Written by Edward Friedman.
Leninist party dictatorships from 1989-1991 democratized in East and Central Europe as well as in Mongolia in Asia. The Soviet Union imploded in 1991. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union lost power. For the Chinese Communist Party, these events, as well as the PRC’s rise toward becoming a superpower and global center, prove that Moscow did things wrong and Beijing did things right.
CCP ruling elites in the PRC are persuaded that paramount leader Deng Xiaoping did the right thing when he ordered the CCP’s military to crush China’s spring 1989 popular, nationwide democracy movement on June 4. The Beijing Massacre supposedly allowed the CCP’s leftist conservatives, at least after January 1992 when Deng defeated anti-economic reformers, to rise and amass the wealth and power which allows the PRC to use coercive diplomacy to assert its political will on behalf of extraordinary territorial claims all over Asia, especially in maritime territories.
The result of June 4, in contrast to August 1991 in the USSR when the Soviet Union imploded and the CPSU was toppled, is a confident, expansionist PRC in international relations and a paranoid politics at home. To avoid what happened to the Soviet Union, a paranoid CCP cruelly crushes societal efforts by Chinese to improve life and dignity for the Chinese people. The victims range from Uyghurs seeking to preserve their culture to Han seeking to move China away from the pains caused by greedy, self-serving, corrupt CCP networks which treat Chinese efforts for justice and fairness as existential threats to the CCP. Courageous Chinese working for justice today must, in the mind of the paranoid CCP, be destroyed, as Deng destroyed Chinese democracy supporters in 1989.
And yet, in some ways, democracy remains a good word to the CCP. Its ruling groups have described their regime as a democratic dictatorship, supposedly more democratic than mere bourgeois democracy. The CCP describes it anti-human rights foreign policy intended to undermine the efforts of the industrialized democracies as the democratization of international relations.
What is forgotten, what the CCP tries to erase from Chinese history and memory is China’s long and great constitutional tradition. Theories of constitutionally limited government to rein in the abuses of vicious Ming despotism flourished among Ming Confucians, in many ways in advance of Europe. These constitutional efforts were pursued in the 1898 movement to create a constitutional monarchy, the world’s most stable political system. China was a leader in Asia in 1911-1912 when its republican revolution, whose titular leader was Sun Yat-sen, carried out in early 1913 nationwide parliamentary elections. The CCP does not mourn the defeat of Sun’s democratic effort. It instead celebrates Yuan Shikai who destroyed China’s glorious democratic effort later in 1913 in a military coup. That supposedly brought stability as did the June 4 Beijing Massacre.
The 1911 republican revolution in China was an Asian event. It followed upon an effort in the Philippines to build a republic. It was part of the forces which led in Japan to the Taisho age of political parties and parliaments. It led on in China to the great May 4th movement which had a counterpart in Korea. Democracy is very Asian. More people enjoy the blessings of democracy in Asia than on any other continent. The 1989 democracy movement in China, in advance of the democratizations in East Europe, followed on democratization in the Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan in the late 1980s. China has a great tradition of popular protests to defend the rights of the Chinese people against arbitrary rulers, as described in Hofung Hung, Protest with Chinese Characteristics: Demonstrations, Riots and Petitions in the Mid-Qing Dynasty.
June 4 should be a time to remember great creations of Asian and Chinese history and culture that the CCP would prefer the Chinese people to forget. Throughout Chinese history, numerous thinkers and activists have worked for a political system that would guarantee human dignity for all the Chinese people and all of the peoples of China.
To be sure, a primary reason to commemorate June 4 is to remember the innocent dead and their brave allies and supporters who in 1989 stood up for and were shot down for seeking a more humane future for their fellow Chinese. These good and caring people were part of a Chinese tradition which some trace back to the sage Mencius. They would carry out political reforms on behalf of a just and fair society.
The CCP works against this great Chinese tradition. That Chinese project to build a system to protect the dignity of all Chinese is deeply embedded in Chinese culture. Scholars should study this magnificent tradition so that the Chinese people are reminded of Chinese pioneers in the Asian and the global effort for justice. June 4 is a time not just to mourn but also to celebrate the glorious potential deep inside of a rich and humane Chinese culture.
Edward Friedman is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.