Tiananmen +20: Tank Man will be a National Hero One day


The Tiananmen Square Massacre was 20 years ago this week. It hardly needs repeating but this is one of the great moments in the long battle for human freedom against tyranny. One can only hope that the Tank Man below wasn’t (as probably happened) tortured or beaten to death.

Tank Man

What can we learn from the survival of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) ?

1. I think just about everyone is surprised the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and PRC are still around. Given how rapidly other communist tyrannies were collapsing, just about everybody thought China should be next to go. Why it didn’t happen:

a. Learning: The CCP watched the USSR and decided not risk the same opening. This is theoretically important, because it suggests how directed human action can up-end foggy notions of the ‘zeitgeist.’ Everybody thought the times were against the CCP,  it was ripe to fall, the historical pressures were enormous, the democratic dominoes were falling. And that was all correct. But the party still held out anyway. This is a salutary warning against seeing history as Hegelian History, with large tectonic philosophical shifts pushing states and leaders this way or that. The contrast here is striking. The CCP set its face against the wind, held tough, and now is considered a model for a new, globalization-savvy autocracy.

b. Culture: For all the sound and fury of communism since Mao, the real ‘ideology’ of the Chinese masses is traditional confucian agrarian conservatism. And it is not democratic. It deeply stresses social harmony and one-ness (recall the 2008 Olympics), unlike democracy and pluralism, which admit and try to manage conflict. It is the subculture of Asian, social harmony-demanding confucianism that is the real block on democratization out here. It is arguably the single biggest problem for democracy in Korea. In the North, the Kim monarchy regularly manipulates deeply rooted Korean symbols, where the Southern democracy has struggled with a foreign philosophical implant lacking local historical and cultural resonance. This argument holds for most of the confucian Asian space, including China. In 1989, the CCP monopolized political discourse, positioning itself as a defender, not of the shallow communist artifice just a few decades old, but long traditionalist confucian Chinese culture. By contrast, the students were promoting alien foreign concepts in a country where xenophobia has been a regime ideology for centuries.

A great irony of communist systems is how traditionalist-nationalist rather than communist they actually are. Without the communist ideology, most of them might have been considered semi-fascist, like the clerical fascism of Latin America. NK is arguably as much a fascist as stalinist state, with its hereditary kingship, focus on blood and soil (Korean uniqueness and unification), its plumbing of Korean history (rather than Marxist ideology) to justify the party’s rule. In China, communism is highly xenophobic, with foreign powers playing a critical, regime-justifying role (Japan, the US, the USSR). And nationalism has exploded since the ‘patriotic education campaign’ began in 1991. In the USSR, when Stalin was in real trouble in WWII, he mobilized Russian nationalism for the ‘Great Patriotic War.’ In Vietnam, the communists were as nationalist as they were socialist. In other words, communist ideology frequently overlays the real values rooted in the society – generally traditionalist and nationalist. These values at the bottom cannot be rooted out quickly, and indeed frequently popular nationalism replaced elitist abstract communism as the real ideology of communist regimes.

This is important in China, because the Confucian peasant subculture was as much a block on the turn toward democracy as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Eastern Europeans knew what democracy and the West was. They had had some exposure in the centuries before 1989, and they knew they wanted to rejoin European modernity. They wanted Starbucks and McDonald’s as much as democracy. In China, that was not the case. The student elites certainly wanted democracy and liberalization, but there was little popular sympathy and interest across the wide agrarian peasantry. Who knew want democracy or liberalism meant in the thousands of villages which most Chinese peasants have never left? This is why the CCP brought in rural PLA units to crush the protestors.

In the short, most of the Chinese population had and are living a traditional Confucian peasant lifestyle, the rhythms of which only change slowly. The CCP might try wild, extreme social experimentation on this hapless population, but unless such pressure is directed for long, long years, it was bound to fail. For all the awfulness of the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution, the basic cultural tropes – confucian, agrarian, traditional – changed little. Such radical shifts in attitudes take far longer, no matter how murderous the Marxist regime; Cambodia survived even the Khmer Rouge. This was and is the subculture, the real culture, below the artifices of ideology. And this subculture provided no democratic resources to the students – no myths, no past experiments, no heroes, etc. Instead, the popular culture favored/had accepted for centuries a confucian, traditionalist-nationalist blend of closed rule. And that is pretty much what the CCP is today.

2. The late 80s was a heady time of ‘democracy domino effect.’ This is ironic, insofar as the domino effect of the Cold War was to be a communist one. The idea of a democratic domino effect has not been researched much, although democratic expansion around the globe does seem to come in waves.

3. The endurance and success of the CCP continues to fire the argument that democracy and development are trade-offs. So long as Indian growth lags behind China’s, the ‘late developer’ argument that developing states cannot afford democracy will live on: democracy, with all its transaction costs, logrolling, side payments, distracting social and partisan conflicts, etc., is too expensive when growth is the real priority. Basically this is Berthold Brecht’s argument that bread is more important than freedom. I used to reject the idea that democracy is an opportunity cost of development, because it feels so illiberal. But of course, if it accurately reflects development patterns, i.e., if it is empirically accurate, then my moral discomfort is irrelevant. My suspicion is growing that the CCP and others like Lee Kwan Yoo or Park Chun-hee who make the same argument are (sadly) correct.

I am quite surprised (and disappointed) at how stable China seems to be. Like most Liberals, I like to hope that all good things go together. So for years after Tiananmen, I agreed with all those liberal progressive prognosticators (T Friedman, B Clinton, the Economist), that eventually China would open up, that all this market exposure would spur liberalization and then democracy. That just does not seem to be the case, at least in the medium term. How sad…

4. Prediction: For all the pessimism of this post, I will guess that China will still encounter a democratic transition in the long-term (before 2050). I still think democracies’ have major economic advantages over autocracies (more transparency, better rule of law, free journalism that will point out failure, less corruption). If the implicit deal between the CCP and the Chinese is high growth in exchange for political quiescence, then if growth slows, the CCP is in trouble. And autocracy’s economic inefficiencies do place a ceiling on growth. Like Indonesia and SK, I still suspect the Chinese economy will hit a plateau beyond which it cannot rise without political reform. And I do metaphysically agree with George W Bush that people want to be free, make their own choices, and have a say in their government. One day, the Tank Man will be a national hero.

5 thoughts on “Tiananmen +20: Tank Man will be a National Hero One day

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