China’s growth and the 4th June Movement

CHECK AGAIN this newspaper’s front-page news the other day: China has overtaken Japan as the world’s second biggest economy. Then, recall what in China is termed as the 4th June Movement, which the Western media calls the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre.

The juxtaposition of these two thoughts should pose serious issues in this land of People Power movements, which we must confront. To use a politically neutral terminology, the “Tiananmen Square Turmoil of 1989” could have been the biggest global event in the template of our 1986 People Power Revolution, which had inspired democracy movements all over the world.

In the scale of protests and the number of people participating, the Tiananmen movement dwarfed Edsa 1 many times over. Through seven weeks from April to May 1989, 100,000 students made a “freedom commune” out of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, sacred ground for the Chinese, where Mao Zedong declared the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. A quickly made, 10-meter high Goddess of Democracy was erected in Tiananmen Square, irreverently facing Mao’s huge portrait at the entrance.

The protests peaked to a crowd of over 1 million, which included ordinary people of Beijing. The students declared their goal was for more democratic rights, such as a free media and increased education budget. China’s leadership, however, saw it at first as leading to political and social chaos, and then as a clear and imminent danger to Communist Party rule. Indeed, the Western media were expecting a cataclysmic event that could result in the overthrow of the party, or at least China’s move into Western-style representative government, following the pattern of the Soviet Union’s implosion.

Events though didn’t turn out the way it did at Edsa 1, or in the democracy movements in South Korea, Chile and Poland in the years after 1986.

In the wee hours of June 4, 1989 (hence the term preferred in China for the Tiananmen Square events) crack troops of the People’s Liberation Army entered from all corners of Beijing, and forcibly cleared Tiananmen Square of protesters. Battle tanks and armored personnel carriers rammed the protesters’ obstacles and destroyed the Goddess of Democracy statue.

Remember the iconic photo of the so-called “Tank Man,” the strangely equable man holding a plastic shopping bag, blocking, by simply standing there, a column of tanks on the way to the Square? But this wasn’t Edsa 1, when flowers and rosaries made tanks turn around. Two bystanders just pulled the Tank Man away into a nearby crowd, never to be heard of again, with no one even up to the present knowing his name. The tank column roared on to the square, and going by the accounts of Western media, even running over protesters. Casualty estimates vary widely, from the official government figure of 241 dead and 7,000 wounded to a purported NATO intelligence estimate of 7,000 deaths. Hundreds of student leaders were reportedly put on trial and jailed.

It is to “Paramount Leader” Deng Xiaoping eschewing Marxist dogma that China unarguably owes its dramatic growth to become the world’s second biggest economy today. And it was also Deng who ordered the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

Two decades after the 4th June Movement, it is an intriguing question whether China would have continued its growth if the pro-democracy movement had won. The question is not a purely academic exercise.

Yes, the immediate economic costs of the Tiananmen crackdown were enormous, as Western countries retaliated through sanctions and the suspension of multilateral official loans to protest what they considered the brutal suppression of the student protesters. China’s GDP growth slowed down to 3.8 percent in 1990, a fall from the 9.5 percent average the previous nine years. But then it very soon rebounded, and grew by an unprecedented 10 percent annually from 1990 to 2008.

Was it the 4th June Movement, the military action against the democracy movement that, by settling once and for all the issue of stability in China, finally put that country on the expressway towards becoming the world’s second biggest economy? Compare China’s growth to the annual 6 percent GDP decline of the Russian Federation in the 1990s when its Communist Party yielded to a chaotic multi-party political set-up. It was only from 2000, when former KGB officer Vladimir Putin ruled with an iron fist, that Russia posted a very respectable 7 percent annual growth.

Maybe better, compare China’s record to ours. The turbulence that led to Edsa 1 and the coup attempts after that resulted in a very weak 2 percent annual growth. In an article in this newspaper in August last year, “Why we are where we are,” I presented data to argue that our country remains poor to a great extent due to the political instability we went through in the years immediately before and after Edsa 1.

Welcome to the real world, where truth and justice don’t always prevail, but blind economic forces always triumph. It isn’t rocket science to know why this is so: Only when things are stable and predictable would businessmen take risks and invest. And it is not selfish ideas I am presenting: in this day and age, the people’s well-being is bound to that of the nation-state they belong to. The costs of poverty in terms of lost and wasted human lives are certainly not an abstraction.

We certainly cannot change the past. But maybe, with the rut we have been in for so long, we should start reconstituting our priorities: Political stability or a wild free-wheeling kind of democracy?

From the Philippine Daily Inquirer