From the archive
In chaos divided
AFTER the butchery in Beijing, chaos now threatens all of China. As protest spread to city after city this week, there was only one glimmer of hope. The murderous brutality of the troops who took Tiananmen Square from student protesters on June 4th has provoked not only the incoherent rage of the Chinese people, but also a more organised resistance by those parts of the army and the Communist party that had opposed martial law and are now sickened at the slaughter. The elderly Mr Deng Xiaoping, the man behind the violence, may be dead or dying. The tanks massed in and around Tiananmen Square may be there not just to frighten off protesters, but to defend the claim to power of Mr Deng's ally-in-blood, President Yang Shangkun, against more liberal challengers. Even if Mr Deng survives the turmoil he has willed on China, his desperate gamble on brute force to shore up his discredited rule may yet turn out to be his last.
China's is not the ﬁrst communist party to declare war on its own people. Nor, in sheer numbers of victims, is this the grimmest of the tragedies that have disﬁgured the party's 40-year rule. In the ten years from the mid-1960s the thuggery of the cultural revolution claimed many thousands of lives; victims of the famines brought on by Mao's other stupidities were numbered in millions. in the past China's Communist leaders have hardly been squeamish either about the consequences of their policies or about the use of force to restore order. Yet there are differences this time, big ones. During the cultural revolution the army was brought in to shore up party authority, but also to defend the people from the violence of the Red Guards. This time Mr Deng in his desperation has ordered the so-called People’s Liberation Army to turn their weapons on the people, using the troops at his command to mow down unarmed and often unresisting civilians.
Not only is the army, or the parts of it loyal to Mr Deng and Mr Yang, being asked to do a different job. It is doing it in a different China. Today's protesters are not like the weary cannon-fodder of the struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, who had known little but brutal occupation, civil war and economic hardship. Many of those who died in Beijing this week were the best educated and the brightest of the young people on whom a modern China must depend for its future.
They have been dying as, courtesy of television, the world watched. But the world has watched freedom being extinguished by communists before. It was watching Poland in 1981, when Solidarity was suppressed by martial law, in an inevitable showdown after more than ten years of festering crisis. What has stunned people inside and outside China is that this week’s violence is happening in a country that for ten years under Mr Deng’s leadership has been working hard, and for the most part happily, to make itself a richer, more stable place, more open to the outside world, more inclined to judge itself by world standards—and be judged by them.
Even if they win this round, and their troops are able to keep them in power for a time, Mr Deng and Mr Yang will have solved none of the problems that have cast China into chaos. The use of troops to settle what started not just as a row over how to handle student protesters, but really as an argument over the whole future of reform has come close to destroying the two institutions—the Communist party and the army—that between them have kept China whole. The only reason that either party or army still has a shred of respectability left is that each contains senior ﬁgures who are appalled at the violence Mr Deng is doing to China. They want to end it. Although three weeks have passed since Mr Deng and his henchmen elbowed aside the moderate party boss, Mr Zhao Ziyang, to declare martial law in parts of Beijing, they have been unable to muster the Central Committee majority needed to replace him. Mr Qiao Shi has now emerged as the likely choice for party boss among the shoot-firsters. But since the shooting started Mr Deng may have alienated some of his own would-be supporters.
Count the cost not just in lives
Beyond the individual careers, possibly even the lives, of party leaders that are now on the line is the fate of China's economic reforms. Although troops and tanks can hold the centre of China's cities, its factories and farms cannot be run at rifle point. Unless China can quickly pull itself out of the chaos that has engulfed it and turn back to reform, the fruits of ten years’ hard labour by millions of ordinary Chinese hoping for a better life will be lost. It is a measure both of the vicious struggle that is going on within the party, and of the bankruptcy of Mr Deng’s rule, that he is prepared to hazard all that he has seen China do for itself in order to keep his own grip on power.
The price he is prepared to pay is catastrophically high. So far governments around the world have mostly settled for blunt condemnations of the brutality, cancelling official visits, suspending trade talks and refusing to sell the small amounts of arms that China buys abroad. Diplomatic channels have been kept open in the hope that they can be used to exert moral pressure on Mr Deng to bring the killing to an end. That moral pressure must be relentless. But it may have little effect. Mr Deng chose violence, despite the damage he knew it would do. The real sanctions are the ones Mr Deng's wilfulness has already brought directly upon himself.
He has destroyed the conﬁdence which, however fragile, had managed to keep the people of Hongkong resigned to their fate as the date approaches in 1997 when Britain will yield up the colony to China. Unless that conﬁdence can somehow be repaired, what is eventually handed over may be an economic basket-case, not the thriving entrepot China is counting on. Similarly, the large sums of money invested in China by foreign banks and businesses over the past ten years have mostly represented the triumph of hope over reason. The hope was that, as China got the reforming habit, the return in the longer run would justify the money spent. Much of the growth in China’s booming seaboard provinces has come from foreign money, foreign know-how and foreign trade. But foreign companies in China were putting up their shutters this week. They fear not only for their safety, but also for future business.
If the struggle at the top cannot be settled quickly or can be settled only on Mr Deng's terms, then China will continue to tear itself apart. And even if Mr Zhao or his supporters do eventually win back power, and reverse the verdict on the protesters as “counter-revolutionaries”, that will not by itself restore foreign conﬁdence in a benign China, not the people’s conﬁdence in the party.
Faced with a choice between more reform and a small loosening of the party's grip on power, Mr Deng chose to strangle reform. He could do so because China's Communist party is still at the mercy of its leaders’ whims and fat beyond the people’s power to control. It may be premature to hope that the remarkable acts of bravery shown by Beijing's citizens this week will soon be translated into genuine democracy. But China’s people will not stop trying.