Jiang Zemin
Jiang Zemin; drawing by David Levine


In August 1980 Deng Xiaoping laid down the Communist Party’s view of democracy. It continues to cripple China and is used both inside the country and by its apologists abroad to avoid the issue of repression. Deng said:

Democracy without socialist legality, without the Party’s leadership and without discipline and order is definitely not socialist democracy. On the contrary, that sort of democracy would only plunge our country once again into anarchy and make it harder to truly democratize the life of the country, develop the economy and raise the people’s standard of living.

This observation, resting on the widespread Chinese fear of luan, disorder, is a big lie: it was issued in response to the Cultural Revolution in which, according to then-Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang, whose death in 1989 set off the Tiananmen uprising, 100 million people suffered persecution. Deng wanted to portray the Cultural Revolution as the wrong kind of democracy. By his definition, Mao was a democrat—the same Mao who in a Party resolution of 1981, approved by Deng, was held responsible for the Cultural Revolution, which the document described as the greatest catastrophe to befall China since 1949.

But Deng’s warning may have fallen on many receptive ears. According to Andrew Nathan in his deeply perceptive and eloquent collection of essays, most Chinese, including intellectuals, are far more intolerant of “deviant viewpoints” than people in the US, Italy, Germany, Australia, Britain, and Austria. This is a telling conclusion. As Mr. Nathan, a political scientist at Columbia, points out, “Some students of democracy consider tolerance the essential ingredient of democratic politics.”

Although Mr. Nathan’s long interest in Chinese democracy extends to sheltering democrats like Wei Jingsheng at Columbia’s East Asian Institute (Nathan is banned from China), he is a realist about what China’s democrats want. Most of the leading democrats, he observes, are now in American exile. In 1989 he wrote that Chinese democracy in practice “may turn out to be a mixture of democratic and authoritarian elements, openness and secrecy, idealism and selfishness, turbulence and stability,…moral and symbolic posturing, stress on person-al loyalty in politics, frequent betrayals, extreme rhetoric, emotional in-tensity…and consequent difficulty in pragmatic compromise.”1

Of course, the big question is: Can democracy be tried in China and, if it is, can it work? Many foreigners who want good relations with Beijing say no to both questions. President Clinton’s public defense of democracy during his recent visit to China, and more particularly his condemnation of the Tiananmen killings in 1989, marked a reversion to his earlier attitude toward Beijing. That the President could be heard live and nationwide, moreover, may indicate that some basic taboos imposed by the Chinese Communists have begun to erode. What seems clear is that if the US president is willing to be outspoken about human rights, the Chinese leaders, contrary to many predictions, will back away from open conflict with him. How they will actually behave toward dissidents is another matter.

Whether Mr. Clinton would publicly condemn the regime’s killings and repression at Tiananmen was the biggest question hanging over the entire nine-day trip. He did so during his debate with President Jiang Zemin, recalling that “nine years ago Chinese citizens of all ages raised their voices for democracy,” and saying, “I believe, and the American people believe, that the use of force and the tragic loss of life was wrong.”

This observation of the President’s, like other contentious ones, was not reported by most of the mainland press, but any Chinese watching the live television broadcast could have heard it. “The impact is very big,” said Ren Wanding, a dissident who was released in 1996 after seven years in prison for taking part in the 1989 demonstrations. “Since the presidents of the two countries can publicly discuss June 4 on television, ordinary people throughout the country can also publicly discuss it in future.”

By saying what he did about Tiananmen, Mr. Clinton reverted to the promise he made six years ago, when he accepted the nomination for president, that there would be no more “coddling” of Chinese “tyrants.” He soon abandoned this promise in favor of “constructive engagement” which meant no further public attacks would be made on China’s human rights record. Perhaps Mr. Clinton’s decision to condemn the Tiananmen events and his other remarks in a similar vein were a politician’s reaction to the attacks on him in the press and in Congress as being soft on China, not to mention the charges that the Democrats have received illegal contributions from China.

Nonetheless, he made other points that directly challenged Party policy, particularly the official view that human rights in China mainly concern food, shelter, and clothing and are different from human rights in the West. At Peking University the president said, “I believe that everywhere people aspire to be treated with dignity, to give voice to their opinions, to choose their own leaders, to associate with whom they wish, to worship how, when, and where they want. These are not American rights or European rights or developed-world rights. They are the birthrights of people everywhere.”


Except, apparently, in Taiwan. Mr. Clinton kowtowed to his Beijing hosts by stating, “We don’t support independence for Taiwan.” This is a big step away from the official language of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, in which the US “acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain that there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China.” The word “acknowledge” was deliberately ambiguous. Mr. Clinton’s phrase “We don’t support” is only too plain. Yet Taiwan is the only democracy ever to emerge on Chinese soil, with a president popularly elected in 1996. When that election was challenged by Mainland missiles aimed into the Strait, Mr. Clinton ordered a show of force. The United States need not commit itself to defend the island’s independence if Taipei’s 21 million people want it, perilous though independence would be for the peace of East Asia. Far better for the president simply to have repeated the formula of 1979.

Nonetheless, by declaring that political liberty is a universal human right, Mr. Clinton rejected one of the basic assumptions of the “Asian values” to which some leaders in East Asia, and their Western supporters, refer when they insist that “stability” requires a degree of repression. During a public discussion in Shanghai Mr. Clinton said, “I believe…that high levels of personal freedom are quite important to the success of a society in the information age…. This will add to the stability of the society by enriching it….” With almost no exceptions, members of the chambers of commerce in both Hong Kong and China reject Mr. Clinton’s position. They despised Governor Patten during his five years in Hong Kong because his proposals for a form of “modest democracy”—which, as he acknowledged, would be derided as inadequate in any Western community—were highly popular with Hong Kong citizens. The proposals gave more people the right to vote in elections for the Legislative Council (LegCo); the post-handover regime immediately repealed them in favor of laws for the election this June.

Despite polls this spring indicating that in a fair election democrats would easily win a majority of the Legislative Council’s seats, the post-Patten system of proportional representation ensured a majority for pro-Beijing candidates in the June elections—even though those candidates received a minority of the votes for the twenty directly elected seats in the Council, out of a total of sixty. The democrats now have a minority in LegCo although they won a majority of the votes.

Still, the big fact about the large majority vote for democrats in June, even though it did not result in their receiving a fair number of seats, is that for the first time in history a legal opposition exists on the Chinese mainland. Whether it can make its voice heard in the rest of China will now be a central question. But Chris Patten was proved right in his conviction that Hong Kong people had been longing for at least what he called “modest democracy.”

The voting returns were decisive and would be regarded as an electoral triumph anywhere. In a howling rainstorm 1.49 million people, over 53 percent of the electorate, turned out (most experts predicted no more than 30 percent would do so), and over 60 percent of them voted for either the Democrats Party or its democratic allies. In fact, if the election had been a truly fair one, with voting allowed for the post of Chief Executive, Martin Lee would now hold that position instead of C.H. Tung, the unpopular chief executive who was Beijing’s favorite at the handover. Under the law allowing only twenty out of sixty seats to be directly elected, the Democrats and their allies will occupy fifteen of the directly elected seats.

There were also elections for thirty candidates from “functional constituencies,” which are drawn from such professions and occupations as insurance, the law, social work, and accountancy. These too had been manipulated by the Beijing-appointed government; only 139,000 voters were declared eligible to vote for such candidates, as opposed to the 1.15 million in the 1995 election in Mr. Patten’s time. In the 1995 election most Hong Kong people had two votes, one for their “functional” candidate and one for their directly elected one, who represented a particular district, like American congressmen.

Here too the results were a scandal: the democratic opposition was allotted only five seats of the thirty seats for functional constituencies—although they received almost seventy percent of the eighty thousand ballots. One elected professional, a favorite of Beijing’s, representing a tiny professional constituency, received exactly twenty-six votes.


The last ten members of LegCo were chosen by a Beijing-appointed eight-hundred-member election committee, which did not pretend to consider democrats. Fundamentally, Hong Kong’s elite, like the rulers in Beijing, did not want to lose or even share political power.

In one way or another the essays in China’s Transition analyze the nature of modern Chinese society, particularly its cruelty, its failed movements for political reform, and the martyrdom of the few heroes who tried to buck the system. What distinguishes Mr. Nathan’s approach is that he takes up the political question of how to negotiate with Beijing about human rights. The current dogma in Washington, London, Paris, and Bonn is that China’s leaders must no longer be publicly confronted on human rights issues because Chinese traditionally recoil from public humiliation. Western diplomats now insist that working “behind the screen,” as the Chinese say, gets results, even if only modest ones. (In March, when Wei Jingsheng asked Foreign Secretary Robin Cook to give him a single example of such an achievement, Mr. Cook admitted he didn’t have one.2 ) Mr. Nathan shows that, on the contrary, when Beijing comes under international pressure, as it did after Tiananmen, it can act fast, releasing many political prisoners and hastening its compliance with nuclear nonproliferation regimes.

He also refutes the claim that human rights are not an appropriate matter for international intervention, arguing convincingly that “suppression of information contributed to a vast famine during the Great Leap Forward” and that “rights violations throttle the channels of discussion that China desperately needs to manage its problems in the midst of rapid economic and social change.”

China’s weak legal system means, too, that Western businessmen in China often find themselves unprotected and occasionally behind bars without due process. And to those who say that China grants some rights here and there, Mr. Nathan replies, “As in US history, rights are not rights when they are limited to actions the government chooses to tolerate, or to speech by persons with whom the government agrees.”

If these arguments sound familiar, they have become so largely because Mr. Nathan himself has taken the lead in formulating them. He insists that nothing supports “the conventional conclusion that China is culturally unsuited for democracy.” (He points to Taiwan as a convincing counterexample.) He contends that the attempts to establish democracy in China throughout most of this century failed because they were too short and “limited in their democratic characteristics.” China was under constant pressure from Japan and other powers and suffered internally from militarism. He dismisses the contention that because the “peasant mass” is authoritarian, anti-city, and anti-intellectual it would oppose democracy, suggesting instead that in free elections “they would vote a well-informed version of their interests.”

In the past, authoritarianism seemed like the solution to China’s national problems, weakness and division, Mr. Nathan says. But now, when the main evils are dictatorship and corruption, democracy has become a feasible choice. He quotes Fang Lizhi, the dissident astrophysicist who was a student idol until Tiananmen, when he took shelter in the American embassy, and who now lives in the US. “The basic principles and standards of modernization and democracy are like those of science—universally applicable. In this regard there’s no Eastern or Western standard, only the difference between ‘backward’ and ‘advanced,’ between ‘correct’ and ‘mistaken.”‘

Still, although Mr. Nathan emphasizes in his essays that “culture” is not an obstacle to democracy in China, and that the problem is the Party, his own research shows the situation to be more complicated than that. A survey of Chinese popular attitudes which Nathan himself supervised in 1990 showed that much of the population had absorbed Deng’s analysis of what China needs. Mr. Nathan’s survey of 3,200 people—which he states was unique in a Communist country—showed that for most Chinese, democracy is

not…a system of competition and participation, but…a term for the good polity, one that is fair, egalitarian, stable, and honest. What legitimizes government is not pluralism and participation but moral rectitude and administrative performance….

It turned out that “only a tiny number are willing to dispense with CCP [Chinese Communist Party] leadership.”

Mr. Nathan is plainly astonished by some of the responses of his sample. Fewer than 30 percent felt any impact in their daily lives of either national or local government—which Mr. Nathan describes as “more intrusive in citizens’ lives and deals with a broader scope of policy than most other governments.” Of those sampled in other surveys, only urban Mexicans are less aware of their government’s intrusion. Mr. Nathan was baffled by this result: “We do not know,” he writes, “what mechanisms are at work to produce this [Chinese] paradox—whether the regime manages to make its subjects overlook its control over their daily lives or whether the citizens contrive to ignore the regime’s control as a way of managing the psychological tension that it induces.”

Two other possibilities seem worth mentioning. The Chinese state is so omnipresent, with its representatives always about, even in the villages, that people were afraid to respond honestly; how could they be certain they would not be identified by Nathan’s pollsters? At least until the last few years, any foreigner who has made friends in China knows what a strain this relationship puts on a Chinese, who is constantly under scrutiny. The other possibility is that Mr. Nathan and his colleagues should have asked an additional question. Until very recently, the life of almost every urban Chinese was dominated by the danwei, or unit. This was the employer who was, in effect, responsible to the Party. The unit saw to it that births (including how many children were permitted), funerals, accommodations, educations, shopping, and discipline were closely supervised. It is inconceivable that Chinese could say with conviction that the danwei did not control their lives. The danwei was, and for many Chinese remains, the State they have come to know in everyday life.

Another obstacle to the development of democracy in China, Mr. Nathan shows, is the low level of tolerance for political “deviancy.” Fewer than 20 percent of the respondents were willing to accept that “deviant viewpoints” could be expressed at a political meeting, a very low number compared to other countries sampled. Tolerance for publishing unpopular ideas was even lower—barely 10 percent. Even educated urban Chinese scored very low when it came to tolerance, although higher than rural Chinese or less well educated ones. Most respondents—the educated somewhat less so—also believed the government treated everyone equally, although they were dissatisfied with the way it handled problems like crime, inflation, and corruption.

This view, combined with the prevailing intolerance for heterodox ideas, Mr. Nathan writes,

may help explain why political dissatisfaction among intellectuals has not struck many sparks among the broader population…. Together with the widespread ignorance of the government’s impact…the reservoir of confidence in the government among less-educated Chinese may have helped the authoritarian regime to survive.

Mr. Nathan also found that few Chinese supported either economic or political reforms, preferring the government to do more to supply social services. Many looked back to the early Maoist years—before the Cultural Revolution—as a relatively golden age. In Beijing in the spring of 1989, and in dozens of other cities, millions of people who were not intellectuals supported the student demonstrations calling on the regime to fight corruption and bring down inflation. In the light of the brutality of the crackdown when it came, followed by the nationwide “ferreting out” of those sympathetic to the demonstrators, so well described by James Miles in his The Legacy of Tiananmen,3 it should not be difficult to understand why people insisted in response to Mr. Nathan’s questions that they did not feel the hand of the government in their daily lives—while also expecting it to do more for them. Mr. Nathan cautiously concludes that Deng’s market reforms—to which most of those polled, who favored more government welfare, said they were opposed—could lead to two quite different outcomes. The reforms could become part of an “authoritarian-corporatist structure,” or they could “undergird a democratic party system if one should emerge.”

Most Chinese, Mr. Nathan says, are “unmoved” by the heroism of dissenters like Wei Jingsheng. They think working inside the system is best, if you know how to make it work. The government goes along with this; the position of China’s rulers resembles that of traditional Chinese gods who set store by ritual conformity rather than inner faith. Many things can be said, even in academic journals, if they are couched in appropriately guarded language—except to foreign reporters. Most Chinese, Nathan concludes, don’t see the point of insisting on their rights. “That is why so few of them need to be repressed.”

China’s many constitutions during the last century included the elements of a democratic structure, Mr. Nathan writes. “What has undermined the democratic potential of these constitutions is domination by the CCP.” And the Party, often, has been unbending in its reluctance to allow organized dissent of any sort.


Readers of Mr. Nathan’s disturbing essays, which put in doubt the future of democracy in China, will find a different perspective in Bruce Dickson’s Democratization in China and Taiwan. Dickson’s scrupulous research demolishes the notion (which Mr. Nathan also refutes) that something peculiarly “Chinese” obstructs the development of democracy in China; much of that obstruction, he finds, is caused by the deadening hand of the Chinese Communist Party. Anyone who has visited Taiwan over the last twenty years will have been struck by the interest in politics on the part of ordinary people there, their tolerance of a variety of political views, and their freedom to call the island’s leaders “criminals” in loud voices and in print. In their opinions and behavior, in fact, the Taiwanese contradict every attitude held by the majority of respondents to Mr. Nathan’s mainland polls. (To a lesser but still significant degree the same is true in Hong Kong.)

Mr. Dickson, a political scientist at George Washington University, starts by observing that both the ruling Kuomintang and Communist parties were organized along Leninist lines “designed to change the societies they govern, not to be responsive to the changing wants and needs of society.” But in 1996 the KMT organized the first democratic presidential elections in Chinese history, while the CCP remains an authoritarian Leninist regime prepared to use the gulag, executions, and tanks against its unarmed political adversaries.

Yet, as Mr. Dickson observes, in the early Eighties China was the leading reformist country in the Communist world. It transformed its economy in a few years, abolished collective farms—which still remain in Russia—and created a more stable and open society. But the Party’s reaction to student demonstrations in 1986-1987 in several cities, and then its suppression of the national demonstrations centered on Tiananmen in 1989, showed that the government would not yield on fundamental political matters.

Mr. Dickson describes how political reform in Taiwan was deliberately designed by a Leninist party to maintain itself in power; and yet it ended by opening up the political system to genuine opposition parties. This was an astonishing development and might suggest a model for mainland China. After it retreated to Taiwan in 1948-1949 the Kuomintang leaders “built a party-state by creating a network of party cells throughout the government, military, and society to which each party member had to belong…. A ban on organized opposition inside and outside the party was enforced.” (I was a student in Taiwan for several years in the late Fifties and soon developed the habit of looking over my shoulder before saying anything in public—a useful habit when I began going to China in 1972.)

But although the KMT adopted the training manuals and slogans of its Communist rivals, Mr. Dickson says, the Taiwan party was always different from its conqueror on the mainland. While it was omnipresent, it was never totalitarian, never seeking to “micromanage” every aspect of society. Furthermore, the KMT knew it was governing a population most of whose members regarded its rulers, rightly, as mainland refugees who brutally suppressed native Taiwanese aspirations. This ethnic tension was a major stimulus to political reform. Finally, the KMT’s leaders (especially the Taiwanese who were recruited into the party) were increasingly men with a Western education, while the international experience, if any, of their mainland counterparts had been gained in other Communist countries, especially the Soviet Union.

In both Taiwan and the mainland, Mr. Dickson observes, reform could not begin until the historic founder and leader had died. The transition from Mao to Deng and from Chiang Kai-shek to his son Chiang Ching-kuo made everything that followed possible. At first Chiang Ching-kuo had a much harder time. The conservative KMT leaders who came from the mainland saw his “Taiwanization” policy, which has culminated in the election of Taiwan-born President Lee Teng-hui, as a betrayal of the KMT’s claim to govern all China, not simply a small island off its east coast. But Mr. Dickson observes that the transformation had begun in the Fifties and Sixties with limited local elections. By the Seventies the KMT was regularly testing public opinion with referendums, and admitting non-party members to the lower levels of government. Eventually, after years of repression, political imprisonment, and the occasional assassination, rival political parties were permitted.

But the key element in the real democratization of Taiwan’s politics, says Mr. Dickson, who has interviewed many veteran and serving political figures on the island, was the realization that a mainland invasion was less and less likely—although to this day it is dogma in Beijing that if Taipei declares Taiwanese independence, “force will be used.” (Paradoxically, although the threat of invasion has dwindled, the final transformation of Taiwan into one of the world’s most successful small countries has been thwarted by the lingering threat of just such an invasion.) Encouraged by Washington to create an alternative model of Chinese governance, Chiang Ching-kuo—for reasons which Mr. Dickson says no one wholly understands—recruited into the KMT young, internationally trained, and increasingly Taiwanese-born politicians. “As a result, the older generation of mainlander revolutionaries was replaced by younger technocrats and eventually by inner-party democrats who gained their posts not by party patronage but by popular support.”

Clearly the Communist Party’s greatest fear is that if it opens the door to political reform the Party will lose its paramount position. This fear is already being reinforced by events in Taiwan, where the KMT is rapidly losing its leading position of the last fifty years; it is no longer receiving an absolute majority of votes and in the next election, within two years, could be swept from power by a rival party and president. As Mr. Dickson points out, the KMT is still seen as a mainland party and it still refuses to accept the possibility of nationhood for Taiwan. Its historic links with gangsters—who have been used to attack opposition publishers—reach back to the Twenties on the mainland, and also make it unpopular. But the decline in the KMT’s power has been good for Taiwan and has raised the international reputation of its senior leaders.

On the mainland, by contrast, the CCP has never ceased to repress aspirations for political reform; it expelled from the politburo leaders like Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang who favored modest changes. Mr. Dickson believes “there is little likelihood of the CCP following in the path of the KMT, transforming itself and presiding over the successful democratization of its political system.” Because it will not try to bring its rivals into its own system of power—preferring to imprison them—the CCP “has created a backlog of grievances against the party.”

“Should the CCP signal its willingness to adapt,” Dickson writes, “it is likely to be overwhelmed by a popular upsurge…. This also appears to be the calculation of party leaders, and the reason they have been so reluctant to tolerate even the most limited forms of political dissent.” Mr. Nathan’s polls indicated that most Chinese were fearful of the Party losing control because chaos would result. This means they have been persuaded by the Party’s insistence that it is the only force that can maintain China’s stability, and that, as its propagandists put it, “only the Party can correct the Party’s mistakes.” Bruce Dickson concludes that “democratizing reforms are unlikely to come under the sponsorship of the CCP; instead, they are likely to come at its expense.”


If the CCP has a visible weakness it is corruption, with payoffs being made at every level of society and the families of top officials benefiting from vast, illegal privileges. Even the supreme Party leaders agree it causes harm to modernization. Why invest money if you have to pay off every official in sight?

In May 1994, I attended a symposium in Hong Kong on corruption. One of the main speakers was a senior academic and an advisor to the governor. His point was that corruption was often the only way to get things done in an “inefficient” society. Even in Hong Kong, he said, if a publisher offered a bribe to a school principal to use a particular textbook, it was up to the principal to decide if the book was a suitable one or not; if it turned out to be worse than another, in a year or two another book could be chosen. Corruption in Hong Kong had once been extensive, he remarked, and look at how advanced the city now was.

Similarly in China, he said, bribing an official to purchase a particular computer was permissible as long as the computer was a good one. If a better one came along, it would be time to switch. When corruption no longer contributed to efficiency, this economist observed, it was time to stop it. In the end, he said, the market always decides. I was sitting next to the director of the Independent Commission Against Corruption, who remarked to me under his breath, “I hope this chap is joking.”

In China it was no joking matter. In March of 1994 Premier Li Peng told the National People’s Congress that corruption “is a matter of life and death for our nation.” The year before more than 60,000 public officials had been indicted for embezzlement, bribery, and graft. Ten percent of them were Party members. The same year the Chinese press revealed that in Anhui province alone 300,000 officials had been on the take for years. This year it was officially reported that Premier Zhu Rongji’s plan to cut the civil service in half could sharply increase corruption because officials cash in on their connections when they leave office.

“Officials who lose their jobs have a clear advantage: they possess power as well as political, economic and policy resources and information,” an official wrote the China Economic Times newspaper. “If they are allowed to sell those precious commodities on the market, the fusion of power and money will bring new forms of corruption.”4 Goods are no longer scarce in China, where overproduction has become a national economic problem. What is now going on is the result of the Dengist slogan “To get rich is glorious.”

Julia Kwong, who teaches at the University of Manitoba, would not be surprised by this report. Her penetrating investigation of corruption in China since the Dengist reforms began in the late Seventies attacks the assumption that as China becomes richer and more subject to market forces corruption will decline.

Ms. Kwong argues that corruption in China, where the government is still the biggest employer, means “the exchange of power for personal benefits.” Greater wealth and higher production have produced yet more corruption. Between 1949 and 1976, when Mao died, despite a weak criminal justice system, Ms. Kwong contends, corruption was less widespread. This may be so, but we learn from The Private Life of Chairman Mao, the account of Mao’s inner court by his physician, Dr. Li Zhisui,5 how deep corruption was in the highest ruling circles. This endemic high-level corruption had been condemned in 1942, during the guerrilla days, by the poet Wang Shiwei, who was purged and eventually executed for accusing Party big shots of misusing their position to obtain better clothes and food, and access to women.

In the reform period that began in 1980, however, corruption has become universal as production has increased and living standards have improved, together with some devolution of power to the regions and a better criminal justice system. “The trend observed here,” writes Ms. Kwong, “challenges the popular wisdom that attributes corruption to the lack of resources, a high concentration of power, and the absence of a strong criminal justice system.” She does not accept the common view that corruption is fundamentally part of a “second economy” in which “resourceful citizens can facilitate the circulation of goods, reduce the time of queuing, redistribute scarce goods, redirect money from consumption to investment, and introduce an element of competition.”

Ms. Kwong has a delicate sense of irony. Chinese social scientists, she notes, used to claim that capitalism is naturally corrupt because of the monopoly of power of the bourgeoisie. Once socialism is in place, it was explained, such corruption would disappear. When it remained, it was “a residue of the feudal past or a by-product of the polluting influence of the West.” What really happened, she explains, is that in the Dengist period the Party ideal of official austerity, which was often flouted, vanished altogether. In its place came the uninhibited pursuit of profit by entrepreneurs who aroused the envy of state officials.

This was coupled with a traditional Chinese conviction—especially when official morality was weak—that one must look for security among friends and family. State employees now felt they were working for those close to them, not for some common good. Such a view, Kwong writes, led to “the justification of corruption and the proliferation of nepotism, which had never been completely rooted out in any case, even in the classical socialist period.” Ms. Kwong does not specify the Deng family, but it is the best example of what she is saying. Deng’s children and their spouses rose quickly in agencies of the government, such as the one responsible for weapons sales and purchases, where the most money could be made. They openly made lucrative real estate deals in Hong Kong despite explicit central directives, promulgated in 1985, prohibiting the children of officials from engaging in commerce. (I remember one of Deng’s daughters, described as a “non-executive director,” presiding over a real estate display long before the handover.)

Deng’s old comrades from the civil war and their children also benefited. The Deng circle extended into the entire Beijing government apparatus, and only when Deng was nearing death two years ago did the new government of Jiang Zemin, whose roots were in Shanghai, begin to crack down on the profiteering of people connected with Deng. This explains the detention—but not the arrest—in 1995 of Politburo member Chen Xitong, a Deng protÌ©gÌ© who was the mayor of Beijing during the Tiananmen events and Party Secretary. His extensive corrupt activities when he was in power were known as “the Chen Xitong system.” The corrupt Dengist empire became vulnerable only when the Supreme Leader could no longer defend it.

Until a criminal has been indicted, the press can never name names or conduct investigations into official corruption, even when it is as blatant as Chen Xitong’s and is well known to every citizen of the capital. Even then his or her high-ranking accomplices are never named unless they too have been publicly disgraced. Notoriously corrupt transactions, sometimes involving tens of millions of dollars, are usually dealt with, when they are finally dealt with at all, not in the courts but by the Party itself. Chen Xitong has yet to appear in court although he has been in detention for three years. He could be shot after a public “trial” that might last only a few minutes.

This case will have to be carefully handled to avoid any too-obvious connection to the Deng family, although it is clear that the campaign against Chen is intended to strengthen the Shanghai clique of President Jiang and Premier Zhu Rongji—both of whom, ironically, were Deng appointees to the central government during his last years. Julia Kwong’s point is blunt, if perhaps somewhat overstated: “With a more vocal clientele, Western administrators in the economic sector would never be be able to get away with such bureaucratic misconduct.”


In his Beyond Beijing, Dali Yang convincingly demonstrates the truth of three large conclusions about China: (1) China’s overall economic strategy, while more market-driven than in Maoist times, remains highly political. (2) Regional differences in prosperity are wide and will get wider. And (3) although poor regions are heavily populated, without democracy they are deprived of a voice in national decisions. In the Maoist era, economic development was skewed toward the interior provinces, the region from which Mao came and which he hoped would be able to survive if a war demolished the far more prosperous coastal areas. During the first Five Year Plan, between 1953 and 1957, nearly two thirds of China’s biggest industrial projects, many of them built with Russian money, were constructed in interior provinces as part of “the Third Front” (the other two fronts being the seacoast facing Taiwan and the border with the Soviet Union). These factories, inefficient and unprofitable, were located near large interior cities and raw material sites; until recently they were regarded as China’s industrial “backbone.” But as Mr. Yang observes, “the entire third-front build-up was dictated by considerations of military strategy rather than economic efficiency.” Only half the factories were built according to the original specifications while the rest were never completed or simply not built at all. “Fully one-third of the total investment was wasted.”

Fortunately for China, Mao’s disastrous industrial strategy (his agricultural policies, still more catastrophic, led to between 30 and 50 million deaths during the 1959-1961 famine) did not fatally cripple the transport and other infrastructure or managerial and labor skills of the east coast, which continued to produce most of China’s industrial output, although its share of investment was heavily cut. Mr. Yang says that although Deng continues to receive the credit for shifting away from these lunatic policies, in fact the shift began in 1972 when Mao saw that his meeting with President Nixon meant the US would not wage war on China. From the late Seventies there was a big swing back to coastal development. “The leadership accepted the idea of uneven growth and granted preferential policies to the coastal region so that it might develop faster and become the engine of growth for China.”

The Tiananmen events caused somewhat of a shift back toward the interior regions when Deng realized that if China was not to suffer the destruction of communism that took place in Russia and Europe in 1989, he would have to satisfy those who felt his economic reforms had done very little, if anything, for them. (Mr. Yang does not say this, but Deng made a deal in which the poorer provinces agreed to send military assistance to Beijing in May 1989 in exchange for promises of economic investment when the emergency was over.) In the early Nineties, after Deng’s final exhortations to the Party, interior provinces were granted the same right to establish Special Economic Zones as the coastal cities had, thus enabling them to enjoy lower taxes and better access to international trade. This led to a serious overheating of the economy and wasted funds. Although President Jiang and then-Vice Premier Zhu Rongji had initially encouraged such central and western development, they soon returned to favoring the east coast, particularly Shanghai, their power base.

Unrepresented on the Politburo, the leaders of the interior provinces, recognizing the widening gap between them and the east coast, talked anxiously of luan or chaos. They pointed out that their lack of funds for education meant high dropout rates and a shortage of skilled technicians and managers. The dearth of modern industrial enterprises and a vast surplus of agricultural laborers resulted in the huge and much-talked-about army of at least 100 million workers from the interior floating around the more prosperous cities looking for work. This horde, amounting to at least 20 percent of China’s adult population, is officially blamed for crime, unchecked population growth, and general instability. In 1995, Mr. Yang writes, leaders from interior provinces warned that “their deteriorating economic situation might lead to more widespread outbreaks of crime and anti-government activities and cause them to lose control of law and order.”

That is nightmare enough. Still blacker, however, is the prospect of ethnic disorder which has troubled Chinese rulers for centuries. Although they make up perhaps 8 percent of the total population, the minorities, numbering at least 100 million people, live in some of the poorest of the interior provinces. “Numerous Chinese commentators,” Mr. Yang writes,

have…argued that a thriving economy is crucial to social peace in places such as Tibet and Xinjiang, fearing that retarded development cause minorities in these and other areas will join forces with their brethren living across the border and lead to social instability.

President Jiang Zemin said in 1995: “If we allow polarization of minorities and regions then conflict between central government and provinces could burgeon and cause chaos.” But while Mr. Yang observes, correctly, that Tibet and Xinjiang have received more funds from the central government than other provinces, what he does not say is that in such regions the ultimate questions are not economic. The Hans—the ethnic majority Chinese—disdain the “minorities” as barbarous, scorning their religious beliefs, whether Muslim or Buddhist, which to most Chinese appear either superstitious or subversive or both.

As Mr. Yang shows in his book, however, mere lobbying from the provinces combined with scare tactics are not effective. No Politburo leaders come from the inner regions and “the whims of central leaders still carry great weight.”

Here again democracy would give the have-nots political power. Mr. Yang says,

Had China been a representative democracy, then the task would have been far easier for interior interests, with more than half of the total population, to secure some sort of political umbrella for interior development. Instead, the authoritarian regime dominated by coastal interests has so far dictated preferential treatment treatment for the richer coastal region since Mao’s death.

According to Mr. Nathan’s polls, many Chinese fear what would happen to China without the Party, the only governing body all but very old people can remember. During Tiananmen tens of thousands shouted “Down with Deng Xiaoping!” and “Premier Li Peng, step down!” Deng, for his part, warned that disaster awaited Chinese if they adopted anything other than “socialist democracy.” Until Chinese are brave enough to shout “Down with the Communist Party” the CCP will remain, as the Yellow River once was, China’s Sorrow.

One of President Clinton’s most daring observations at Peking University included a reference to Hu Shih, a student of John Dewey who became a leading professor at the university. Hu fled to Taiwan with Chiang Kaishek in 1949 and became his ambassador to Washington; for decades he has been reviled on the mainland. Mr. Clinton’s reference to Hu broke another taboo. “More than 50 years ago, Hu Shih, one of your great political thinkers, and a teacher at this university, said these words: ‘Now, some people say to me, “You must sacrifice your individual freedom so that the nation may be free.” But Ireply, the struggle for individual freedom is the struggle for the nation’s freedom. The struggle for your own character is the struggle for the nation’s character.”‘

July 15, 1998

This Issue

August 13, 1998