Every discussion involving China’s human rights abuses and authoritarian conduct essentially comes down to the difference in governance - Democracy vs Communism. While none offers true freedom of expression and liberty, obviously these two forms of governance are not located on the same side of the scale. This difference was most prominently exposed during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests that shook China and for a moment exposed the Chinese way of leadership and thinking to the common people all over the world. The initially peaceful protests were in regards to the death of pro-reform leader Hu Yaobang, who was ousted from the party in 1987. The protests later turned towards a demand for more democratic government and less corruption. While we won't go into the details of the events of Tiananmen massacre, let's try to find out what we learn can from this incident, the history leading up to the protest and how it influenced the Chinese leadership for the future.
Background and significance of the Tiananmen Square protests
Protesters around the 'Goddes of Democracy' (Source: Theindependent)
It's difficult to not look through the lens of Democracy and look at the massacre objectively when most of the world powers today are Democracies. But let's give it a try. Was it really surprising, after all, that the Chinese would come down hard on the protesters? Had everybody forgotten about the China’s great leap forward which while moving the country ahead had killed millions? Tiananmen square massacre, by no measure, is the biggest massacre in the history of Communist China. What elevated it to the global level was that unlike the great leap forward many people died in a short span and the international media was at the perfect place to report it to the masses. Initially, the media was there to cover the historic occasion of Soviet Union Leader Mikhail Gorbachev visiting China in a bid to improve relations between the two Communist giants. Instead, they got a vastly more historically significant news to cover.
The forgotten killings (Source: Skibbereeneagle)
Before this, almost all leaderships over the world knew about China’s leadership. But the Tiananmen massacre brought the truth out in front of the common people. Most of the world reacted with shock and was appalled at the brutality of the People's Liberation Army. The West was treated to almost two months of coverage about the protests. It brought down the public favourability of China from over 60 pc to under 30 pc in America. There is no doubt that this could have been dealt in a better way. In fact, the only official report of this incident mentions that the Tiananmen protest taught the people and the party an important lesson. China lost its face both in front of its own people and in the world and it had an immense influence in shaping China's politics for the years to come.
China: The Middle Kingdom
The Chinese Communist Party will turn 100 years old in 2021 (Source: Spiegel)
Control, public perception, and sustenance are essential to China. However faulty Democracy maybe, it is always expected to outrun authoritarian regimes in the longer run. You may express outrage against Donald Trump’s tweets every day but you won’t find many that say he is going to bring an end to American Democracy. If we take this into consideration, we begin to realise why China is so bent on controlling its people, the narrative and the history. Majority of the world powers today are Democracies and Chinese leadership fears that the same may happen to China if protests like Tiananmen are allowed to happen again. And it's not just about the elite losing its power. The Chinese are not so foolish or shallow-minded. China perceives Democracy as weak. It always points out to how Democratic institutions many times leave the people divided and act only for the good of the elite (smaller countries may prove an exception to this). It also remembers the damage done by Western democracies to Chinese economy and culture and fosters the hate to this date. Point one finger at China and it points out that the rest are facing the other way showing us the deplorable history of today’s world powers. This does not mean that one can justify the brutal oppression that any opposition to China’s leadership is dealt with. But it serves to explain a reason behind this Asian giant operating the way it is.
Back to where it belongs (Source: Wildchina)
China prides itself on its history, it's culture. It sees itself as the Middle Kingdom that lost its influence and place in the world to the colonising European powers. And now, it will stop at nothing in trying to attain that place again. But this time, after what history has shown China and also countries like India, it will be more careful, skeptical of others and assertive than ever. Notice how it cries about the US trying to contain it but marches ahead in trying to contain India using its economic and military might. In the future, it sees itself replacing US as the leading superpower and India emerging as the leading challenger to its aspirations. You can relate all this to how China is planning ahead of time. Its increased involvement with Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan, in short all those who border India, and spreading its wings in the Indian Ocean, indicate how it perceives the future and that it won’t allow India to challenge its strategic dominance in Asia.
The present and the future
Newsweek's coverage of the Tiananmen protest massacre (Source: Newsweek)
For the Western powers, you just have to compare 1989 and today. Almost every major Western country condemned the killings. Many froze diplomatic relations, blocked trade, pushed for economic sanctions and made sure that China felt the pressure from the international community. Today, no country is ready to openly challenge China or its assertions. In fact, they can’t afford to do so. They stand to lose much of their trade and influence by antagonising China. For the US, China is the top trading partner with a trade deficit of $347 billion. EU has a trade deficit of €180 billion. And we are not even counting the political leverage China has with crucial relationships with unstable states like Pakistan, North Korea and to an extent Russia. Just look at how Trump flipped back on his word and praised Xi Jinping after the latter’s US visit. Many had predicted that the incident of Tiananmen Square will eventually pave the way for Democracy in China. Instead, the Chinese administration is as strong as ever. No country has ever seen the kind of development that China has achieved, also known as "The Chinese Miracle”. China knows that its people have given up freedom for prosperity. It knows public sentiment and opinion is important. It has learned from the past and while ruling authoritatively, gives enough back to the people to be able to continue ruling in peace. To use something as an example here, China lifted about 900 million people in last 20 years alone and has rapidly empowered its middle class.
Can we really stick to the core Democratic principles? (Source: Quotefancy)
So this paints a rather fascinating picture for all of looking from the outside. We have been given the lessons of Democracy since our birth. We have been taught how authoritative regimes fall over time and face revolt, while conveniently masking the fact that no surviving Democratic nation truly holds most of the Democratic values at heart. It's still power at the hands of the few. Public perception is still managed by propaganda and media manipulation. Elections are turned into a battlefield where the most proficient liar wins (there are exceptions, of course). So where do these two seemingly conflicting ways of governance stand? Is one superior to the other? Or is it just that these two can’t be compared and work in their own sphere? Of course, nobody can predict the future based on this. The optimists in us all may say we will make true Democracy work but the same is success equally as likely in the case of countries like China. Whatever the truth maybe, but incidents like the Tiananmen massacre give us an insight into a Communist system's functioning, leadership and the country of China as a whole.
Title image: Tibetanreview