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China After Tiananmen Square

The Jewish Humanist, August 1989

The massacre in Beijing will long remain in our memory. The shooting of thousands of unarmed and innocent civilians by a brutal army shattered our hopes for democracy in China. What initially seemed impossible happened.

The context of the killings only added to the despair. In other parts of the Communist world democracy was advancing. The new Supreme Soviet was meeting with free and open debate. The Communist Party had been defeated in Poland in a free election. The Hungarians were talking about a multi-party system. Until this repression it seemed as though the entire Communist world was moving inevitably to more and more freedom and democracy.

Visions of a world of universal detent and disarmament, induced by the Chinese reforms and the Gorbachev initiative, were clouded by the massacre. The fear arose that Communist conservatives would be emboldened by this success and would offer stronger resistance to reformers in other parts of the Marxist world. Holdout tyrannies, like East Germany and Czechoslovakia, might look at China and find support for their stand. Reluctant reformers in the Soviet Union would see the possibility of changing sides and winning. Rabid anti-Communists in the West would use the repression to revive their paranoia. The mood of optimism might be turned off by new, doubts and apprehensions.

How justified is this new pessimism?

There is no doubt about it. The conservatives, the octogenarians and their henchmen who have been opposed to the speed and sweep of the economic reformers, who have spent their lives in the midst of an authoritarian and Stalinist party structure, who are determined to maintain the supremacy of the Party at any cost – these men have won a victory. They have persuaded the commanders of the Army to serve their vested interests and to impose their minority will upon the people.

The forces of democracy are in danger and on the run. Deng Hsiao Ping, the senior leader who had sought to remove the octogenarians and the conservative bureaucrats from positions of power, has reaffirmed his Stalinist past by joining them. A new sinister Triumvirate of President Yang Shangkun, Prime Minister Li Peng and Securities Chief Qiao Shi have assumed power. And they may be perfectly willing to endure international rejection in order to maintain it.

The picture looks grim. Is there any hope to be extracted from the present situation?

I think there is.

This conservative regime no longer enjoys the support of the people. The deep hatred and anger that the shootings engendered will not quickly pass away. The sense of outrage has deprived the regime of the legitimacy that came so easily in the days of Mao. The “mandate of heaven” is gone. The people appear to be deeply alienated from the army and the “star” personalities of the regime. Sullen obedience is no key to the long-run future of any government. Without some form of active public cooperation no army and no police can ultimately prevail.

The massive demonstrations of students and workers for democratic reform indicate that the Chinese people are quite different from what they were ten years ago. The new freedom in the economic sphere has inevitably stimulated the demand for more freedom in the political sphere. The expectation level of both the educated elite and the urban masses has dramatically risen. What was once regarded as liberation from tyranny has now turned into tyranny. Lowering those expectations will not be easy.

The old Stalinist and behavioral assumption that people can be conditioned to endure any oppression has been -proven false by recent events in the Communist world. In both Eastern Europe and in China public resistance has revealed that human nature is not quite so malleable as social engineers would wish. As Erich Fromm has maintained, there is a limit to how much control people will endure. In the end the weakness of totalitarian regimes is that they bump up against the resentment of the unfulfilled masses. Democracy may indeed be an unstable form of government. But so is dictatorship.

It is quite clear that economic and political reform go together. Deng Hsiao Ping gave the Chinese some economic freedom without conceding any significant political liberties. He mocked Gorbachev, because Gorbachev attempted to use democracy and an open society to stimulate economic restructuring. But Deng’s contention that one can happen without the other is false. Market freedom spawns its own restless energy. The free exchange of goods leads eventually to the demand for the free exchange of ideas. And economic self-reliance strengthens the need for political self-reliance. Russia’s problem is that its economic gains will have no future without democratic reforms.

Progress is never a continuing set of forward steps. There are always many relapses. Quite often the onset of liberation is preceded by a last desperate attempt by diehard reactionaries to hold on to their power. The step-back ward is necessary to mobilize the people for the leap forward. The new repression in China will only serve to undermine what remaining credibility still adheres to the Communist Party. It may ultimately persuade even the reluctant to rebel. There is a hope yet that, sometime soon, the tanks in Tiananmen Square will be replaced by a new statue       of the Goddess of Democracy.

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Note on sources: The Jewish Humanist  was the monthly newsletter of The Birmingham Temple. The periodical Humanistic Judaism was the quarterly journal of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. The Center for New Thinking was Wine’s adult learning program beyond Humanistic Judaism. Selections from Wine’s books are appropriately cited.
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