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China: Analysis From Washington -- The Lessons of Tiananmen

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 3 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The Chinese regime, the Chinese people and China's foreign partners have drawn three different lessons from the crushing of pro-democratic demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square ten years ago this Friday.

Because each of these three groups tends to assume that the other two have accepted its understanding of what happened ten years ago, the chances for a repetition of this tragedy in the future are greater than many now assume.

The Beijing authorities, for their part, concluded that repression works, that the massive application of force will -- at least for some period of time -- cow both domestic opponents and Western governments.

As a result, they assume that they can continue to maintain total political control even as they move toward a more open economic system. And they now maintain that they and they alone will determine both the pace and the kind of any liberalization in their country.

The Chinese people learned yet again that they live under a government that is prepared to do whatever is necessary to remain in power and that they cannot count on outside support if they engage in a direct challenge to the total control of the communist regime.

At the same time, the Chinese people appear to continue to assume that any change in their political status will not come as a result of evolutionary change, an assumption that is likely to restrain many but provoke others to action in the future.

And in the aftermath of Tiananmen, Western governments appear to have recognized just how limited is their ability to affect developments in China. On the one hand, most were horrified by the behavior of the Chinese authorities a decade ago.

But on the other, almost none of them were able to impose any effective kind of economic, political or moral punishment on the regime or even to maintain the limited sanctions that they originally announced.

Because of China's size, the economic elites of these countries have pressed for liberalization in trade policy even when Beijing has demonstrated that it is cracking down politically.

Because of China's sensitivities, the political leaderships of most Western countries have backed away rather than embraced members of the small democratic opposition in China, radicalizing some but discouraging both them and other Chinese who might support liberalization.

And because of China's growing power but apparent stability, many in the West have retreated from any moral condemnation, even accepting at least in part that Beijing is introducing reform in a far better way than did Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

As a result, despite a brief period of initial expressions of outrage, virtually no Western leader has continued to push China toward the kind of changes that would make another Tiananmen not only unthinkable but impossible.

According to some Western commentaries, that is already the case: the Chinese people are doing so much better economically that they will have little or no interest in challenging the regime that has made the improvement in their lives possible.

But such conclusions are less than convincing, at least over the longer term. While the Chinese people have indeed seen some remarkable improvements in their standard of living, they have seen little or no willingness by the regime to respect their political rights.

And the historical record suggests that rising living standards are more likely to trigger demands for greater freedom rather than to breed satisfaction with a regime that continues to maintain its totalitarian pretensions. If Beijing, the Chinese people and Western governments shared that understanding, there would likely be a chance for a future in which the Chinese people would gain through evolutionary change the freedoms that some of them demanded at Tiananmen.

But because these three groups appear to have learned three different lessons, China is likely to see a repetition of this tragedy in the future, a development that points to instability not only in the world's most populous country but also across the entire international system.