China’s History Plays Catch-up

May 23, 2019 by

By Tom Watkins –

June 4th, 2019 marks a sad and tragic 30th anniversary.

Shots were heard around the world on June 4, 1989 when China’s People’s Liberation Army was  authorized to turn its guns on the Chinese people in Tiananmen Square.

Students had gathered there to demand an end to corruption with calls for greater freedoms and democracy. They were answered with guns and army tanks in the Square. The Chinese Communist Party claimed they needed to take drastic action to address ‘hooligans’ who were “disrupting the People’s business.”

But most of the world saw it differently. The world witnessed – in real time – upwards of a million Chinese people, primarily young, college students, peacefully petitioning their government for change, freedom, and an end to government corruption.

In the end, hundreds if not thousands of people, lost their lives in the struggle with their own government. The protest was later branded as an “anti-revolutionary riot” and brutally put down in a fashion that shocked the world.

I remember this sad episode in Chinese history. I was in China on the first of what would later become dozens of trips there over the next 30 years. In fact, I had spent a few nights In Beijing’s Tiananmen Square talking to the students in mid-May of that fateful year.

The students who crowded round me in 1989– 8-10 deep, some who may have been crushed to death by Chinese tanks – peppered me with questions. All these decades later, one person’s stinging question still haunts me:  “Describe freedom? Describe democracy?”

At that time, I felt totally inadequate in describing what we as Americans take for granted – freedom and democracy. Trying to explain it to naïve students looking to me for answers, asking someone not much older than they were at the time, felt like trying to describe what it is like to wake up and start breathing.

To this day, I wonder if this student’s fateful question has ever been definitively answered.

Fear, Power and Paranoia

The Communist Party’s greatest fear is not an attack from outside of China, but an uprising from its own people within. The Times of London reports that Beijing has launched a crackdown on what authorities fear might be a rise in dissent before the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen Square.

Recently, China substantially increased spending on domestic security, reflecting mounting concern about threats inside its borders. Beijing’s budgets for internal and external security have grown faster than the economy as a whole for several years, but domestic security spending has grown far faster — to where it exceeds the national defense budget by roughly 20%.

A Heavenly Mandate

All China’s historical rulers have operated under the Mandate of Heaven – divine authority and a right to rule. An important element of the mandate is that although the ruler has great power to rule, he also has a moral obligation to use it for the good of his people. If he does not, then he would lose the right to govern. But maintaining the “mandate of heaven” emanates from the people. No one dynasty/ruler has a permanent right to rule so the Mandate of Heaven justifies rebellion against unjust, tyrannical, or incompetent rulers.

The Chinese Communist Party works hard each day attempting to maintain the Mandate by improving the lot of average Chinese citizens while maintaining an ever-present internal security apparatus ready to suppress any threat – real or perceived.

Recalling the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The Chinese Communist Party has much to be proud of. On October 1, 2019, China will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the party’s founding.

What has transpired in China over its 5,000-year history is nothing short of amazing: the last 40 years have been both remarkable and universally acknowledged.

June 4th, 1989 was not China’s proudest moment.

There was once a time in history that what happened in China had minimal impact on lives outside of the country. Today, what happens in China no longer stays in China. The world feels China’s economic ripple – more like a tsunami wave of innovation and change that washes up on global shores in the 21st century.

With its rich history, China remains a kaleidoscope of complexity and change. Many people of my Boomer generation well remembers our 60s education that China was a backward Communist county – some parents even implored their children to “eat your peas – kids are starving in China.” This was well before China modernized and opened itself to the world.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of China’s opening itself to the world, transforming itself into a global economic superpower. Today, 40 years after Deng Xiaoping opened China, the nation has evolved into one of the world’s largest trading partners and economies. The country essentially compressed hundreds of years of its missed Industrial Revolution into just a few decades of change. At the same time, it has fast-forwarded into all the accompanying problems of an industrial age:  pollution, social injustices, and inequality.

The Two Faces of Deng

Deng Xiaoping, the preeminent leader who followed Mao’s economic and social disasters – The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution of the 60s – moved the country in a new direction that has shaken the world.

By changing China’s course, Deng Xiaoping changed the course of the world. Deng believed the criteria for success was determined by common sense and flexibility rather than Mao’s rigid political ideology. Deng and the Communist Party knew the old ways were failing the Chinese and that without their support, the Party could topple. Prosperity and strength was the ticket to staying in power. In explaining this shift in thought Deng would say, “It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white as long as it catches the mice.”

By moving away from Mao’s ideological straitjacket and into the world of industrial growth, science, and international trade, Deng began the process that today has lifted more people out of poverty than any other nation in the world. He is also the one who ordered the People’s Liberation Army to crush the Chinese people in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

The World is China’s Stage

Today we are living through disruptive, transformational, unpredictable, technologically-driven global change where ideas and jobs can – and do – move around the world effortlessly. China and the United States are the major players on the world stage.

All major world issues going forward will intersect at the corner of Washington DC and Beijing. Our destinies are inextricably linked. We must find ways to live, work, and solve problems together or we will surely all fall together.

While forgotten by many, June 4th, 1989 tarnished China’s international image at the time, and the memory of Tiananmen pops up like a whack a mole to this day. Time heals all wounds as Tiananmen Square fades from historical memory. Since then, China has steadily grown and prospered. Sadly, Chinese born after June 4th 1989 may know little of what transpired that fateful day.

But as George Santayana, philosopher, essayist, and novelist reminds: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Neither China nor the world should ever have to repeat what happened that day.

With China’s newfound prosperity and standing in the world, perhaps one day students will learn the legacy of Tiananmen as they begin to learn about freedom and democracy.

The world, while challenging China on its trade practices and with lesser intensity and degree on its human rights record hopes for China’s continued success because perhaps the only fear greater than China’s continued rise, would be its demise.

Source: China’s History Plays Catch-up | Dome Magazine

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