Two decades after the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, everything in China has changed, and yet nothing has changed. Visible to all, China’s large cities have undoubtedly undergone great transformations. Largely invisible, China’s dirt-poor countryside seems unchanged, even immutable—as does the nation’s pervasive political repression. It is still forbidden to mention the Tiananmen massacre in China. Officially, nothing happened in the square on June 4, 1989. Government discourse and children’s schoolbooks mention some vague disorder that took place that year, immediately followed by the Beijing police’s restoring order. The Communist Party denies that there were any casualties. Even today, their number is unknown: according to the Red Cross’s estimate, the Chinese military killed about 3,000 students. Most of the bodies have disappeared, snatched away and burned by soldiers to destroy the evidence.
An association of mothers of Tiananmen victims, led by Ding Zilin, a former Beijing University professor, has tried for 20 years to trace the victims’ names, with little success. The Communist Party ceaselessly harasses Zilin to halt her efforts. When she receives funding for her research from overseas Chinese nationals, the Party confiscates the money. She has repeatedly been indicted for corruption and jailed. She somehow managed to obtain the remains of her 17-year-old son. He had wandered into Tiananmen Square that fatal night, looking for some schoolmates, and was killed by the military. Today, Ding Zilin, because she is elderly, is allowed to remain free in Beijing, but the Party still prevents her from talking with other families who lost members in Tiananmen. So far, her association has been able to gather just 400 names. The list has been published in Hong Kong.
Can so much cruelty be traced to Chinese cultural traditions? Among cynical or ignorant European leaders and admirers of “enlightened Chinese despotism,” one often hears this explanation. The individual counts for little or nothing in Chinese culture, the argument goes. Only the larger community has legitimacy. If this were really the case, then Western human-rights organizations should be deemed enemies of the respectable civilization of an eternal China. Chinese Communists claim that the Party is heir to ancient cultural traditions. It’s a useful fiction: accepting it means that one would be an imperialist to disparage the Party’s upholding of these traditions. In reality, true Chinese tradition would dictate that corpses and remains be returned to the families in order to hold proper funerals. The dead will never rest in peace without such restitution.
The Tiananmen massacre and the police-imposed silence that followed it have nothing to do with ancient Chinese culture but everything to do with the Communist Party’s repressive ideology. It’s instructive to remember that the current leaders of the Communist Party—the president of the People’s Republic and the prime minister—both belonged to Deng Xiaoping’s ruling clique in 1989. Deng ordered the massacre, but his disciples remain in power. In China, little has changed after all.
“Our major mistake,” Wuher Caixi tells me from Taiwan, where he lives in political exile, “was to believe that we could talk with the Communist leaders.” In 1989, Wuher Caixi was elected by his fellow students as leader and spokesperson of the democratic demonstrations. But 20 years later, just as in 1989, it remains out of the question to hold discussions with the Party. A farmer in the Shaanxi province whom I met during my visit last summer tried to understand why his home had been confiscated by the Party-appointed village leader. “One does not discuss Party decisions” was all the explanation he got. The village leader gave the confiscated house to his in-laws. “Those people are not like us,” the farmer told me, speaking of Party members.
Travelling through East Asia, from one Communist country to another and between quite different civilizations, one confronts the same forms of tyranny, expressed with the same vocabulary, and harshly imposed with similar methods. North Korea’s civilization owes little to China’s, but its Communist Party exploits local people in the same manner as the Chinese Communists. In Pyongyang, as in Beijing or Shanghaï, I could see that the urban population—usually members of the Party or the military—has secured a fairly decent life. In both China and North Korea, such relative well-being is based on relentless economic exploitation of the rural population, which lives in slave-like conditions. A latter-day Karl Marx, if he could see the present condition of China and North Korea, would explain that the urban bourgeoisie has confiscated the benefits produced by the rural proletariat. And engaging Communist Party officials in a dialogue is no more an option in North Korea than it is in China.
Civilization and culture explain little about the character of the North Korean and Chinese regimes. One must look to ideology—or “organization”—for explanations, not tradition.
The “Organization,” or Angkar, was the name the Cambodian leader Pol Pot gave in the early 1970s to the local Communist Party. The Angkar systematically murdered one quarter of the Cambodian population from 1975 to 1979. Shall we look for some cultural explanation for this genocide? Did anything rooted in the ancient Khmer civilization—also very different from China’s—lead to these massacres? Nothing is to be found. One common thread connects the Cambodian killing fields, Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, North Korea’s concentration camps, the forced reeducation and eventual boat people in Vietnam, and the Tiananmen massacre: Communist ideology. Across these quite different cultures, Marxism—a European ideology imported to Asia by leaders like Zhou Enlai and Pol Pot—supplies the unity.
Asia’s twentieth-century drama has not been driven by poverty, overpopulation, colonization, or anti-modern traditions, but by Marxism. It was Marxist ideology that provided the foundation for the Angkar and the “scientific” alibis of Khmer Rouge leaders. In Phnom Penh these days, one can attend the trials of some of the former Communist leaders who massacred their own people. They show no remorse and argue that they tried to build a better society. “I had to implement the policy of the Communist party,” said Duch, one of the Khmer Rouge’s main executioners. If the North Korean, Chinese, or Vietnamese Communist leaders ever face trial, they will likely provide similar explanations.
In Beijing last summer, I asked economics professor Feng Lanrui, now 86, what the Chinese really wanted. When she was a young girl, Feng Lanrui was close to Mao Zedong and participated with him in the so-called Liberation of Beijing in 1949. After the Tiananmen massacre, she left the Party and became a human-rights dissident. The police do not harass her anymore, but only because, like Ding Zilin, she is an old woman. “Are the Chinese satisfied with the relatively enlightened despotism of the Party?” I asked. “We are like everybody else on earth,” she replied. “We want the same democracy you have. We know perfectly well what a democracy is. We do not want a repressive regime in the name of so-called ‘Chinese characteristics.’”
There is another Western illusion about the Marxist regimes in Asia: that economic growth may eventually, spontaneously, create open societies there. In the 1980s, Samuel Huntington proposed a theory in which significant economic progress would lead necessarily to democracy. He found inspiration for this view in Taiwan and South Korea. These nations, however, never fell prey to totalitarian Communist regimes. The truth is that totalitarian systems allow no room for evolution, no path to political reform. The Communist Party reigns or it collapses, as the Soviet experience clearly shows. When Mikhail Gorbachev tried to reform Soviet Communism in the eighties, Soviet Communism quickly disappeared.
Asian Communists have closely studied the Soviet demise in order to avoid what they see as the Gorbachevian error and suppress potential reformers in the Gorbachev mold. In May 1989, when Zhao Ziyang, then General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, tried to negotiate with protestors on Tiananmen Square, he was immediately fired by the Party’s real leader, Deng Xiaoping. Deng unleashed the army against the students, and Zhao Ziyang endured house arrest until the end of his life. Since then, no Gorbachev-like figure, or even one like Zhao Ziyang, has been in a position to reach the Party’s commanding heights.
Perhaps Chinese leaders have read Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous remarks on the impossibility of achieving political reform in an authoritarian regime. Trying to understand the French Revolution, Tocqueville wrote that the Ancien Régime had provoked its own demise by alleviating somewhat its authoritarian strictures. The yoke, Tocqueville suggested, to which the nation was accustomed when it was heavy, became unbearable as soon it was lessened. Contrary to what Westerners would like to believe, we can be certain that there is no intra-Party confrontation in China, North Korea, or Vietnam between reformers and hard-liners. The hard-liners’ ambition is to quell any attempt toward democratization: they also want to demonstrate to the world that liberal democracy is not inevitable. Asian Communists do not believe in the unity of mankind; they oppose the Western mind to the Eastern mind. They consider liberal democracy fit for Westerners. They promote “Communist democracy” or “Democracy with Chinese characteristics” as better suited to Asian civilization and superior to Western democracy. Regretfully, some in the West are ready to buy this propaganda. We should instead listen to Feng Lanrui, Ding Zilin, Hu Jia, or Liu Xiao Bo. They tell us: We are like you. We want to be free.
On a personal note, I shall always remember a visit I made to Liu Xiao Bo’s wife when she was under house arrest in Beijing. Once again, her husband had been arrested without any legal justification. She told me: “We, the Chinese human-rights activists, are like the Jews were in Nazi Germany. We can be arrested, jailed, killed at any moment at the Communist Party’s whim. Why the Western media, political leaders, and intellectuals do not support us more is a mystery to us. When we all disappear, you will ask yourself why you did not do more. But it will be too late then.”
Photo by Eric BOUVET/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images