Wednesday, November 4, 2009

20 Years Ago 3: Tiananmen

Supposedly, two journalists from Brooklyn once agreed that they would write down the names of the three worst villains of the 20th century, and then compare the lists. As the story goes, they had both written: Hitler, Stalin and O'Malley. (Walter O'Malley, who then owned the Dodgers, had moved that baseball team from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, in 1958.)

Whatever one may think of O'Malley, it is becoming increasingly clear that Mao Zedong, who ruled China as Communist Party chief from 1949 until his death in 1976, was a worse villain than either Hitler or Stalin. During the period of Mao's erratic rule, tens of millions died, either killed in the fight to subdue China and Tibet, or starved to death in the famines that resulted from the regime's lunatic economic policies.

Two years after Mao's death, China's new leaders began to reverse those economic restrictions. That started the economic boom that still continues today.

Mao repressed political rights as completely as he denied his people economic rights. Therefore, in the post-Mao era, the obvious question arose: would his successors liberalize Chinese politics, as they liberalized its economy?

For the most part, the answer has been "no".

None of China's leaders were particularly enthusiastic democrats, but Hu Yaobang, who headed the Communist Party from 1981 to 1987, pushed the envelope a bit in that direction. Hu's death, on April 15, 1989, provoked protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

At first, the regime was somewhat tolerant of the protests. A fascinated world watched, with giddy speculation as to whether there would be political liberalization, civil war, or ...

Deng Xiaoping, who ran China at that time, even though he did not hold any particularly high title, eventually decided that the unrest needed to be put down by military means. Perhaps he had been reading Machiavelli:

A Prince should therefore disregard the reproach of being thought cruel where it enables him to keep his subjects united and obedient. For he who quells disorder by a very few signal examples will in the end be more merciful than he who from too great leniency permits things to take their course and so to result in rapine and bloodshed; for these hurt the whole State, whereas the severities of the Prince injure individuals only.

Leaders of several other Marxist-Leninist regimes proved to be less Machiavellian than Deng, and their rule came to an end, soon thereafter.

Speculation that factions of the Chinese military might rebel against orders to shoot civilian protesters proved utterly unfounded. On June 4, an unknown number of people, possibly numbering in the thousands, were killed in a brutal crackdown on the protests.

Political dissent in China was utterly silenced. During the intervening 20 years, there has been nothing remotely approaching the scope of the 1989 protests.

China's current leaders have made a tacit deal with their people, trading off an ever-increasing standard of living for the abandonment of democratic hopes. The world recession of 2007-9 could have left the government unable to hold up its part of the bargain. But China's economy has proved remarkably resilient, so that scenario will apparently not play out.

I think it's unlikely that the Chinese government will be able to forever keep the lid on, but they've been successful so far.

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