Sunday, January 16, 2005

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How much has China changed in fifteen years?

Zhao Zhiyang, the former leader of the Chinese Communist Party until the Tiananmen Square crackdown, has died. Jasmine Yap has an obituary in Bloomberg; here's a link to the New York Times obit by Jim Yardley.

Combined, the obituaries make a telling point about China in the eighties -- and set up a test to see how much China has changed.

As Yardley points out:

At Mr. Deng's behest, he acted boldly, embracing economic reform by expanding self-management for peasant farmers and some industries. In 1987, after the ouster of Hu Yaobang, who was deemed too lenient toward student protests, Mr. Zhao became general secretary of the Communist Party, a job that made him Mr. Deng's presumptive heir.

Yap's obit points out the initial trigger for the Tiananmen protests:

Zhao, also a former prime minister, lived under house arrest after he opposed the military crackdown on pro-democracy activists and was removed from power by then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. He was last seen in public on May 19, 1989, begging student protesters to leave Tiananmen Square, a day before Chinese authorities declared martial law in the capital and shot dead hundreds of the demonstrators.

Students began filling the square in April 1989 to commemorate the death of former party Secretary General Hu Yaobang, whom they considered was sympathetic to demands for more democracy in China. By May, the square had turned into an encampment for students from across the nation, who called for democracy and an end to Communist Party corruption and defied government orders to leave.

If Hu's death triggered Tiananmen, one wonders whether Zhao's death will trigger any similar kind of political mobilization against the government.

To be honest, I'll be surprised if it does. This is for one of three reasons:

1) China's communist government has delivered robust economic growth in the 15 1/2 years since Tinanmen;

2) The Chinese government's tools of political coercion and suppression have become more sophisticated and aware since 1989 -- therefore, they are more likely to nip a poential Tiananmen in the bud;

3) China's citizenry has become more nationalist in the past fifteen years, and therefore do not have the same amount of political antipathy towards the government.


UPDATE: Looks like the Chinese government is attempting to try hypothesis no. 2 out, according to the New York Times' Joseph Kahn:

Chinese leaders imposed a ban today on news reports about the death of Zhao Ziyang, the former Communist Party chief who opposed the 1989 crackdown on democracy protesters, suggesting that his official obituary would treat him as a pariah.

The New China News Agency issued a terse dispatch announcing that Mr. Zhao, who was 85 years old, died early today. But the news agency identified Mr. Zhao simply as a "comrade," not as China's former top political leader, and the main evening news broadcast made no mention of his passing.

Editors said that propaganda officials had ordered television stations and newspapers not to report about Mr. Zhao, and popular Web sites were instructed to ban public discussion of the former leader.

posted by Dan on 01.16.05 at 10:14 PM


I agree with your comments on a macro level. But let me relate a personal view of how China changed over a similar period of time. I first visited China in Jan 1981. My last trip was in 1994. The changes on the ground were dramatic.

In 1981, over a fifteen day visit, I saw only two Chinese women wearing western style clothing, thousands of bicycles and almost no autos unless they were in the use of a ranking government official. In 1994, only officials were still wearing the so-called "Mao suits". BMWs, Mercedes and other non-domestic autos seemed to be everywhere. Most important, however, was the sense of opportunity that the average person believed was available to them.

I returned from that first trip convinced that China would be our main competiton in the future. I still believe that to be true.

The economic freedom made available to the citizens of China is not enough. In fact, in 1994 I told one of my Chinese colleagues that, given what I had seen on that visit, political freedom was inevitable. He wondered why I had reached that conclusion. My response was simple. For the first time in my experience, you could get a burger your way - McDonald's and other like restaurants (?) had moved in and were relatively available to the people. That kind of choice could only mean more would come.

posted by: Jack (CommonSenseDesk) on 01.16.05 at 10:14 PM [permalink]

Given that there's no free press or free speech, how could you possibly know that the Chinese are more nationalist, or fonder of their government, than they were 20 years ago? Weren't we told endlessly during the Soviet era, by the experts of that period, that the Soviet government had acquired legitimacy by its defeat of Nazi Germany, that the Russian people, while unhappy in certain respects, would support their government etc.? And didn't it turn out that the Russian people had no interest in their government or in preserving the Soviet Union, which collapsed with a whimper? For myself, I will never believe what Western journalists and other experts, half of whom don't even speak Chinese, tell me the Chinese people are thinking.

posted by: y81 on 01.16.05 at 10:14 PM [permalink]

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