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Date Posted: 10:34 04/06/2004

Circling the Square

Running Dog considers the anniversary.

DURING THE first anniversary of the September 11 attack in 2002, Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency published a story from the gloomy industrial city of Urumqi in the predominantly Muslim province of Xinjiang. The sun rose this morning, the report said, and everything was peaceful in the city's central square. In other words, and in the typically oblique manner of the state media, there were no terrorist activities in Xinjiang.

The 6-4 anniversary has not even been subject to such transparent disavowals, however. An article this week tells us that the ritualistic raising of the flag on Tian'anmen three times a month will be changed to just a single ceremony on the first of every month, partly to 'help the authorities maintain order' and prevent traffic build-ups. But even the most hysterical hacks would find it difficult to draw any direct and interesting connections between this policy change and the raising of the Goddess of Democracy on the same square fifteen years ago.

Meanwhile, sufficient time has passed to be able to consider revoking the arms ban imposed on China by the EU. The Chinese press is happy to report about Blair's support for an end to the 15-year Europe-wide arms sales ban. Curiously, however, it cannot bring itself to mention why the ban was imposed in the first place.

Since 1990, the government has routinely consigned known dissidents to the countryside during the anniversary week. This year, it seems that Dr. Jiang Yanyong, who issued a public letter to the leadership two months ago calling for a 'reversal of verdicts' on Tian'anmen, has gone missing. Jasper Becker suggests he has been exiled to Xinjiang.

The great conflicts going on in China these days are actually miles away from the Square, which has become far too symbolic. It is, after all, the very face of the Party, within a stone's throw of the main government buildings and regarded as utterly essential to the maintenance of the status quo. Foreign supporters of the banned religious cult, the Falungong, continue to accumulate on the hallowed flagstones of the regime, but they are unceremoniously collected up in a truck and deported. Locals know that at least half of the visitors hanging around on the Square are secret policemen. The other half are probably journalists.

Some suggest that the real battle is going on in cyberspace but it is probably inaccurate to assume that China's fate will be determined by a Manichean struggle between the government and a community of dissidents.

The real battle involves the way reform has gathered up thousands in the warmth of prosperity but left millions more by the wayside. Like all governments, the Chinese Communist Party is relying on what Galbraith called 'the constituency of contentment', and hoping that fear - fear of retribution, fear that the alternative will be much worse - will keep the rest in line.

THE REASON why 1989 remains so resonant is the manner in which a month of hope - commonly described as the Beijing Spring - was crushed so comprehensively. Six months before the great thaw throughout eastern Europe, and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the whole world was watching a great flourish of creative freedom and dissent, and it was shattered.

But there are those who wonder whether the country was 'ready' for democracy in 1989. Indeed, some question whether democracy was even the aspiration, and suggest that the protestors were primarily motivated by the high rates of inflation and the removal of price controls in the cities. They were certainly a mixed bag, consisting of the politically disenchanted and the economically frustrated, the idealists and the rabble-rousers, but that, of course, can be said about any mass movement. To paraphrase Nietzsche, 'two members of the same party always have entirely different motives for joining it'.

Wang Dan, in an article published in the Scotsman this week, asks whether it was all worth it. He wonders if the protests might have provoked the hardliners into purging reformers like Zhao Ziyang, and set the cause of liberalization and democratization back by about a decade. He concludes that the system was and is beyond reform.

Jasper Becker, meanwhile, imagines a world in which the protestors had won, envisaging a splendid federal superdemocracy in which the Dalai Lama is back in Tibet, and the rogue province of Taiwan has become part of some benign confederacy, thus spearheading the downfall of North Korea and the democratization of Vietnam and Burma. But Becker, an eye-witness to the events of 1989, then wonders how close China was to civil war during that brief two months of protest.

That, of course, was the problem, and the central contradiction in Chinese society. While the new generation of protestors were thinking in terms of political reform and human rights, the old guard of Party veterans were thinking of civil war, and Cultural Revolutionary style mayhem. While the youth wanted to turn on the taps, the veterans sought to curb the flood.

Curiously, beyond Zhongnanhai and beyond China, there are a number of high-profile apologists for the events of June 1989, including that stupefying old crook, Henry Kissinger, and the former British Prime Minister Ted Heath. The implication is that the crackdown was for their own good, that if the authoritarian state had collapsed, there would have been chaos. Chaos, after all, had predominated in one form or another for more than a century in China.

AFTER THE publication in 2001 of the Tiananmen Papers - purportedly a collection of documents smuggled out to the United States, but believed by some to be faked - we imagine that we know a little more about the motives of the leadership in those crucial moments. The documents indicate that the decision was far from inevitable, and that the divisions in the leadership were one of the reasons why the protests were allowed to build up such momentum. In a review of the Tiananmen Papers in the London Review of Books, Jasper Becker went so far as to claim that the protests were essentially stage-managed by the reforming wing of the leadership in an effort to cajole the old timers into accepting more wide-ranging changes.

Jasper Becker also suggests that the Yang brothers - in control of the army at the time - were the prime movers behind the decision to send in the army, and that Deng was essentially pushed aside in a 'coup' that also displaced Zhao Ziyang, Wen Jiabao and a host of regional reformists. This is contradicted by the information supplied in China's New Rulers by Andrew Nathan and Bruce Gilley, which suggests that the Yangs stood to benefit the most from Deng's attempts, in the early 1990s, to galvanize reform by removing Jiang and Li Peng and rehabilitating Zhao Ziyang. The Yangs lost out when the joint efforts of Jiang and Li Peng linked them to a corruption scandal and persuaded Deng that they were planning to reverse the verdicts to discredit Deng himself.

Meanwhile, a biography of Deng published almost a decade ago stressed that Deng was the prime mover in the decision to send the tanks in, closely allied by the likes of Chen Yun, Peng Zhen and ably supported by Li Peng and Luo Gan.

The alternative histories are of Byzantine complexity. One begins to suspect that the various official documents that have been leaked over the years are partly an attempt by various concerned parties to ensure that their legacy is protected when the inevitable re-evaluation of 1989 comes.

Wang Dan remains convinced that the system is institutionally rotten and incapable of change. That may be so, but the divide between conservatives and progressives was, and is genuine, and had spread throughout the entire country. According to the Tiananmen Papers, the protests in 1989 spread to 27 provinces and 57 towns, all with the tacit approval of local government. After the massacre, many provincial leaders were sacked because of their support for the protestors, according to Nathan and Gilley.

One is led to believe that by now, stripped of their Maoist core after the death of the old man in 1976, the leadership is far more opportunist than it is principled. As it stands, there are many powerful figures who stand to lose from a re-evaluation of Tiananmen. There are others who may not be quite so worried.

Any reassessment is likely to have to wait for the passing of Jiang Zemin, who would stand to lose the most from any 'reversal of verdicts'. As the greatest beneficiary of the purge, his reputation is intricately linked with the actions in 1989. 'Comrade Jiang does indeed seem to be a proper choice,' said Deng Xiaoping in a discussion with semi-retired Party elders. They all agreed.

Current security chief Luo Gan is also implicated after serving as the key aide of Li Peng, widely believed to be another crucial figure behind the massacre. In fact, in the negotiations leading up to the handover of power at the Sixteenth Party Congress in 2002, Li was insistent that Luo stayed in charge of security in order to help prevent any 'reconsideration of the Tiananmen events', according to Nathan and Gilley. Luo is said to have been instrumental in the post-Tian'anmen crackdown, collecting footage from Chinese embassies abroad in order to gather information on the dissidents involved.

But there is some ambiguity among other key figures. Even Zeng Qinghong, Jiang's right-hand man throughout the 1990s, is apparently not averse to discussing a reversal of verdicts on Tian'anmen. Most intriguingly, Wen Jiabao famously accompanied Zhao Ziyang to visit the students just before the tanks were sent in.

When the turn does come, it is not likely to be as disastrous as it might previously have been for the leadership involved. While Liu Shaoqi was left to die during the Cultural Revolution, purges have been kinder since then. Hua Guofeng was forced into retirement with all Party privileges still intact. Zhao Ziyang was isolated politically, but has lived a life of relative comfort.

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