Amenability snaps in Tiananmen Square

Dick Wilson

One of the things that used to surprise Westerners about China was the willingness of individuals to suffer the inhumane treatment meted out by their superiors. For years on end they would patiently submit to frightful indignities, so that one despaired of their ever rebelling. But when it did all boil over, the deferential bowers and scrapers would whip themselves into a frenzy of extreme violence.

And so it is with Chinese society as a whole. Indeed, as Father Ladany, the veteran Jesuit China-watcher in Hong Kong, has observed, China seems to lurch from one extreme to another roughly every ten years. We have just had ten years of the most liberal and economically successful phase of Chinese Communist rule, under the reforms of Deng Xiaoping. It seems now that we are in for a new period of suppression of political and intellectual freedom.

The courageous students who tried to confront and defeat China’s experienced political leadership on the open ground of Tiananmen Square in Peking were reacting primarily against the arrogance of power which forty years of one-party rule has induced in the leaders. The self-certitude of the Communists had been tolerated and even admired in the Fifties, when nationwide poverty ana chaos cried out for strong measures. Now, bruised by the vicious personal power struggles and abrupt policy turnabouts of those forty years, the Party is sadly demoralised. Nepotism, corruption and abuse of power are rampant. Finally the students were incensed by the treatment given to Hu Yaobang, who died in April at the age of 70.

Hu should have been today’s Party leader, had he lived. His early career was with the Communist Youth League, an experience that taught him to stay in touch with young people’s opinions. Deng Xiaoping, reorganising China after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, gave Hu the job of reassuring and rehabilitating the intellectuals, licking their wounds in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. Hu learned from China’s physical and social scientists how China could be transformed if only modern policies were applied. When Deng promoted him to be head of the Party in 1981, Hu became the darling of the freedom-seeking liberals. It went to his head a little, and after six years of earnestly seeking to retire the elderly (including Deng himself), promote the young and punish the law-breaking children of ‘old comrades’, those same indignant conservative ‘old comrades’ forced him out. When Deng, reading the eulogy at Hu’s funeral soon afterwards, failed to mention these disagreements, the students’ anger burst out. They had been subjected to a heavy load of double-speak, censorship and secrecy about things they felt were important to them, and this was the last straw.

The students’ camp-in at Tiananmen Square was a protest at the way they were being governed. Their appetite for a more humane system had been whetted by five years of partial liberalisation under Hu’s direction. It was the style of rule, more than policies or individual rulers, that drew their wrath. Freedom of the press was perhaps the only general policy issue which they consistently preached. Declaration of leaders’ incomes was the most deeply felt demand: it was only later, when the leaders refused to meet them, that the students specifically called for the dismissal of Premier Li Peng, whose handling of the whole affair was inept. The Premier had other things on his mind. The students’ demonstration came at a crucial moment in his personal struggle with Zhao Ziyang (then the Party chief, having succeeded Hu Yaobang) for the succession to Deng Xiaoping’s power. The decline of Deng, now 84, was flashed onto the world’s TV screens when he was seen dropping his morsels of chicken from unsteady chopsticks at a banquet for Gorbachev.

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