Has it really been 20 years?

tiananmen-square-20-years It’s been twenty years since Tiananmen Square, or 6/4 as it’s known in China.  And what a difference twenty years makes.  China had gone from a poor, backward, newly developing nation, to one that has a relatively affluent coastal region, on its way to conquer lands afar.  The co-existence of shockingly rapid economic development with its stagnated political growth has many puzzled, angered, and awed.

Some reports have linked subsequent economic developments to the so-called bargain made between the Communist Party and the Chinese people, post 6/4.  The idea was that the government gave people economic freedoms on the one hand, and took away political freedoms on the other.  This is only true to a certain degree.  I had read no reports that made any connection between decades of political movements and its ensuring psychological damage, to the Party’s decision to crackdown.  The link between the two is by no means insignificant.

In 1989, the country had been opened up for foreign investments for just under 10 years, and development projects were already under way in various southern autonomous cities.  In fact, political struggles, particularly in northern regions close to Beijing, had worn a whole generation out.  Traditionally, the Chinese flee from politically contentious areas to improve their livelihood, and many beckoned the call when the south opened up. The young and ambitious , tired of the stagnant economy and forced-marched politicking, sought their fortunes down under.

It’s hard to stress enough the level of paranoia and siege the Chinese population was still suffering through in the late 80s.  It had been but a dozen years since the end of the Cultural Revolution, and its slew of psychotic predecessors – the Great Leap Forward, the Hundred Flowers Movement, the Mao cult, right wing purge, the revisionist purge, the destruction of old values purge.  Economic progress halted, all so Mao could continue to tighten his grip on the country amidst frantic power grabs at the top.

As a result, a generation of urban students was separated from their families, and got sent down to the countryside to haul manure. Mao’s cult turned doe-eyed youth into brainwashed vandals that destroyed homes, burnt books, libraries, cultural enclaves, and paraded political leaders, scientists, or anyone suspected of possessing anti-Socialist materials, clothing, and of course, ideas and thoughts, on the street.  Through physical torture and psychological manipulation, fueled by passions of youth, petty grudges of past and present: children turned on parents, neighbours and lifelong friends turned on each other.

All of which had one reinforcing end result: it made people suspicious and more  closed-off, and it turned the Chinese off of politics for good (politics havs always been a sensitive subject for most).  People whispered behind closed doors, withheld political opinions and dissent of any sort from their friends and family. Children were told not to talk to strangers. Certain things and words that might have political connotations were never spoken of.  Such was the extent of the Chinese aversion to politics even prior to Tiananmen.

But 20 years ago, when students from Beida took to the street, the world had yet witnessed sustained political stability from a policy that decoupled economic development from political evolution. Most foreign correspondents imagined witnessing the downfall of Communist China. But the reality was that, although the scale of the protests must have seemed impressive to a bystander at the time, it was something spearheaded by a group of inexperienced students with little political capital, and no first-hand experience of the iron fist.

Deng was not about to allow uncertainty stemming from rapid political changes interfere with foreign investments, and more importantly, something that most Chinese were not aware of at the time – the speed and impact of southern economic experiments that would eventually lift coastal China out of drabness.  He must’ve weighed ordinary Chinese’ antipathy towards any kind of political instability and their material aspirations against reforms that a relatively vocal minority demanded, and decided to bank on the support and indifference of the former.

He was right.  Nowadays, although censored, most Chinese born before the 80s are aware of the travesty of Tiananmen.  But slotting it in context with all the suffering that generations past had sustained through decades of wars and political movements, most older Chinese wave it by with both a sense of regret and a a relative air of nonchalance. They really had seen worse, and worse still, the sufferings were endured with little international sympathy nor media attention to the extent of June 4th.  And had radical changes taken place, many Chinese wonder, would China have re-lived through the 60s and 70s all over again, or slid into the Russian anarchy post-Gorbachev?

Back then, the region in Guangzhou was the most business-oriented, and politically indifferent (not to be confused with unaware) region in the country. To businessmen of the region, politics is there to either there as a tool to further business, or to impede it.  And if joining the Communist Party, pay up bribes, and engage in morally and ethically ambiguous activities get you results faster and cheaper, there has never been any scruples against it.  Today, most of China, particularly those outside the vicinity of Beijing, feel the same way.  Communism is no longer viewed as an ideology, but as an institutionalized bureaucracy mandated to sustain economic growth while providing political security.

The question going forward is of course, whether the Party can still deliver on this bargain, and whether, at some point in the future, the Chinese will deem this political straitjacket too steep a price to pay for their economic freedoms.

picture source: jaytablante

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