Volume 2 Number 8
01 August 1989

What an irony that the Chinese People's Republic, established only 40 years ago with considerable popular support, now faces such a popular uprising!

Like most people in the West, I watched in disbelief, shock and indignation as China's `People's Liberation Army' used machine guns and tanks to kill thousands of unarmed demonstrators in Peking's Tiananmen Square. I felt a strong sense of personal loss and sadness, because I talked face to face with many of these courageous and dedicated youth last May in Peking. Their faces remain fresh in my mind. What an irony that the Chinese People's Republic, established only 40 years ago with considerable popular support, now faces such a popular uprising!

Even before the massacre on June 4, the Communist regime was losing the support of the people. The reasons are not difficult to find. Instead of being the people's government, as advertised, the Communist leadership has degenerated into a 'new class' which has perpetuated itself and ruled without the consent of the people. Corruption is rife and systemic, and the ruling group runs the country for the benefit of only a handful in the Communist establishment. The overwhelming majority of the people feel betrayed and are alienated.

China's college students still placed their hopes in the Party leadership in mid-April, when they launched their protest in the wake of the death of Hu Yaobang (the former Party General Secretary ousted by Deng Xiaoping and the hardliners in January 1987). The students appealed to the Communist leaders to carry out the promised anti-corruption programme and democratic reforms. Their peaceful demonstrations were not intended to destroy the system but to democratize it.

The students called their protests a 'patriotic democratic movement', but Deng Xiaoping, Li Peng and the other hardliners did not see anything patriotic in them at all. As far as they were concerned, the students were trouble-makers intending to stir up political and social turmoil, and must be stopped at all costs.

Hunger strike
The Communist leadership served its notice on April 26 in an editorial in the People's Daily and other major newspapers, which called on the Party and people to stop the `conspiracy' and `turmoil' which it claimed were aimed at `negating the leadership of the Party and the socialist system'. The students and citizens were so enraged that more than 200,000 of them marched to the Party headquarters and to Tiananmen Square the following day.

The protest could have ended peacefully, had the authorities been somewhat more conciliatory and promised some reforms, and met with the students to hear their grievances. Instead the Communist rulers were arrogant, rigid and insensitive and were unwilling or unable to communicate with the students. Infuriated by the repeated government refusals to hold a direct dialogue, the students began a hunger strike on May 13.

In a few days the number of fasting students had grown to 3,000. On May 17, more than 1,000 of them collapsed and were hospitalized and almost 1.5 million citizens of Peking joined the protesters. Meanwhile the demonstrations spread to almost every provincial capital.

The massive demonstration coincided with Mikhail Gorbachev's visit to Peking on May 15 - 18 and embarrassed the Communist leaders in the eyes of the world. At first they temporized. Then, soon after Gorbachev left China, they declared martial law in Peking, but were unable to enforce it. Tens of thousands of citizens blocked the path of the military vehicles and troops entering Peking.

The impasse was exacerbated by the deep division in the leadership ranks. Zhao Ziyang, then General Secretary of the Party, publicly affirmed the students' anti-corruption and pro-democracy demands, called for a dialogue with them and strongly opposed the decision to impose martial law. Zhao was supported by quite a few Party officials and military officers.

After a test of strength, the hardliners prevailed. Zhao was labelled a renegade and ac cused of splitting the party and aiding the students' counter-revolutionary rebellion. On May 19 he was stripped of all power and June 25 formally ousted from his leadership positions. Deng came under severe criticism from other senior leaders for having promoted Zhao in recent years and made a mess of things. In order to shore up his already weakened position, Deng felt compelled to act tough. He ordered the troops to crush the demonstrators.

Purge of proteges
Deng used to tell foreign visitors that if the sky were to fall, his proteges Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang could hold it up. In purging his own anointed successors one after the other, he has derailed his plan for an orderly transfer of power. He has also called his own political judgment into question. The upheaval has ruined Deng's reputation and curtailed his political influence. All the open door and reform programmes he has championed are in deep trouble, if only because a whole generation of intellectuals have declared war on him and the regime.

Moreover, no government can govern for long with coercion alone if it has already lost credibility and legitimacy in the eyes of the people. Will the Peking regime ever regain the trust and confidence of the Chinese people? That formidable challenge faces the new Party General Secretary Jiang Zhemin, who is apparently a compromise choice among various leadership factions.

Dr Parris Chang is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for East Asian Studies at Penn State University, USA. He is author of numerous publications on Chinese affairs.

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