Epilogue, from Children of the Dragon: The Story of Tiananmen Square

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 victims.

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.

Discussion Questions

  1. Is it important for us to understand the historical experiences that have made a certain political evolution possible or impossible and which today give rise to political stability or instability?
  2. Does such an understanding of and sympathy for historical developments mean, on the other hand, that we cannot make judgments about the political systems that have resulted? Or are there certain values — such as personal liberty and the right of free speech — that we hold to be absolute and can thus hold as a standard in deciding what constitutes the best system of government?