Reform before revolt in today's China
By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - I confess, 20 years ago I was in Tiananmen Square. I knew many students; I talked to them then and still talk to them. Then, they wanted democracy and revolution. Now, they feel it is hard and complicated to explain what took place on June 4, better to talk about something else, better to avoid the issue, because they think differently.
Their attitudes have certainly changed because they have grown older, China has changed and the Communist Party is more effective. Maybe so, but these explanations do not fully explain the deep undercurrent that is rushing through Chinese society.
In the 19th century, China - dominated by a foreign dynasty and people, the Manchu - was under heavy attack internally and from abroad. Inside, a massive rebellion by the Taiping attempted to topple the emperor and establish a new, fully Chinese pseudo-Christian dynasty. Foreigners were also attacking: Russians by land in Xinjiang and Westerners by sea during the Opium Wars.
In theory, it would have been a good opportunity for the Han majority in China to rally with the rebels or the new foreigners and overthrow the Manchu. However, the best Mandarins in China and the vast majority of the population, largely Han, instead did the impossible to salvage the foreign dynasty.
Despite the fact that the Manchu oppressed the Han with discriminatory policies, officials and the people tried their best to save the failing dynasty.
Charles Horner, in his forthcoming Rising China and its Postmodern Fate, explores this issue and sees it as one of the most important trends in understanding modern China.
Over time, it was to take the Qing almost 15 years, until 1865, to suppress this movement [the Taiping]. It was the largest civil war in the history of the world. Tens of millions were engaged on both sides of the struggle; casualties ran in the tens of millions, and the collateral destruction, by all eyewitness accounts, was enormous, so "the distress and the misery of the inhabitants were beyond description". The Heavenly King [The Taiping leader Hong Xiuquan] himself died in the summer of 1864, and Qing forces recovered Nanjing, the Taiping capital since 1853, soon thereafter. It was a murderous reoccupation of one of China's great cities. The Qing pursuit of the retreating Taiping remnants was equally relentless and unforgiving. (p 58)
The Communist Party killed millions with bad policies (like the Great Leap Forward in the 1950s) or cruel political movements (like the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s) - more than enough reasons, at least in the West, to resent one's rulers and want to topple them. Yet, most Chinese have forgotten the past misdeeds and rally to save the order.
The reason is simple, explains Horner: the present reformist party leaders, like the 19th-century reformist Mandarins, think that the fastest, safest way to change things in China is not to unleash a revolution with drastic, dramatic changes, but to keep the boat steady and press on with incremental reforms. Horner argues:
One can look at the story of modern China as the struggle between the radical utopianism embodied by Mao Zedong, the Great Helmsman of the Chinese Communist Party on the one hand, and practitioners of time-honored statecraft and state-building, like the "self-strengtheners" of the Late Qing era or the "pragmatic" followers of Deng Xiaoping. (p 16)
In the West, we may think that reforms can go only so far and that to achieve massive changes of the kind needed in China, one has to stage a revolution. But still, revolutions in the West can often be almost bloodless upheavals. Dictatorships in Spain, Portugal and Eastern European countries were overthrown within weeks, with a few demonstrations and no violence to speak of.
In China, however, there is a different history and culture of violence. Violence is a horror story Chinese are loath to even think about because, when unleashed, there is almost no way back.
During the suppression of the Taiping Rebellion, more than 60 million people were killed - a number greater than in all of World War II, when both sides experienced carpet-bombing, over 20% of the total Chinese population at the time. Millions died in the period of the civil war and Japanese invasion. Millions more succumbed to the political movements under Mao: 30 to 40 million perished because of a failed policy, the Great Leap Forward, which starved the population for years.
Revolution, then, doesn't continue past reform programs, as it does in the West. It starts all over again. Past gains are forfeited and a brand new situation, burning bridges with the past, begins. Horner noted the Chinese attention paid to city planning, and this is indeed a revolutionary element. Whereas, despite revolutions, all Western regimes strive to preserve old buildings, with every new dynasty the Chinese tear down past houses and palaces and build new cities. The communists were no different.
Mao Zedong tore down the former Manchu inner city to enlarge Tiananmen Square, and his successors brought down whole cities to build new American-style skyscrapers.
The present emphasis on the preservation of old cities is a bold cultural effort to turn one's back on this culture of violence and destruction. The aim is to stop the direct confrontation between modernity and tradition that has characterized the past Chinese century.
In the 19th century, this meant defending the foreign Manchu invader. Today, this means preserving the legacy of Mao, the architect of decades of massacres. It seems absurd, but in many ways, it goes back to the roots of Western civilization. When Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, it forgot or glossed over the previous persecution at the hands of the emperors. They didn't deny the Roman Empire or try to break it apart. In fact, they became the staunchest pillar of continuity through the massive innovation of its rituals and ideology.
The 19th-century reformers failed to succeed, but wanted to do just this. If present reformers are to succeed now, they will have to do just this: preserve the communist flag and jargon, while trying not to rock the boat and massively innovate the system. Their success will mean that China - and the world - might be spared a new cycle of senseless violence.
This maybe does not fully explain why my friends feel awkward about talking about Tiananmen and can cast no light on events 20 years ago, but things now can be looked at in a different way.
Francesco Sisci is Asia Editor of La Stampa, based in Beijing.