China has come a long way since 1989. Its expanding economy is the envy of the world and the engine of growth in East Asia. Entry to the lucrative China market is sought by businesses competing ferociously worldwide. Internationally, Beijing has also been playing a larger and more constructive role, as in its mediation in the North Korea nuclear crisis and hosting six-way Pyongyang talks.
Each of these successes and attainments, however, must be qualified. Economic growth has been unevenly distributed, and corruption remains endemic. China’s new international profile has been accompanied by increased military expenditures and menacing muscle-flexing in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea.
Despite all its achievements, perhaps the largest question mark hanging over China’s success remains Tiananmen Square, where the Chinese People’s Liberation Army killed hundreds of unarmed pro-democracy protestors on June 4, 1989, and injured hundreds, perhaps thousands of others. The exact death and casualty toll is not known and may never be.
Beijing’s decision to crush the protest cost not only lives but international standing, business relations and lucrative contracts. For a while, Beijing was a pariah.
The government remains outwardly confident of its decision to crush the protest 15 years ago. “In 1989, the Chinese government adopted resolute measure[s] in a timely fashion to safeguard social security,” says Sun Weide, spokesman and press counselor for the Chinese embassy in Washington, DC. “The measures we have taken are absolutely correct. The most important thing is to ensure stability and development,” he told Asia Times Online.
Such talk of stability resonates with the international business community, for whom China’s huge market overwhelms all other considerations. In 2002, China became the largest recipient of foreign direct investment, and investment continued to rise in 2003. The European Union is considering a relaxation, or possibly a lifting of the arms embargo imposed after Tiananmen – in large part to assist the European high-technology sector to gain an edge in the Chinese market. American companies, both military and civilian, for years have pressed the United States government, which also imposed arms sales sanctions, to remove obstacles to increased investment and trade. Despite Tiananmen, what counts is the economy and how to profit from China’s prodigious growth.
While both the Chinese government and international business prefer to focus on stability and development, the issue of Tiananmen Square – literally heaven’s gate – and all that it represents in terms of political reform continues to haunt China.
This past March, Chinese army doctor Jiang Yanyong wrote a letter to several high government officials calling for a public acknowledgement of the errors of 1989. As reported in Asia Times Online, Jiang accused the government of killing innocent protestors and then covering up its crime with lies. Jiang aided and comforted the wounded and dying as a doctor on the night of June 4, 1989. He was horrified by what he saw. In 2003, similarly shocked by the Chinese government’s incompetent handling of the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic, he contacted Western news agencies and thereby pressured the Beijing authorities into acknowledging the severity of the crisis. His most recent Tiananmen letter expands his whistle-blowing role into potentially more dangerous territory.
“The letter has highlighted an issue the ruling party desperately wants to bury and forget,” says Minxin Pei of the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, DC. “But June 4 has been etched into China’s collective memory. Had Dr Jiang not raised it this year, someone else would have. And I expect that ‘the reversal of verdict’ on Tiananmen is not whether, but when and how.”
Sun Weide of the Chinese embassy disagrees. “History has proven that the political conclusion over the 1989 political disturbance is the correct one. A small number of people are spreading rumors so as to disrupt the Chinese government efforts to develop the country and its economy.”
When top Chinese Internet blogs posted Jiang Yanyong’s letter, the Chinese government temporarily shut them down. Back up after a week, one of the largest, Blogbus, asked its users “not to post any news about current events, sensitive content or political comments”.
This has not prevented other groups from raising the issue of Tiananmen. In May, 67 prominent Chinese intellectuals from both within and outside China issued an open letter demanding “that those responsible … openly ask for forgiveness of the people in written and oral statements, and bow their heads three times to the dead”.
While discussion of Tiananmen continues within certain quarters in China, it remains an officially taboo subject. The letter writers, according to Agence France Presse, decry this lack of discussion: “We don’t believe that forced silence and memory relapse will bring about reconciliation or democracy in public life.”
“The fading of historical memory is a natural thing,” says Orville Schell, a China expert and the dean of the graduate school of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. “What is unnatural is the willful, amnesiac effort of Marxist-Leninist parties in trying to expunge unpleasant historical events and facts from memory. In the best of times, it’s difficult for a people to stay in touch with the unpleasant aspects of their history. But with a government actively encouraging people to forget, it’s even harder.”
It is difficult to assess whether human rights in China have improved since 1989. Most China-watchers agree that there have been improvements on the ground, at a micro-level, in how the average individual lives. At the macro-level, however, the Chinese government has resisted liberalization. It has also continued to imprison its most outspoken critics, including 60 cyber-dissidents according to Reporters without Borders, a France-based non-governmental organization that monitors free speech and press freedoms worldwide.
“In areas such as personal liberties – freedom of movement, access to information, and economic opportunities the improvement has been significant,” says Minxin Pei of the Carnegie Endowment. But, he adds, “Chinese citizens’ political rights – defined in terms of their ability to contest the ruling party’s decisions through free speech and association – have not improved. Ironically, China today is at the same time more free socially but politically more repressed – not vis-a-vis 1989, but vis-a-vis the mid-1980s, the golden age of China’s reform.”
Orville Schell agrees. “What’s changing is the way people live and interact. What remains the same is the old structures that were laid down in the 1950s – the state security, the People’s Liberation Army, the control of the [Chinese Communist] Party over crucial aspects of political life.”
In 2003, the administration of US President George W Bush decided not to introduce a resolution at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights criticizing China’s record. The administration argued that it had entered a human rights dialogue with China, and Beijing had promised to take certain steps. In March 2004, claiming “backsliding” on the part of the Chinese, the Bush administration resumed its tradition of condemning China’s human rights record at the UN. The resolution, like all of its predecessors, was voted down.
“The United States has always felt that human rights are an area where we have serious differences with the Chinese,” said a State Department official, speaking on condition he not be identified further. Human rights, the official continued, “are not swept under the rug. They are a part of the relationship. On the other hand, this doesn’t prevent us from pursuing our own interests. There are threats that we and the Chinese both see – North Korea comes to mind – though we don’t necessarily agree about everything.”
Some critics have argued that the US has not pushed China hard enough on human rights; others complain that the current administration has focused too much on human rights to the exclusion of other issues such as the trade deficit or joint anti-terrorism work.
“I don’t think that we can expect US government actions to do much in terms of changing the human rights situation in China,” argues Andrew J Nathan, professor of political science at Columbia University. “There aren’t a lot of strategies that work.” He believes that providing a list of names of political prisoners to the government and pushing for their release has had some effect, as have motions at the UN Commission on Human Rights. Perhaps more significant in the long run, however, are the less visible, more patient efforts of non-governmental organizations in such fields as women’s rights, judicial reform and environmental protection.
It’s the economy, comrade
The Chinese government tends to discuss human rights through an economic filter. According to the government’s latest white paper on human rights, 2003 was “a year of great, landmark significance for progress in human rights in the country”. When asked about the most significant events in 2003, Sun Weide, Chinese embassy spokesman in Washington, stressed that “the living standards of the Chinese people have continuously improved and per capita GDP in 2003 surpassed $1,000 for the first time in Chinese history”. The same white paper acknowledged that “there is still much room for improvement of the human rights conditions”. Sun argued that a major challenge for China is to feed one-quarter of the world’s population on only 7 percent of the world’s arable land. “One of the improvements most needed is to raise the living standards of the Chinese people,” he said.
The Chinese government’s economic approach to human rights derives in part from its Marxist world view. But it also connects to the origins of the Tiananmen Square protests. One of the major reasons for growing public dissatisfaction with the government in the late 1980s was rising inflation and a slowdown in economic reform. China’s economic turnaround in the 1990s, meanwhile, appeared to assuage this underlying unease. Argues Nathan, “The constant growth of the economy and the bringing under control of inflation and corruption have contributed to the population accepting this regime and considering it better than the risk of an unknown change.”
Nathan identifies several other reasons why another mass protest has not broken out in China, such as safety-valve institutions that enable people to seek redress within the system and international successes, such as winning the bid for the 2008 Olympics. Force, too, has been a compelling factor. “The fact that the regime was willing to crack down and shoot people and firmly repress anyone who challenges it,” Nathan points out, “contributes to people accepting the regime.”
Orville Schell, of the University of California at Berkeley, brings up another factor: nationalism. “Historically China has a deep sensitivity toward appearing in any sense inadequate, less than modern, less than a great power, less than civilized. And so the yearning to want to believe in one’s country and its greatness mitigates powerfully against the admission of weakness and failure. It plays directly into popular sentiment.”
This is not a uniquely Chinese problem, Schell notes. “The United States is running into this phenomenon a little bit itself,” he says. “Pride, patriotism and nationalism make it very difficult for many Americans to acknowledge the folly of the situation in Iraq.”
Asia Times Online, June 3, 2004