Where Is China Headed?

By Kaplan, Morton A. | The World and I, October 1998 | Go to article overview

Where Is China Headed?


Kaplan, Morton A., The World and I


The October Special Report in Current Issues is entitled "The Challenge of China." Until June 1989, there was good reason to believe that China would move, if only slowly, in a democratic direction, even though Deng Xiaoping was no more willing to remove the Communist Party from power than was Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union. The previously banned philosophy of Master K'ung Fu-tzu (Confucius), with its emphasis on civility and order, was given prominence over Marxist amorality. Deng had brought about substantial farm reform and a move toward a market economy with the slogan that the color of the cat was indifferent. Only results counted. Two of the most important officials in the CCP under Deng, Hu Yaobang and his successor as general secretary, Zhao Ziyang, privately indicated that they desired to see China move in a democratic direction.

Then the Tiananmen Square demonstration occurred. If it had contained itself, it is possible that it might have speeded up elements of democratization. However, like almost all such movements, it was captured by radicals, heady with success, who pushed it into a denunciation of Deng. That criticism was used--likely was much exaggerated--by the staunchly conservative and Soviet-trained Li Peng to win Deng's support for the use of armed force. Although Zhao opposed this show of force, Li prevailed. Many were killed, Zhao was removed from office, and liberalization was at least temporarily reversed.

Enter the next element in the puzzle: the failed Soviet coup of 1991 and the fall of the Soviet Empire. If the Russian economy had done even as well as the Polish, let alone the Czech or Hungarian, perhaps liberalization would have been slowly introduced. The Russians made a mess of the economy, however. Word now spread from Beijing that the "correct" model was that of South Korea and Singapore: an authoritarian regime that used control of society to create rapid economic growth. It is significant that although conservative proponents of Marxism still had some power in the regime, the top core of leadership in private conversations with political reporters from Hong Kong disavowed belief in a Marxism that functioned only to justify their holding of power.

Just prior to President Clinton's recent trip, Zhao sent a letter to the leadership requesting that it apologize for its use of force against the students. That letter was released to the Western press, apparently without repercussions for Zhao, indicating considerable intraparty support for the position. And then President Ziang Zemin staged his surprising televised debate with Clinton, in which Clinton criticized the use of force during the Tiananmen uprising. It is perhaps not insignificant that Ziang gave a purely pragmatic public defense of the use of force: that China's present stability resulted from it. He in no way attacked the students as revolutionaries or counterrevolutionaries and even muted his criticism of the Dalai Lama.

We are dealing with an authoritarian, not a communist, regime in China. Moreover, this regime seems committed to market reform and is not committed against eventual democratization. On the other hand, it is not prepared to give up power in the foreseeable future. …

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