30 years on: Deng’s illiberal democracy thrives
China’s massive protest movement in the spring of 1989, centred in (but not confined to) Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, seems to have been the anti-Communist revolt that failed.
As the brutal crackdown on and following June 3-4 played out, political freedom was being won in Central Europe – first in Poland and Hungary, and then, beginning that autumn, in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and, albeit violently and rather undemocratically, Romania. Within the next two years, the Soviet Union, cracked open by Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms, finally imploded.
These democratic revolutions followed the “People Power” rebellions a few years earlier in Northeast and Southeast Asia. Bliss it was to be alive in those days. Francis Fukuyama was not the only American who believed that liberal democracy had triumphed forever. There was no alternative to what was widely seen as a natural symbiosis between capitalism and open societies. One couldn’t exist without the other. Once the middle classes had their economic freedom, true democracy would surely follow.
Such was the sense of liberal post-Cold War triumph at the time that many Western countries, especially the United States, saw no reason any longer to contain the animal spirits of free enterprise with much government regulation. This was also the message brought to post-communist Europe by various evangelists of neoliberalism.
China appeared to be the outlier. Apart from such backwaters as Cuba and North Korea, only there had Communist rule prevailed. China continued to be ruled by the Communist Party of China. But was that really a victory for communism? In fact, what emerged intact from the massacre of defenseless students and other citizens was not really communism at all, but Deng Xiaoping’s version of authoritarian capitalism.
Deng had been praised in the West for renouncing decades of Maoist autarky and opening China for global business. He unleashed capitalist enterprise with the words “Let some people get rich first,” a phrase that gained currency as “To get rich is glorious.” This was the ideology that needed to be defended from students protesting against corruption and demanding political reforms. That is why People’s Liberation Army tanks were used to crush the revolt. It was a savage response, but as one of the Party leaders said: “As for this fear that foreigners will stop investing, I’m not afraid. Foreign capitalists are out to make money and they’ll never abandon a big market for the world like China.”
China never looked back (literally as well as figuratively, because the events of June 3-4 are unmentionable). The economy soon steamed ahead. And the educated urban classes, from which most of the student protesters in 1989 sprang, benefited enormously. They were offered more or less the same deal as the better-off citizens of Singapore, or even Japan, even though neither of these countries are dictatorships: stay out of politics, don’t question the authority of the one-party state, and we’ll create the conditions for you to get rich.
Even educated young Chinese now have little or no knowledge of what happened 30 years ago. And when they do, they often react to foreigners who broach the subject with prickly nationalism, as though talking about it were a sign of anti-Chinese animus. One suspects that this defensiveness might be the result of a slightly guilty conscience: many people have benefited from a shabby deal.
In 2001, a year after Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia, I traveled from Beijing to Moscow and wrote an article comparing Russia favourably to China. I assumed Russia was well on its way to becoming an open democracy. I was wrong. In fact, Russia became more like Deng Xiaoping’s China, albeit a less successful version. Some people became immensely wealthy. Parts of Moscow give the impression of a new gilded age.
Something similar has happened in Central European countries. Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has been most the most vociferous ideologue of “illiberal democracy,” a system of oppressive one-party rule in which capitalism can still thrive. It looks as if the right-wing populist demagogues of Western Europe, and even the US, would like to follow this example. Like Donald Trump, they are all more or less unreserved admirers of Putin.
Of course, this was not the way it was supposed to happen. The assumption was too strong, especially in America, but also in most other Western countries, that liberal democracy and capitalism were inseparable. We now know that this is not true. It is perfectly possible to be a rich entrepreneur, or even just a well-off middle-class consumer, in a one-party state where basic political freedoms are stifled.
We should actually have known this all along. Singapore offered a perfect example of authoritarian capitalism. It was dismissed, because Singapore was too small, or because “Asians” were not interested in democracy, as Singapore’s rulers never ceased to point out. The Chinese protest movement in 1989 proved that this was not the case, either. Democratic reforms that would guarantee freedom of speech and assembly were of great interest to the students in Tiananmen Square.
What happened in China after the protests were crushed points to another truth. China was not an outlier in 1989 at all. Illiberal capitalism has since emerged as an attractive model to autocrats all over the world, including in countries that succeeded in throwing off communist rule 30 years ago. The Chinese just got there first.
Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019.