China: The Defining Moment

The Legacy of Tiananmen: China in Disarray

by James Miles
University of Michigan Press, 379 pp., $29.95

Jiang Zemin
Jiang Zemin; drawing by David Levine

The evolution of the People’s Republic of China since its founding in 1949 has been tumultuous and bloody, and marked by the suffering of millions. It has been anything but peaceful. Yet it is precisely the prospect of “peaceful evolution,” which in Peking has the special meaning of the undermining of Party authority by Western “bourgeois liberalism,” that worries Chinese leaders. This explains why in 1992 Deng Xiaoping, already so infirm of speech that only his daughters could understand him and retransmit his utterances to a wider audience, said,

Hostile forces realize that so long as we of the older generation are still alive and carry weight, no change is possible. But after we are dead and gone, who will ensure that there is no peaceful evolution?

Deng’s successors are worried right now about the effects of his reforms, which allowed both private economic development and a variety of Western cultural influences, and ended the rigid commitment to the thought of Mao. They fear that the reforms have undermined the authority of the Party—which is true enough, although the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square were also heavy self-inflicted blows. President Jiang Zemin, designated by Deng as the “core leader” in 1989, has been making many statements like the following: “We must strictly ban the cultural trash poisoning the people and social atmosphere and not sacrifice culture and ideology merely for a short period of economic development.”

But while Deng feared what would happen after he went “to see Marx,” he was not afraid of further economic reforms or of opening China to foreign capitalism. Indeed, although on June 9, 1989, five days after the Tiananmen killings, he congratulated the army, “the Great Wall of Steel,” for its exploits, he insisted in the same remarks that economic reforms must not be slowed down. And in 1992, during his “southern tour” of China, almost the last time he appeared in public as more than a kind of zombie, he defied the devout Maoists or “leftists” who attacked his reforms as “peaceful evolution.” He insisted that “had it not been for the achievements of the reform and open policy, we could not have weathered June 4th. And if we had failed that test, there would have been chaos and civil war.”

In 1990 Deng told Pierre Trudeau, Canada’s former prime minister, that had China erupted in 1989, the result would not have been a mere Cultural Revolution. That cataclysm did not amount to a true civil war, Deng explained. But “if some so-called democratic fighters seize power, they’ll start fighting among themselves. As soon as civil war breaks out there’ll be rivers of blood.” Deng then spun off into a fantasy involving the flight of over 100 million Chinese from China. “It would be a global disaster.” In Mr. Deng’s opinion, what happened instead was an act of minimal common sense.


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