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An Alternative History of China

The memoirs of Zhao Ziyang provide insight into what China would be like today if the 1989 democracy movement had prevailed.

STR/AFP/Getty ImagesLast democratic words: Zhao Ziyang speaks through a megaphone to striking students in Tiananmen Square in 1989 just weeks before the government used force to put down the protests.

We must establish that [the] final goal of political reform is the realization of this advanced political system. If we don't move towards this goal, it will be impossible to resolve the abnormal conditions in China's market economy.

One of the most sincere advocates for an advanced political system in China -- a system that included an independent judiciary, freedom of the press, and the right of citizens to organize (in a word, democracy) -- was not a disenchanted dissident or an armchair academic. Writing at the most unlikely of times, the man was Zhao Ziyang, secretary general of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Zhao was toppled in 1989 after trying to peacefully negotiate with student demonstrators -- like myself -- in Tiananmen Square. His fall paved the way for hard-liners, under the leadership of CCP official Deng Xiaoping, to crush the demonstrations with soldiers and tanks on the morning of June 4, 1989. In one bold, violent stroke, the one-party regime, teetering on the verge of collapse, found reprieve.Zhao's vision of a more moderate democratic future, one meticulously documented in his recently released memoirs, vanished from the scene, its author put under house arrest.

STR/AFP/Getty ImagesLast democratic words: Zhao Ziyang speaks through a megaphone to striking students in Tiananmen Square in 1989 just weeks before the government used force to put down the protests.

We must establish that [the] final goal of political reform is the realization of this advanced political system. If we don’t move towards this goal, it will be impossible to resolve the abnormal conditions in China’s market economy.

One of the most sincere advocates for an advanced political system in China — a system that included an independent judiciary, freedom of the press, and the right of citizens to organize (in a word, democracy) — was not a disenchanted dissident or an armchair academic. Writing at the most unlikely of times, the man was Zhao Ziyang, secretary general of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Zhao was toppled in 1989 after trying to peacefully negotiate with student demonstrators — like myself — in Tiananmen Square. His fall paved the way for hard-liners, under the leadership of CCP official Deng Xiaoping, to crush the demonstrations with soldiers and tanks on the morning of June 4, 1989. In one bold, violent stroke, the one-party regime, teetering on the verge of collapse, found reprieve.Zhao’s vision of a more moderate democratic future, one meticulously documented in his recently released memoirs, vanished from the scene, its author put under house arrest.

There could hardly be a better time for Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang to be published, as the memoirs will be in both English and Chinese this week. Early June marks the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square — a memory that will certainly remind China of the democratic ideals left behind in tragedy. Reading Zhao’s account, I — and no doubt other readers — cannot help but imagine what China would be like today if Zhao had prevailed in June 1989. What if the dissenters who stood firmly before the government in Tiananmen Square had gained Zhao has a powerful ally to their cause? Would China have devolved into political chaos? Or would it be a robust democracy, steeped in cultural freedoms, social justice, and economic vibrancy? In seeking to answer that question about the past, we can learn much about the present: a China that in terms of its political system and tendency toward authoritarianism has evolved little since 1989, and yet has become both the United States’ second-largest trading partner and its most significant competitor.

Looking back at the crucial moment in 1989, it is first important to keep in mind how easily things might have turned in a different direction. China’s movement toward democracy in 1989 was not as far-fetched as it might seem today. In fact, support for the democratic movement was so great that it caused an unprecedented split within the CCP leadership. A quarter or even a third of the officials in Beijing joined the protesters. Most of the rest were sympathetic toward the students. The degree of dissatisfaction within the party was very high, and many agreed with the protesters that the CCP had lost any pretense of being a people’s party and had become a self-serving elite.

That disillusionment came from a series of market-oriented reforms begun a decade earlier, in 1978. Although the changes produced rapid economic growth, they also led to contradictions: opening the economy negated the moral authority of the Communist revolution and unleashed unbridled corruption in its place. The 1989 democracy movement had two slogans. One was Freedom and democracy, and the other was No official business dealings, no corruption. After Tiananmen Square protesters were quashed and their government sympathizers, like Zhao, sidelined, corruption blossomed just as much as China’s GDP (the fastest-growing among developed states over the last 25 years) has.

It didn’t have to be this way. If the democracy movement had succeeded, the CCP would likely still be the ruling party. But its policies and goals would have evolved more democratically under Zhao’s leadership. In the last chapter of his memoirs, the former general-secretary of CCP praises the Western system of parliamentary democracy and says it is the only way for China to address corruption and inequality.He would no doubt have led the country down this path.

Zhao’s reforms, one might imagine, would have proceeded at a purposeful but amenable pace, beginning with an opening of partial freedoms of assembly and demonstration. Student organizations would have become lawful, eventuallyprecipitating a lift on the ban on political parties. The press would likewise feel a weight lifted, and the country’s National People’s Congress would have become more than a rubber-stamp assembly. Public participation would have followed, with public debate emerging on difficult questions from ethnic relations, to foreign affairs, to government corruption, to HIV/AIDS and the environment. In other words, China would have embarked on a peaceful transition to democracy. A democratic China — one that followed Zhao’s model — would have prospered economically, too.

Instead, today China feels the consequences of rejecting this path of reform. The same corruption that motivated the opposition 20 years ago is today an open sore on the face of Chinese society. Eighty percent of China’s wealth is thought to be controlled by the top 10 percent of party officials.And it’s visible. Corruption distorts every aspect of Chinese society, from the shoddy workmanship of the elementary schools that collapsed during last year’s earthquake (while the homes of party officials stood firm) to the summary displacement of more than 300,000 Beijing citizens in the name of beautification to prepare for the 2008 Olympics. No wonder, then, that corruption is still the largest source of alienation between the CCP and the population.Endemic corruption is the grievance cited in an estimated 100,000 major protests each year in China.

To the outside world, Chinese society has prospered. But internally, it has atrophied morally and socially. China maintains its competitive edge through a base exploitation of its workers, who labor without rights or avenues of recourse. Even the most advanced free market economies find it hard to compete. The Chinese government becomes rich, but ordinary people do not. The average Chinese citizen contributes less to the country’s GDP today than he or she did in 1988.

One of the most famous slogans for China’s reforms has been to cross the river by feeling stones. Surely, Deng Xiaoping meant to infer a gradual notion of change. Instead, the metaphor today mockingly describes a society at odds with itself, lacking direction to support its ever-looming one party structure. The contradiction will not easily go away — and will likely flare again, just as it did two decades ago. Zhao Ziyang foresaw this perpetual confrontation years ago, arguing that unless the Chinese government moved toward real democratic reform it will be impossible to resolve the abnormal conditions in China’s market economy.

They were prophetic words, indeed. Today, even as China’s leadership has moved further from Zhao’s vision, the Tiananmen ideals never left the political dialogue. More than at any time in the last two decades, people might just be willing to protest to bring those ideals back again. Until then, we are left to confront the equally predictive words of the Soviet-era dissident, Andrei Sakharov: The world community cannot rely on a government that does not rely on its own people.

Jianli Yang is founder and president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China.

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