Deng Xiaoping, the former paramount leader, once promised that China would be a democracy by 2035. (See his officially published Collected Works.) Then 16 years ago came the massacre of the protesting students in Tiananmen Square and the world-wide reputation of Deng, until then regarded as the great reformer of the moribund, Chinese command economy, took a dip downward from which he has never truly recovered despite the onward march of the Chinese economy. The big question remains topical: when will democracy arrive in China? There have been, and are, a significant number of would-be reformers in the higher ranks – from the recently deceased, former party chief, Zhao Ziyang who appeared in Tiananmen Square at the height of the protests to tell the students he had come ‘too late’, to the current Premier, Wen Jiabao, who two years ago, in a supposedly secret speech, but one widely disseminated in liberal newspapers, appeared to be emulating Mikhail Gorbachev’s appeal for glasnost when he said, ‘our first step should be to open the flow of information – only then can we enable the public to supervise the government and prevent social instability.’ Mr Wen had said this to Zeng Quinghong, appointed to the Politburo’s standing committee in 2002. The latter has also made private speeches in which he has reportedly made clear that he is in favour of direct elections at all local levels and the introduction of new political parties. But these voices, scattered among the Chinese leadership, are only one factor. Democracy in China will not arrive until the Chinese people themselves push. Civil society in China is still weak. Karl Marx explained that the stagnation of imperial China owed much to the lack of a strong bourgeoisie. There is nothing like the Catholic Church of Poland which was the prime force in catalyzing the overthrow of Communism in eastern Europe. Nor is there anything resembling the old democratic parties of Hungary, or the large dissident intellectual circles of the Czech Republic. China does have a revolutionary heritage rooted in its intellectual class, dating back at least to Sun Yat-sen, founder of the post-imperial Chinese republic, but that class still has to find a way to spread its message. The lesson of Tiananmen Square, which becomes clearer with the passing of time, was that the students failed, not so much because of the ruthlessness of Deng’s repression, but because they refused to make alliances with other social groups. During their protest the students linked arms to prevent outsiders joining the demonstrations. Even after 40 years of Communism, the old Confucian values rating mental labour above manual remained intact. Not until the final week in May did the students, aware that the Army was likely to be brought in, seek support in the factories. Despite the airs and graces of the students, sections of the working class did mobilise. The official newspaper, Workers’ Daily, reported that a so-called ‘workers’ organisation’ sprouted everywhere in various disguises. More surprisingly, entrepreneurial groups also mobilised, able to engage in action without fear of losing jobs and grants. They even bought the students fax machines. They too were given the brush off by the students who, doubtlessly unconsciously, fused Confucian prejudice against business people with Communist claptrap on capitalist exploitation. Taiwan, where democracy has advanced so successfully in the last two decades, shows that the Confucian heritage does not have to be a barrier to modern cross-class alliances. But Tiananmen Square showed us what a lot of hard work lies ahead to develop China’s civil society in a similar way. It has certainly not got to the point where, as one of China’s leading dissidents, Wei Jingsheng, optimistically told me, that ‘every ordinary Chinese now recognises the need for a complete change in the dictatorship inside China’. The danger today, as the extraordinary economic growth of China continues and with it the rapid growth of a materially-focused bourgeoisie, is that the cause of democracy, free speech and human rights will not be given the focused energy that is needed to push them along. It is a telling indictment of China’s top-heavy system that reform is more talked about by people who hold, or who have held, high positions than the students and young educated professionals themselves. It would be ironic if Deng’s timetable is about right and we have to sit and wait for a new generation to grow up – the one only just being born – that like second generation middle classes elsewhere, thinks more politically and humanistically than materially and one that is broadminded enough to forge alliances, especially with the working class. The year of democracy in China might well be 2035.
JONATHAN POWER – The Statesman (India)