By Andrew J. Nathan
Tragedy, Aristotle said, involves acts "which occur unexpectedly,
and at the same time in consequence of one another." Forty years
ago, the Chinese leaders set out to create a popular government that
could mobilize all the country's resources for industrialization. They
built a system that tied the peasants to the land, kept consumption to
a minimum, fixed each person permanently in place in a work unit dominated
by a single party secretary against whom there was no appeal, classified
each individual as a member of a good or bad class, and called on each
citizen to show that he or she was progressive by demonstrating enthusiasm
for disciplining himself and persecuting others. Mao's people complied
out of patriotism, a sense of unworthiness, faith in a despot's wisdom,
and because they preferred to be among the victimizers than among the
But one by one, people began to ask questions when they were denounced
and jailed, or forced to go to the countryside to "learn from the
peasants," only to find the villages dirty and destitute, or when
they realized that Lin Biao, Mao's chosen successor, was a traitor.
The Chinese stopped believing that their poverty and suffering were
redeemed by a greater purpose. Citizens demanded reparation of injuries
and injustices done over the course of thirty years; millions applied
for redress. A new generation wanted possessions, pleasure, and freedom.
They would not "petition on their knees."
A dictator rules by recruiting his people to oppress one another. Mao's
successors could no longer win people's cooperation by promising a future
utopia. They had to produce or get out of the way. As people's lives
improved, they got angrier. They had more to eat and wear but less than
they felt they deserved; more living space but too little for comfort.
Prices went up faster than wages. A few entrepreneurs and party officials
lived in comfort, seemingly with unfair gains. A thin prosperity mocked
years of sacrifice.
Reform made life better for most Chinese, but it also weakened the instruments
of control. It dissolved the system of class labels that set citizen
against citizen, restored educated people to authority, removed the rationale
for political campaigns, and weakened the powers of the unit by giving
people alternatives. People could move around the country, talk, think,
and even write more freely.
The loosening of repression allowed people to reflect on what they had
done, what they had seen others do, and what they had tolerated being
done. Life during the past thirty years was a theme that dominated fiction,
poetry, memoirs, biographies, histories, and philosophical works. Writing
and talking opened up a wellspring of anger, and the Party — insisting
on its continued right to a monopoly of power, clinging to its exculpatory
version of the past — became its exclusive target.
Other ruling Communist parties have found their way out of the same
impasse by redefining the people who want a voice in their country's
future as partners rather than enemies. The CCP may not find this solution,
but it will not find another. Most likely, as has happened in Eastern
Europe, infirmity in the regime, competition among the leaders, or the
determination people see in each other's eyes will signal the crucial
moment for a transition to start. But the transition may not be as easy
as it has been in Eastern Europe, because the Chinese regime has never
depended on an outside army to maintain its hold on power. It has a strong
grip and every incentive not to let go.
A liberalizing China will be torn by the same conflicts that have divided
it throughout the century: the distribution of wealth between city and
rural residents and among different classes, the balance of individual
rights with social interests, the roles of government and private enterprise
in the economy, the relative authority of the central and provincial
governments, and the proper place of the military and the ruling party
in a plural society.
How can these issues be resolved within a system of democracy that is
workable for China? The same problem faced the reformers who persuaded
the emperor at the end of the last century that a democratic system would
make the dynasty more stable and prosperous. What such a democracy should
be remains unresolved for the Chinese. They must find their own way to
square discipline with freedom, social duty with individualism, national
goals with personal ones, passion with tolerance, social peace with open
conflict, decision with debate.
A Chinese form of democracy will differ from the ideals portrayed in
manifestos and also from the Western models that some Chinese want to
emulate. Its prominent features are likely to include a single dominant
party descended from the Communists, a fractionated opposition, a turbulent
parliament, noisy elections, local political machines, competition for
resources among provinces and regions, angry rhetoric, and frequent strikes
and demonstrations. This may not be the politics anyone in China wants,
but it may result from each Chinese pushing in his or her own way away
from the politics China has now. Power that is shared in this way will
be diminished, but it may also be more able to gain compliance. Political
decisions will become harder to achieve but may be more widely supported.
Conflicts will become nosier but easier to identify and deal with. Political
leaders will be less secure, but the political system will be more able
to adapt and survive.
Mencius said, "If men suddenly see a child about to fall into a
well, they will without exception experience a feeling of alarm and distress." China's
disasters engage us as human beings because they remind us of how little
control we have over our own fates. They involve us as political beings
because a China that consumes itself in fruitless struggle deprives us
of a partner we need to help solve problems of international security,
environmental preservation, and world prosperity. Tiananmen filled us
with fear and pity. The making of China's future, however hard and uncertain,
will arouse our concern and our hope.
— From Children of the Dragon: The Story of Tiananmen Square (New
York: Collier Books, 1990). Reprinted with permission.