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.

Such power struggles are carried out in secrecy. Only towards the end of the Tiananmen drama did this struggle spill into the glare of publicity under the television arc lights. When Li and Zhao were seen selfconsciously visiting the hunger strikers in the square at the dead of night, it was impossible not to sense the competition between them. Li appeared cold and detached, his heart still in that other world of the Politburo in their Chungnanhai mansions near the old Imperial palace. Zhao was not afraid to show feelings of concern and remorse and thereby signed his own political death warrant. There is another dimension to the power struggle: Li (61) and Zhao (70) are protégés of two of the octogenarians – Chen Yun and Deng Xiaoping respectively – who hold the real power in the Party despite having long ago retired from major positions.

These are the surviving peers of Mao who had to tidy up the mess after the death of that erratic megalomaniac. First they collaborated to put his acolytes – the so-called Gang of Four and his widow Jiang Qing – behind bars. Then they entrusted the day-to-day running of affairs to one of their number with the right experience, as Party Secretary-General and acting Premier, and with persuasive ideas about the reforms needed to make socialism more successful in developing the economy. This was Deng, the man who coined the credo of post-Maoist China when he declared that ‘it doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white as long as it catches the mouse.’

Deng dismantled the people’s communes, which Mao had boasted were the highest achievement of mankind. He effectively privatised agriculture and decontrolled much of the economy, rediscovering market forces, setting prices and managers free and allowing small-scale entrepreneurs the full benefit of their profits. Most significantly, he opened China’s door to Western trade and technology. The chief implementers of these refreshing policy innovations were two fellow reformers who were 14 years Deng’s junior, Zhao Ziyang (then Premier) and Hu Yaobang (then Secretary-General), as well as an even younger band of technocrats including Li Peng, a Russian-trained engineer heading the Ministry of Power, who had as a child been fostered by the late Premier Zhou Enlai and his wife when his own parents died in the revolutionary cause.

For several years all went well. The economy boomed, incomes rose and people were satisfied. Then it was realised that for these good results to continue, political reforms would be necessary, including a contraction in the Communist Party’s power, prestige and role. Market forces had supposedly been released by central directive, but semi-feudal constraints, often sustained by low-level cadres entrenched on the ground, still shackled them. A factory manager would still buy materials from other Party-controlled enterprises at high prices even if cheaper supplies were offered in the market; organisational and family loyalties were stronger than market forces.

Should the Party go forward or stand still? At this point the conservative elders dug their heels in. Hu made the mistake of openly pressing Deng to retire, as part of a general move-up of generations, and Deng took the conservatives’ side in dismissing him. From then on Deng’s role as a reformer was ambivalent, and the younger and far less charismatic Zhao, now Secretary-General, had to assume leadership of the reform cause. Li Peng, whom the conservatives nominated as Premier, was Chen Yun’s man, obliged to follow his patron’s baton. Chen, trained as a printer, has been the Party’s economic expert throughout its rule. He deplored Mao’s rash and damaging experiments – the Great Leap Forward, the Communes – and rested his reputation on the First Five Year Plan of the Fifties which followed conventional Soviet lines. His image of the reforms of the Eighties was that of a bird, to be allowed to fly freely but only within the ‘golden cage’ of socialism. Deng’s dalliance with share and bond markets, polarised incomes and unregulated survival of the fittest did not amuse him, any more than the foreign debts and inflation which Deng’s policies produced. Nor did they please the other octogenarians, former ministers and Party executives who had by then solidified as a backward-looking cabal, using Li Peng as their front man.

Octogenarians’ views should certainly be solicited in a well-ordered state, but only in China could they become the last word. Ever since Confucius systematised family relationships on the basis of filial piety and obedience to elders, the Chinese tradition has given elders a peculiarly important role in public affairs. As in that other Confucian-influenced state, Japan, young politicians typically seek the protection of an established older man who can find them advancement – and who later exacts the payment of the younger man’s unstinting loyalty when his services are needed. Li has this kind of patron-client link with Chen Yun, who seems to be the spokesman of the gerontocrats – perhaps because economic affairs are the main issue. Old men and women receive what a Westerner would think exaggerated respect and deference from the young. This creates tensions even within a small family, where young adults have to struggle to escape the control of a grandfather who grows more imperious with age. But it extends right across society so that the octogenarians in the Communist Party leadership are assured of being obeyed even when their official, legal or constitutional positions give them no such authority. Until this social constraint is broken, China’s modernisation will inevitably suffer.

The student protest on Tiananmen Square thus became a set-piece in which the relative performance of Zhao Ziyang and Li Peng in dealing with dissidence was put to public test. Hu’s dismissal in 1987 was due to a failure to deal with students, and now Zhao, too, pays the price for refusing to compromise with deluded elders. Zhao’s defeat is a blow for the reform programme and this is the most serious consequence of the Tiananmen episode. A talented energetic fifth of the human race has been cruelly left behind in terms of development, for reasons in which its own isolation, myopia and complacency, together with prolonged civil war, Japanese aggression and American ostracism, are all intermixed.

With average Chinese income only £4 a week, roughly a fiftieth of the Western equivalent, politics no longer take priority over economics in the average Chinese mind. For ten years now China has abandoned Mao Zedong’s ‘pure’ socialism, which had failed to secure satisfactory economic growth. Instead of switching to capitalism (a stage China has never been through, though some Chinese theorists think it is still needed), Deng sought to substitute an imaginative blend of public ownership and independent entrepreneurial management. The explanation for thus combining what some Western economists liken to oil and water is not clear. If the purpose is substantive, to keep socialism alive in order to flourish again once economic growth is attained, as Chen Yun and his fellow conservatives seem to believe, then it will probably not succeed: enterprise would steadily prevail over socialist ownership in future, given the intrinsic weakness of the socialist fabric. The rationale may, on the other hand, be merely cosmetic: to save the face of the Communist Party, or to save the jobs of millions of local Party functionaries whose loyalty would collapse if enterprising yuppies and profit-seeking producers took over their offices (this is probably the reformers’ intention). In either case, the impasse between public ownership and entrepreneurial management might last a long time. The Communist Party changes its ideology at the drop of a khaki cap, but the organisation of its 44 million members is not so malleable.

It is this debate over economic reform which is now raging in China, in farms, factories, newspapers and offices, and especially among Party cadres at the lowest levels, who have to implement the contradictory commands which flow from the centre. It has been going on for ten years, with one set of decisions deregulating economic activity in order to expose it to market forces, and the next set enclosing it within the state bureaucracy. The ‘open door’ to Western technology, trade and investment is established, but the precise degree of openness varies with political winds. Meanwhile the technocrats behind the economic reforms have realised that market forces need an infrastructure of political and social freedoms which the Chinese have never enjoyed. Socio-political reforms are needed, and that is where the conservative elders in the Party have called a halt.

One comes back to the repression of feeling, in a country where, for example, a man will meekly endure the overbearing behaviour of his superiors at work. Confucius had no means of endowing the Chinese race with superhuman patience, and the result of suppressing so much feeling is to see it come out all at once and in exaggerated and violent form after some interval of time. When the amenability snaps, there can be all hell to pay – and that is what happened on Tiananmen Square. In this kind of situation, Chinese inhumanity is plainly exhibited. China never enjoyed a religion with a universal ethic, and the Chinese do not feel that other people, outside their own circle of family, friends and workmates deserve particular acts of kindness, generosity or help. An hour in the midst of the big city’s traffic brings this home.

Finally behind all the recent events lurk the surviving cruelties of the feudal age in China. Physically degrading treatment of suspects, the apparent nonchalance with which unarmed people are shot or bayoneted, the viciousness of the crowd when it castrates or burns a captured enemy soldier, and the insistence on confessions, known to everybody on both sides as false, which will nevertheless give a semblance of justification to the winning side – these are the most alienating images to a Westerner, but they have been part of the Chinese mentality for centuries and do not surprise many Chinese. They do not even realise, some of them, how dismaying they are to the outside world.

North China always was the centre of politics, South China the arena for enterprise (including emigration in the 19th century). The events of Tiananmen Square were only weakly replicated in other big cities. The Hong Kong-owned factories in Guangdong did not stop production during this entire episode. Hong Kong’s anxieties about the future may prove exaggerated.

So the conservatives have won in the short term. The octogenarians and Li Peng have triumphed in their power struggle. The students and Zhao Ziyang and the reformers have lost. But China is good at closing ranks after a violent outburst. There is no way of bringing back this student generation to a willing co-operation, but most of the other sections of society will shrug their shoulders and go along with what is asked of them. We will probably now see a few years of relatively conservative government in China, with very few further advances along the roads of economic or political reform, and some setbacks in the area of freedom of speech and civil liberties. But the country and its leaders need continued economic development, and that means continued trade and investment links with the West, as well as continued dependence on Hong Kong. No significant changes in foreign policy are likely to follow any foreseeable change in leadership. The warmth will go, but the direction will not alter.

The students will strike again, when they feel the time is right. But what will be several years from now. And during those years the octogenarians will go to join Marx, one by one: the new octogenarians of ten years hence could well be measurably less obsessed with the past, more outward-looking and more liberal that the seven or eight angry old men around Chen Yun.

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