that old men remain in power though their thinking cannot be updated.

A final and rather chilling conclusion from the long record of China’s history is that no regime in power has ever given it up without bloodshed. Force has been the final arbiter, not Confucian teaching.

During the crackdown in Peking in June 1989, Western journalists’ general ignorance of Chinese history put them at a disadvantage. For example, one journalist reported that a young student leader had been turned in to the police by his mother and sister. On inquiry he found that in the forty years of the CCP government there had been a system of family responsibility such that all members of a family were responsible for the conduct of each member and were to report all evil deeds. Forty years is a longer time in the West than in China. If he had had time for research, the reporter might have found that the responsibility of all family members for the behavior of each member was decreed in the state of Ch’in about 350 BC. In fact the ruler of Ch’in had used this kind of system to mobilize his state and unify China in 221 BC. Collective responsibility has been a feature of Chinese life ever since. The motive for acknowledging it today is that compliance may bring more lenient treatment from the authorities.

Traditional factors motivated both sides in the Tiananmen tragedy. By the spring of 1989 the reform program of the Four Modernizations under the aegis of Deng Xiaoping had been ten years underway. Problems were accumulating. Current trends if continued would risk disaster. Population growth was not being held in check. Enterprise in agriculture was bringing material prosperity in some areas but not in others. The reform of industry was stymied and getting mixed results. Provinces and localities, no longer under central control, were raising funds and investing for quick profits in consumer goods, while investment in energy, transportation, and other social needs lagged behind. For foreign trade and investment there were now five Special Economic Zones and the island of Hainan had been made a province. But the combination of market prices for some commodities and fixed prices for others had provided rich opportunities for collusion between merchants and officials. Corruption had spread like a cancer. It had become particularly notorious among the privileged children of the Party leadership. Party members themselves lacked morale and faith in the organization. Finally, inflation was running at 30 percent or more a year with no reduction in sight.


Inflation particularly damaged the academic community, in which professors were on fixed salaries with little opportunity for a better subsistence through illegal activities like the black market. Meanwhile students and teachers in contact with the outer world had become disillusioned with Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong thought as well as with the high lifestyle and cynical profiteering of Party cadres. Feeling that they had been shortchanged economically, the educated intellectual wing of China’s small governing elite was particularly conscious of the need for political reform to go along with economic reform. The relative economic success had triggered a rise in political expectations.

When this manifold discontent came to a climax in student demonstrations after the seventieth anniversary of the May Fourth movement of 1919, the Party leadership was subjected to a bruising series of losses of face, which presaged loss of power. When Gorbachev paid his state visit to restore Sino-Soviet relations after almost thirty years of estrangement, the Chinese leadership was humiliated by the necessity of welcoming him ceremoniously only at the airport rather than in the Tiananmen Square, with its masses of demonstrating students. In fact Mr. Gorbachev had to be brought ignominiously into the rear of the Great Hall. The Party leadership felt that they had set him a worthy example of economic growth but this was now overshadowed by their apparent failure in political control.

Because Chinese regimes rest their power partly upon their prestige, the repeated losses of face in late May were devastating. Unarmed troops brought in to quell the demonstrations proved utterly ineffective even though martial law had been declared in Peking. The People’s Liberation Army was divided, many officers having gone on record against using force to coerce the students.

These developments fueled the debate within a CCP leadership deeply divided between those like the Party secretary-general Zhao Ziyang, who favored negotiation and compromise with the students, and the hard-liners like Premier Li Peng, who was backed by Deng Xiaoping and other octogenarians. One irritant was the students’ production of a small-scale Statue of Liberty which as a symbol directly challenged the hammer and sickle. Moreover, the surging masses of students could remind a victim like Deng Xiaoping of the masses of Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. Despite their very basic difference, the demonstrations in 1966 and 1989 seemed superficially two of a kind, foreboding chaos and anarchy.

A further humiliation for the Party autocrats was that Tiananmen was also a record-breaking world event on television. American and European networks had sent television crews and commentators to report the Gorbachev visit and Sino-Soviet rapprochement. They stayed on to report first the demonstrations for democracy and then the massacre. Because these spectacular and horrifying events in China appeared on so many home screens around the world, it was futile for the CCP leadership to claim that they were China’s internal affair, of no concern to foreigners.

But in the end the CCP leaders’ ultimate loss of face lay in the simple fact that by calling upon the military to use force they admitted the bankruptcy of their civilian administration. In former times the dynastic rulers’ use of Confucian methods of administration meant that they knew how government in China must rely upon the moral teachings of ideology, the religious rituals of the imperial cult, the attractiveness of official wealth and perquisites, the benefits of peace and order for farmer and merchant. Killing had always been the ruler’s special recourse to keep the system’s many channels working by cleansing them of obstructive persons. Terror could be a lubricant, so to speak, whereas trying to rule by force alone would be fatal and would lose Heaven’s mandate to rule. This assumption was evident in the CCP’s efforts after Tiananmen. It was also evident in their complaints against foreign incitement and support of counter-revolution in China.

In short, the rising faith in human rights and pluralistic polities visible in the Atlantic community, the Soviet sphere, and many other parts of the world confronted China’s autocratic tradition in 1989 as the latest phase in the invasion of China by the outside world. No doubt like earlier invasions it will sooner or later call forth an upsurge of China’s creativity in forming new political institutions. Yet it was only seventy-seven years ago, barely a lifetime, that the last emperor of China abdicated, ending an imperial autocracy that had been unchallenged in principle during the preceding four millennia. What little we know about the rulers of the Hsia (ca. 2200–1750 BC) and Shang (ca. 1750–1100 BC) does not suggest that they would have countenanced bourgeois liberalization any more happily than Deng Xiaoping.

One can only conclude that the road ahead in Chinese political reform will be long and tortuous. By fearfully treating the student demonstrations as a counter-revolution Deng has called one into being.

This Issue

September 28, 1989