Tighter security around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square combined with a months-long crackdown against dissidents marked the new Chinese leadership’s resolve to perpetuate a quarter century of forced amnesia to prevent public commemoration of the crushing of the pro-democracy movement.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) administration has made it a practice of locking up intellectuals and NGO activists in the run-up to the anniversary of the June 4, 1989, massacre. However, police action in the run-up to the 25th anniversary has been markedly more draconian compared to the 20th anniversary in 2009. The CCP security and propaganda apparatus is always keen to scrub clean reminders of events which detract from the carefully nurtured image of the party as “always correct, shining and great.” But the political amnesia Chinese president Xi Jinping promotes covers more than the violence of June 4.
As heirs to the conservative faction behind the crackdown, China’s current leaders seek to efface any memory of the liberal side of Deng Xiaoping’s legacy. Deng was also the leader who backed beloved political reformists and former general secretaries Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang.
As Xi Jinping seeks to inherit Deng’s mantle while rolling back the limits Deng placed on his office, he overlooks the more progressive path the patriarch could have taken. What he has vowed to enrich and develop is only one part of the Deng legacy—pursuing the globalisation of the Chinese economy while using tough tactics against dissent.
In fact, Xi Jinping has also gone about adulterating and reversing aspects of Deng’s institutional and political reforms that were celebrated both by liberal cadres and the intellectuals who converged on Tiananmen Square after the death of Hu Yaobang in April 1989. Tiananmen Square is thus a useful prism through which to examine the trajectory of political reform since the advent of the Era of Reform and the Open Door. After the gunshots in the square, the party’s liberal faction was obliterated—and political liberalisation has been frozen until today. Under Xi Jinping, it has begun to move backward.
While Deng was best known for economic liberalisation measures, the Great Architect of Reform also initiated impressive institutional changes to prevent the return of Chairman Mao’s “one-voice chamber”.
In an article entitled “On the reform of the leadership system of the party and state” in the People’s Daily in August 1980, he forcefully argued that to avoid a return of the Cultural Revolution, China must substitute “rule of personality” with rule of law and rule of institutions. “If systems (of governance) are sound, they can place restraints on the actions of bad people; if they are unsound, they may hamper the efforts of good people or indeed, in certain cases, may push them in the wrong direction,” he wrote.
Deng was a strong votary of collective leadership and separation of party and government. He wanted the CCP to focus on long-range goals and planning, while leaving day-to-day governance to professional administrators in the State Council and regional governments. While Deng was a beneficiary of actions taken by a gaggle of senior PLA generals to remove the Gang of Four radicals upon the death of Chairman Mao in 1976, he discouraged military involvement in either politics or foreign affairs.
Almost from Day 1, Xi Jinping started a power grab that is as stunning as it is inimical to Deng’s ideals about putting institutions ahead of individuals. In dealing with the CPC’s internal affairs, his actions run counter to two of Deng’s axioms—avoiding factionalism and giving more clout to regional administrations.
Xi Jinping and his aides at the top levels of the government have been pushing a society-wide anti-corruption campaign, particularly targeting some high-ranking rivals, and in recent weeks have been unusually aggressive with neighbours Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines, unusually harsh in their anti-US rhetoric, and unusually repressive of dissident voices inside China.
They have moved to re-shape the internal workings of the government to concentrate more power in personal authority at the top and less in written rules or in government bureaucracies. They have floated the idea of a new Chinese “strongman,” clearly intending to suggest that Xi Jinping might be one.
Son of Xi Zhongxun, a confederate of Mao, Xi Jinping is a “princeling” of the bluest blood. Initially, human right activists were hopeful that after taking over as China’s president, he would loosen government repression because his father was jailed during the Cultural Revolution. However, he belied such hopes. Once in power Xi Jinping and his associates showed that when it came to free speech, China’s new bosses could be worse than those of the earlier era.
He found himself at the top in China at a time the country was facing many crises: vaulting inequality and corruption, both of which were made increasingly visible to a restive public because of a spreading Internet; a slowing economy made more worrisome by the looming threat of bad loans and a real estate bubble; environmental pollution serious enough to threaten not only health but political stability; and a deep cynicism and lack of public trust within the populace. Understandably, but unimaginatively, Xi Jinping has chosen repression over reforms, turning back to the ideal formulas of communist leaders during the Mao era.
Tiananmen Square has now become a contest of narratives. There is absolutely no space in Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream” to accommodate the rival Tiananmen narrative that emphasises the possibility of China adopting global norms such as rule of law and institutional checks and balances. The top priority that he has given to “mega national security”—and repeated moves taken to stake out China’s sovereignty claims in the South and East China Seas—seem to testify that the Tiananmen legacy of propping up the party-state via repression and nationalism will continue for the foreseeable future.
There’s no doubt the state’s armoury of repression, its censorship of social media and its techniques for demobilising opposition are among the most sophisticated. But, a growing corps of commentators see serious political turbulence ahead as China’s economy heads into a dramatic slowdown, alongside multi-layered risks of a property crash and shadow banking meltdown. That leaves only repression and nationalism in the party’s post-Tiananmen toolkit.
The writer is a former professor of sociology, IIT-Kanpur.