»  National Review Online

January 11th, 2001

  China: The Tiananmen Papers


This week has seen the publication of the so-called "Tiananmen Papers." These are said to be transcripts of high-level discussions in the Chinese leadership in the period leading up to the suppression of the 1989 student movement.

It possible that these documents are some kind of bluff, put out by a united Chinese leadership to make themselves look weaker than they are, thereby lulling us into a false sense of security while they build up their strength, or by a hardline faction for some unfathomable purpose of their own, or by the Taiwan government, or even by some ingenious individual on the make ("Hitler diaries," anyone?) It is also possible that the papers are more or less genuine, but have been slightly doctored. They came to us as word-processor documents on computer disks, so they could easily have been subject to some editing in transit. All these possibilities need to be kept in mind. Traditional Chinese statecraft and military strategy places a high value on deception, on bluff and double-bluff.

The papers have, however, been scrutinized by at least three first-rank American sinologists, all of whom thought them genuine. We know, from other evidence, that conversations very much like these must have taken place in 1989. The statistical track record on this kind of leak is anyway very good: Viktor Kravchenko's revelations in the 1940s, Khrushchev's 1956 "secret speech" denouncing Stalin, his later memoirs, and the reminiscences of Mao Tse-tung's doctor were all regarded with some suspicion when they first appeared, but all are now known to be genuine.

Supposing, then, that the Tiananmen papers can be taken at face value, what guidance do they give the new administration in formulating its China policy? The short answer is: not much. The decisions to move against the students, and to force reformers out of the government, were imposed upon a split politburo by a cabal of senior leaders, veterans of the original communist struggle of the 1930s and 1940s. Those leaders have now passed from the scene, and China is today in the hands of somewhat more polished technocrats like the party chairman (and President of China) Jiang Zemin and his second-in-command, the repulsive Li Peng. It is these "younger" leaders — they are mainly in their seventies — who are setting policy in China today.

Though somewhat less brutish than the Mao generation, these are still Leninists, who have no patience at all with real democratic reform. Listen to Li Peng, speaking in the days leading up to the 1989 crackdown: "There are open calls for the government to step down, and appeals for nonsense like open investigation into … China's governance and power." They are also very thoroughly Chinese. The continuity of attitudes from one end of the twentieth century to the other is very striking. Some of these conversations might have come from the Imperial reactionaries of the "Hundred Days," an attempt at reform that was crushed by the Dowager Empress Ci Xi in 1898. The invariants of Chinese leadership psychology, now as then, are as follows: hot indignation at any suggestion that those in power had no mandate to rule, paranoid loathing of all opposition, fear of chaos, a rooted conviction that all China's misfortunes are caused by the manipulations of malevolent foreigners, and contempt for the common people.

"Leninist" is not quite right, either. Though a very evil man, Lenin was sincere in his belief that a society of justice and equality could be established by his methods. He was, that is to say, an ideologue. In the voices of China's present leaders, as reproduced in the Tiananmen Papers (at any rate, in the extracts I have so far seen), ideology is almost entirely absent. There is no talk here about "upholding the people's democratic dictatorship," "safeguarding China's socialist spiritual civilization," or any of the other gibberish the Party still feeds to the Chinese people as justifications for its continuing hold on power. The only doctrine visible among China's current leadership is the one explained to Alexander Dubcek by Leonid Brezhnev: "Don't talk to me about socialism. What we have, we hold."

The fact of the Tiananmen Papers having been leaked indicates that there is a moderate faction in the Chinese leadership, maneuvering for position preparatory to the scheduled retirement of the current batch of senior cadres in 2002. Is this not a hopeful sign?

Not necessarily. One of the lessons of the Tiananmen Papers is that in China, old leaders never quite relinquish their power. Deng Xiaoping remained a ruler "behind the curtain" until he sank into a coma in 1995, though he had no official position. The present hardliners, Jiang Zemin and Li Peng, are both due to step down in 2002, but they will still be deferred to by whoever takes their titles. The great white hope of the reformers, Prime Minister Zhu Rongji, is at best an older (he is 72) version of Gorbachev — that is, a man who believes that economic progress can continue indefinitely under the present political arrangements, given a little tweaking here and there. There is no evidence that he desires root and branch political reform, or that, if he did, he has the strength and the will to push it through against the massed resistance of those who have gained wealth and privilege through the current system.

There is also the question of how moderate the moderates are. The Tiananmen Papers show that Zhao Ziyang, who was General Secretary of the Party at the time, held some very liberal ideas about political reform. He seems to have believed, for example, in the separation of the Party from the government. Zhao, however, was brought down by the hardliners in 1989, and has been under house arrest ever since. He is now 81 — too old, even in China, to have much hope of a political future. His fate is probably seen by younger leaders as a warning: Start talking about political reform, and see what happens to you. From the point of view of a "moderate" Chinese leader, the dangers of pushing reform are very great; the rewards for not doing so very appealing.

Given that China's current leaders are in their seventies, can we not hope that a younger, more open generation is in the wings, impatient to take over and try their hand at reform? I doubt it. The Chinese Communist Party may have sunk into Brezhnevism, but they have done so in a much happier economic environment than Brezhnev's USSR. China's ruling class is fat from corruption, a bloated nomenklatura with a huge vested interest in the status quo, and a much greater willingness than the Soviets had to permit economic freedoms — so long as they are allowed to skim off the cream for themselves. Anyone with ideas about real political reform would face this entrenched ruling class, determined to defend its wealth and privileges, and well able to do so as long as the economic pot can be kept bubbling.

The 1989 uprising was a political crisis. The student marchers, and the millions of citizens who lined the streets to cheer them on, were sick of the Communist Party's lies, bullying and corruption. The communists have, in their own way, addressed some of these issues. They have overhauled the state religion, replacing the empty clichés of Marx- and Mao-think with a heady brew of fierce nationalism, historical grievance and racial victimology. The snooping and bullying has been much reduced, and citizens who do not attempt to organize themselves into large groups can say and do anything they please. Corruption continues to soar, but is now more decently veiled. Particularly outrageous offenders are sometimes arrested and shot, when they have no powerful political patron to protect them.

The political issue is therefore moot, but there are still two other kinds of crisis to which China is vulnerable. First there is economic crisis, when the steady year-on-year gains of the last two decades drop to zero or go negative. This will happen when the gross inefficiencies in China's economy cause it to fall behind the sleeker, less corrupt models of east Asia and the west. Second, there is the possibility of a nationality crisis arising from still unsettled questions about — to put it in Clintonian terms — what the meaning of "China" is. There are three flammable issues here, what I call "the three Ts": Taiwan, Tibet and Turkestan. One or other of these will cause great troubles for China's leaders — and probably for us — in the next decade or two.

In China, nothing much changes. A hundred years ago, Sun Yat-sen laid down the "Three People's Principles": nationalism, democracy, and the popular livelihood. These are still the three arenas in which China's future will be decided: the national, the political and the economic. In 1989 the Chinese Communist Party successfully rode out a political crisis. The two other dragons — the national question and health of the economy — are now stirring.