Symbols of danger

Anniversary festivities mask social unrest

JOHN BIERMAN October 9 1989

Symbols of danger

Anniversary festivities mask social unrest

JOHN BIERMAN October 9 1989

Symbols of danger


Anniversary festivities mask social unrest

A spectacular show had been arranged for Beijing’s vast Tiananmen Square last Sunday—fireworks, circus performances and national dancing amid a sea of brightly colored flowers. But the lavish party, marking the 40th anniversary of Communist rule in China, was memorable for another reason. For many Chinese, the fireworks display recalled the pre-dawn hours of June 4, when the noises and streaks of light were those of tracer bullets and tank fire that killed hundreds—possibly thousands—of the pro-democracy demonstrators who had been occupying the square for seven weeks. Still, the government was unable to find any appropriate alternative to Tiananmen, the Square of the Gate of Heavenly Peace, as the focus for the celebration. The powerful symbolism of the square is unequalled by any other site in mainland China.

It is the main entrance to the Forbidden City of China’s emperors, and in previous centuries it was the symbolic doorstep to the secluded palaces from which the Sons of Heaven ruled the Middle Kingdom. In modern times, the Forbidden City remains the heart of the capital and, like Moscow’s Kremlin, the home and workplace of the nation’s Communist leaders. Like Moscow’s Red Square, Tiananmen is flanked by the holy shrines of the regime—the Great Hall of the People, the Mao Mausoleum and the Historical Museum. In the middle of the square is the Monument of the People’s Heroes. Chinese say that whoever controls Tiananmen controls the heartbeat of the nation.

The square has been the scene of some of the most memorable events in postwar China. It was there that Mao Tse-tung proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic before a million people on Oct. 1, 1949. During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, the feared Red Guards routinely paraded there. And in 1976, millions of people defied a government ban to crowd the square in mourning for the death of legendary Premier Chou En-lai. The government’s use of force against the mourners eventually led to the fall of the powerful Gang of Four, who sought to impose rigid Marxist orthodoxy, and to the advent of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms and so-called open-door policy.

But four decades after Chairman Mao Tsetung’s People’s Liberation Army marched into Tiananmen without firing a shot, his successors had to invoke martial law and use prodigious firepower to clear the square of unarmed students. Officials had to stage last weekend’s party under heavy security, an indication that

they are keenly aware of a lingering, widespread resentment.

That anger was evident during preparations for the celebrations. In Zhi Shi Kou street, a poster referring to China’s hard-line Premier Li Peng appeared on a wall in the middle of the night. In bright-red characters on a gleaming white background, it read,“Li Peng will have to pay when martial law is lifted.” Soldiers ripped the poster down, but a bigger version appeared the next day. On most nights, isolated shots could be heard, and there were daily reports in Beijing newspapers of sniper fire on martial-law troops. Throughout the week, in the square itself, tens of thousands of khaki-clad security men practised riot-control tactics.

As the celebrations got under way, the authorities had removed most—but not all— reminders of the heady two months during which Tiananmen Square was in the hands of youthful protesters. Where four months earlier the students’ makeshift Goddess of Democracy stood, the govemment erected a permanent monument depicting a worker, a peasant, a soldier and an intellectual. But de-

spite a massive cleanup, some pro-democracy slogans and the marks of tank treads and bullets were still faintly visible.

As well, rebelliousness still bubbles under the surface of campus life. The government has severely punished students for leading the uprising: the enrolment at universities and colleges has been slashed, all students are being forced to undergo intense political indoctrination, and the entire first-year class at Beijing University has been sent away for a year of military and political training.

But on the 100th-day anniversary of the massacre, there was a 10-minute power failure on Beijing University campus. When lights came back on, areas of the campus were strewn with white flowers and fake paper money— traditional Chinese offerings to the dead.

Meanwhile, for the first time since Sun Yatsen led the fight against the decaying Manchu dynasty from abroad at the turn of the century, a concerted opposition movement has sprung up overseas. It includes such names as Yan Jiaqi and Su Shaozhi—mostly supporters of ousted Communist party leader Zhao Ziyang who were strongly committed to reform before going into exile. They have pledged to fight for a new regime in China and for reforms patterned along the lines of those in Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union.

Last week, a still-sombre national and international reaction to the shooting of the students seemed likely to cloud the success of the 40th-anniversary celebrations. Many foreign diplomats, including Canadian Ambassador Earl Drake, boycotted the party in Tiananmen Square. And few Chinese appeared to be in a festive mood for the three-day holiday, despite additional food supplies in the stores, streets awash with brightly colored potted plants and an outpouring of propaganda about the benefits of 40 years of communism.

As well, many Chinese say that Communist successes are clearly limited. Despite the economic advances of the past four decades, the country has not advanced nearly as fast as many of its Asian neighbors, and its 1.1 billion people also lack basic personal liberties.

China enjoyed 10 years of impressive economic reforms and openness under the rule of Deng Xiaoping, but there has been no political liberalization and no creation of an effective leadership succession mechanism. On Oct. 1, 1989, the country remained as firmly dominated by the policies of one man as on Oct. 1, 1949, when Mao proclaimed the republic in Tiananmen Square. The events of last June revealed that Mao’s successor, the 85-year-old Deng, did not have a successor to whom he could hand over power.

Deng may be trying to groom a younger leader to take over from him, but he has already tried to accomplish that twice and

failed. He promoted Hu Yaobang, a reformminded Communist party secretary who proved to be too liberal and whom the Politburo removed from office in 1987. Then he advanced Zhao, whom hard-liners blamed for the summer upheavals and later overthrew. Observers say that Deng’s latest favorite, current party chief Jiang Zemin, may fare little better.

Meanwhile, effective power is in the hands both of Deng and of the old colleagues whom he recalled from retirement to help him deal with the student crisis. Those ancient Communists, fellow veterans of the historic Long March of the 1930s, include Chen Yun, Peng Zhen and Wang Zhen. Having skilfully manoeuvred them out of office in 1987, Deng had to bring them back again to overthrow Zhao and maintain his own position in the face of the popular revolt.

The younger representative of those old men is Premier Li, 61, a bureaucrat who invoked martial law and who is widely disliked. Some Western diplomats in Beijing say it is possible that Deng or the Politburo will eventually remove Li and make him accept the blame for the shooting of the students. For now, he

remains a strong conservative force in Jiang’s Politburo.

The early signals of China’s current economic and social crisis were apparent before the student uprising. Over the past decade, Deng had raised people’s living standards, opened the country to the outside world, injected market forces into the economy and imported foreign capital and expertise. But, after remarkable achievements, his reform program ran into difficulties. As he attempted to loosen central economic controls and introduce price reforms, inflation and unemployment increased while corruption spread. Deng could neither meet people’s rising economic expectations, nor counter the Western ways of thinking, which inspired intellectuals and the young to demand a political liberalization that was unacceptable to him.

A decade of relative stability, prosperity and opening to the outside world under Deng has created a broadly based desire—still unfulfilled—for greater political freedom. Said one veteran Western ambassador in Beijing: “In Mao’s heyday, millions genuinely believed in communism and thought it could save China. Now, it is hard to find people like that, even party members.” Clearly, the people’s yearning for reform will increase before China’s hard-line leaders celebrate a fifth decade of Communist rule.