The world recently marked the 16th anniversary of violence in Tiananmen Square. The bloodshed in Andijon, Uzbekistan took place scant weeks ago. Yet some observers have already pointed to parallels. In a 3 June discussion on RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, sociologist Komron Aliev said, "In its scale, what happened in Andijon can be compared to what happened in Peking on Tiananmen Square." Are the two events really comparable? And if similarities exist, what can Tiananmen Square tell us, 16 years later, about what occurred in Uzbekistan on 13 May?Bloody Protests
On 4 June 1989, Chinese troops fired randomly into a crowd of tens of thousands gathered in Beijing's huge central Tiananmen Square as part of a nonviolent, pro-democracy protest. Bodies were quickly burned and blood stains washed away to cover up the extent of the atrocity. The exact number of victims will probably never be known, but estimates range anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000 killed, with thousands more injured. Witnesses said that young teenagers were among the victims, most of whom, however, were university students. Veteran China-watcher Gordon G. Chang called it "state-sanctioned murder."
Another American Sinologist, Steven W. Mosher, wrote one year later in his "China Misperceived" that "for seven weeks in the spring of 1989, the world was treated to a spectacular show of defiance against the Chinese Communist regime and its aging leaders. By the end of May, a million or more people were surging through the streets of Beijing in protest of corruption, bureaucracy, and dictatorship. Never before had so many people gathered in the streets of Beijing." In the weeks leading up to the massacre, the authorities said they would not use force to end the demonstration, which added to the shock when the violence was finally unleashed.
Veteran China-watcher Gordon G. Chang called it "state-sanctioned murder."
The protest was sparked by the death in April 1989 of Hu Yaobang, a former Chinese Communist Party (CCP) general secretary, who had been ousted in 1987 by China's most powerful leader, Deng Xiaoping, for being too reformist. Ironically, Hu's successor, Zhao Ziyang, was himself sacked by Deng in 1989 for being too sympathetic to the pro-democracy protesters.
After the Tiananmen massacre, the students and other intellectuals who made up the bulk of the protesters were stunned into silence. Many went underground, emigrated, became cynical, or just stayed clear of politics. Instead, the main impact of "Tiananmen," as the protest and crackdown came to be known abroad, was felt in the ruling elite. Leadership Split
The essence of the problem was that Deng launched a reform program in 1978 aimed at modernizing the economy and the military and "opening to the outside world" while retaining the rule of the Leninist CCP. The leadership was faction-ridden, with some elements urging more reforms and others fearing that the essence of communist orthodoxy was being corrupted by the reform process. In the course of the 1980s, Deng launched two noisy but largely ineffective ideological campaigns aimed at reinforcing the role of party doctrine, but the economic reforms were never really halted.
The Tiananmen protests, however, brought matters to a head within the leadership. At a time when communism was dying in Eastern Europe and under threat in the Soviet Union, party hard-liners epitomized by Prime Minister Li Peng took an "I told you so" attitude and demanded a tough line against those perceived as challenging the CCP's monopoly on political power. Within the party, Tiananmen strengthened the hand of the hard-liners not only against Zhao and other reformists but also against Deng himself, who had hitherto overseen a balancing act between the various CCP factions.
The CCP's course was not clarified until 1992, when the reform course again went into the ascendancy, but only after damage had been done to the regime's credibility at home and abroad. In many ways, relations between the authorities and society today continue to be plagued by the contradiction inherent in promoting economic reforms and the "opening to the outside world" on the one hand and maintaining Leninist party rule on the other.
As Sinologist Joseph Fewsmith pointed out in his 2001 book "China Since Tiananmen," evidence of the contradiction could be noted even in top-level party pronouncements. In October 1989, Deng reportedly told visiting former U.S. President Richard M. Nixon that "stability overrides everything," whereas shortly before that, the party daily "Renmin Ribao" wrote that "we certainly must not stop eating for fear of choking." Andijon Details Unclear
At first glance, the differences between Andijon and Tiananmen appear more striking than the parallels. For one, the most basic questions about what happened in Andijon on 13 May have, for now, two answers. Uzbek President Islam Karimov and other top officials have described a clash between religious extremists and police in which 173 people were killed. While independent observers agree that armed militants -- though not necessarily religious extremists -- started the violence with an attack on a police station and prison on the night of 12 May, they assert that a peaceful demonstration took place in the city the next day, and that government forces opened fire on unarmed demonstrators in the early evening, killing hundreds.
This confusion highlights another important difference between the two events. Tiananmen unfolded over seven weeks in the full glare of worldwide attention, giving its participants a chance to articulate their views. Andijon blazed up in the course of 24 hours, far from the eyes of the international community. And while we have reports indicating that the crowd in Andijon was motivated by general dissatisfaction with socio-economic conditions in Uzbekistan, any attempt to discern a concrete program from the various statements made on 13 May would require a considerable exercise of political forensics.
But if the preceding differences seem to argue against parallels between the two events, a further discrepancy proves instructive. The protests in Tiananmen Square resulted from a dispute over reforms and underscored rifts within the Chinese leadership over serious issues of domestic policy. The violence that ended the protests on Tiananmen Square may have betokened a dysfunctional political process that failed to provide lines of communication between rulers and ruled, yet the protests themselves were part of a larger debate over the nation's future.
Nothing of the sort was, or is, evident in Uzbekistan. If Deng was arguing for stability above all even as the party daily was stumping for reforms, the official message in Uzbekistan has been unambiguous -- stability above all. President Islam Karimov has staunchly advocated a policy of "gradualism" that virtually all outside observers have described as a refusal to carry out meaningful economic and political reforms. Subterranean rifts have long been rumored within the Uzbek elite, but they appear to follow clan lines, not policy divides. Consequently, as Uzbekistan's ruling elite faces the fallout from Andijon, it does so without any evident policy alternatives under consideration.
This last point is salient in light of the single obvious similarity between Andijon and Tiananmen. Tiananmen Square was sufficiently momentous to determine the context for subsequent events, driving some into stunned silence even as the leadership eventually decided on a reformist course in 1992. And if the tensions of Tiananmen remain unresolved, the impact of reforms has been significant enough to sustain an ongoing debate over the perils and promise of "the Chinese way."
For Uzbekistan, Andijon is a similarly momentous event, and one that is likely to dominate the domestic context for some time to come. Yet the crackdown comes against a backdrop of official domestic policy that betrays no sign of reformist inclinations, and the Uzbek government's initial reactions point only toward a hardening of an already hard line. There is still time for the Uzbek leadership to heed the limited lessons of China's post-Tiananmen path, but the violent tensions that surfaced in Andijon suggest that time may be running short.