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China: The Defining Moment

The evolution of the People’s Republic of China since its founding in 1949 has been tumultuous and bloody, and marked by the suffering of millions. It has been anything but peaceful. Yet it is precisely the prospect of “peaceful evolution,” which in Peking has the special meaning of the undermining of Party authority by Western “bourgeois liberalism,” that worries Chinese leaders. This explains why in 1992 Deng Xiaoping, already so infirm of speech that only his daughters could understand him and retransmit his utterances to a wider audience, said,

Hostile forces realize that so long as we of the older generation are still alive and carry weight, no change is possible. But after we are dead and gone, who will ensure that there is no peaceful evolution?

Deng’s successors are worried right now about the effects of his reforms, which allowed both private economic development and a variety of Western cultural influences, and ended the rigid commitment to the thought of Mao. They fear that the reforms have undermined the authority of the Party—which is true enough, although the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square were also heavy self-inflicted blows. President Jiang Zemin, designated by Deng as the “core leader” in 1989, has been making many statements like the following: “We must strictly ban the cultural trash poisoning the people and social atmosphere and not sacrifice culture and ideology merely for a short period of economic development.”

iconDavid Levine. Copyright Matthew and Eve Levine.
Jiang Zemin, 1997

But while Deng feared what would happen after he went “to see Marx,” he was not afraid of further economic reforms or of opening China to foreign capitalism. Indeed, although on June 9, 1989, five days after the Tiananmen killings, he congratulated the army, “the Great Wall of Steel,” for its exploits, he insisted in the same remarks that economic reforms must not be slowed down. And in 1992, during his “southern tour” of China, almost the last time he appeared in public as more than a kind of zombie, he defied the devout Maoists or “leftists” who attacked his reforms as “peaceful evolution.” He insisted that “had it not been for the achievements of the reform and open policy, we could not have weathered June 4th. And if we had failed that test, there would have been chaos and civil war.”

In 1990 Deng told Pierre Trudeau, Canada’s former prime minister, that had China erupted in 1989, the result would not have been a mere Cultural Revolution. That cataclysm did not amount to a true civil war, Deng explained. But “if some so-called democratic fighters seize power, they’ll start fighting among themselves. As soon as civil war breaks out there’ll be rivers of blood.” Deng then spun off into a fantasy involving the flight of over 100 million Chinese from China. “It would be a global disaster.” In Mr. Deng’s opinion, what happened instead was an act of minimal common sense.

* * *

The British writer James Miles agrees with Deng that the Tiananmen repression was a defining “incident,” as the Chinese call it. His conclusion, however, is very different from Deng’s. One of the main contributions of his book is to show why the Tiananmen episode, despite the insistence of a growing number of American China scholars that it is no longer a live issue in China, will not be forgotten by many Chinese.

Mr. Miles reported from China for eight years, most of them for the BBC, for which he now broadcasts from Hong Kong. In The Legacy of Tiananmen, a sobering and convincing analysis of China’s present and its likely future, he says that he has had a “passion for things Chinese” since he was ten and began learning the language. This passion did not cloud his judgment. He arrived in China in 1986, when it was “austere, Stalinist, and backward,” and left in 1994, convinced that “prosperity may have increased in China but not enough to wipe out memories of decades of ruthless political campaigns. Nor has it boosted the morale of those who are on the losing side in the race to establish a market economy.” His book’s major contention is that “while China has changed in many important ways it is, if anything, less stable than it was in the buildup to the unrest of 1989.”

Despite his apocalyptic forebodings—he foresees that a Chinese “Pandora’s box of rivalry, hatred, vengefulness, and a myriad other destructive emotions will spill open”—Mr. Miles is a meticulous scholar and a laconic, dryly observant writer. He recalls how on June 3-4, 1989, tanks ground their treadmarks into Changan Boulevard, which leads into Tiananmen Square; the marks were mostly smoothed away, but if you listen carefully you can still hear “the faint, eerie hum produced by the tires of your vehicle as they passed over the indentations.” “Suppressing memories is one thing,” Mr. Miles says, “but erasing them is quite another.”

Is it true, as some claim, that the Tiananmen events happened seven years ago, and now that making money is the national obsession few care deeply about the uprising anymore? This is improbable if, as Mr. Miles estimates, between three and five thousand people were killed in Peking alone. The People’s Liberation Army had never before fired on civilians in the capital, and the number killed far exceeded those who died during the twentieth century’s periodic student uprisings in China. Indeed, in my opinion, the regime was unable to celebrate the Party’s seventy-fifth anniversary in Peking this June (just as the thirtieth anniversary of the beginning of the Cultural Revolution slid by unmarked ) because such celebrations always look back as well as forward. And Tiananmen, until it is “re-evaluated,” makes discussing the recent past impossible.

* * *

As Mr. Miles observes, if between three thousand and five thousand dead are multiplied by the number of their relatives and close friends, “the population profoundly affected by what happened is already substantial.” He adds to this the hundreds arrested after Tiananmen and their relations and friends, and the tens of thousands of others actively involved in attempting to block the troops from moving into the city for days before the final night. He thus believes that a “huge” number of Chinese were actively involved in the demonstrations, in one way or another. Although it may not show on their faces, he suggests, “the memories undoubtedly still haunt them.” And Peking was not alone. Mr. Miles visited the city’s Military History Museum a few weeks after the killings and saw a map showing over eighty cities in which demonstrations had occurred. The actual number, he supposes, was yet higher and he notes that even on the islet of Gulangyu in the Taiwan Straits “protesters took to the narrow streets in support of the students in Beijing.”1

What happened next was called qingcha, “ferreting out.” This was directed by Document Number Ten, kept secret to disguise from the public the extent of what was about to happen, especially because Deng had previously given the impression that yundong—campaigns to suppress entire groups—were a Maoist thing of the past. The targets for the ferreting were government organizations, educational establishments at every level, the press, radio, and television—everywhere, in fact, suspected of being a nest of counterrevolutionaries. Four million party members out of about forty million were to be investigated and “hostile elements, antiparty elements, and corrupt elements” were to be expelled or worse. The purge divided the party; internal documents, says Mr. Miles, indicate that there was some resistance. But “schooled in the art of lying through decades of political movements,” party members had become expert at the bogus self-confession. A friend of Mr. Miles, known to have been at the demonstrations, wrote an artfully phrased 10,000 words which managed to convey both contrition and, if circumstances later changed, a hint of opposition to the way the unrest had been crushed.

More than thirty thousand officials were sent throughout the country to ferret out not only what party members had actually done during Tiananmen but their lifelong attitudes. A friend of mine, accused of composing some of the pamphlets distributed in the square, was questioned eight hours a day for six months; he and his interrogators sat opposite each other at a small table on which always lay a pistol to remind him of his mortal danger. He escaped prison only because of the intervention of a Politburo member who was an old family friend. Mr. Miles criticizes those who want to play down Tiananmen. “Millions of people who had joined the protests, not to mention those who had played a leading role, lived in terror.” He goes on to say what is not widely enough known: that hundreds of thousands of ordinary people across China also demonstrated and were arrested and treated like common criminals.

The names of most of them are unknown to the Western media…. Even in the mid-1990s, cases of people imprisoned in connection with Tiananmen were still frequently coming to light for the first time.2

* * *

In addition to the festering wounds of Tiananmen, Mr. Miles identifies economic inequality as another source of instability and here too he challenges a myth: that China’s economic growth during the Deng period has been so broad and so fast that no one has time to be resentful. He refers to a 1993 World Bank report—which like other World Bank publications on China seems to concern a country unlike the one I have visited for many years. The 1993 report, revealingly called The East Asian Miracle, praises China for achieving low levels of inequality. Mr. Miles claims this is contrary to the experience of many Chinese who find that economic growth is actually increasing inequality. He cites a 1994 report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences which warns of severe unrest if polarization, often the result of illegally gained income, continues. In a telling example Mr. Miles describes a nightclub near his flat in Peking where the price of admission exceeded two weeks’ wages for a factory worker. There, “attractive young female waitresses approached guests’ tables on their knees to take orders for drinks.”

So helter-skelter is the pursuit of money that in Chengdu in western China Mr. Miles found a street on which most shops, run by the police, sold

police equipment ranging from knives and electric cattle prods to police uniforms and insignia and the flashing light used on top of police cars…. This was going on in spite of repeated warnings in the national media that ‘fake policemen’ were everywhere, extorting money from ordinary citizens by demanding the payment of fines or bribes.

The trade in police equipment is only one of many examples of open official corruption. Mr. Miles recalls a song sung to the tune of “Frère Jacques” in Tiananmen Square: “Down with corrupt officials, oppose corruption.” In 1986, the Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang had begun an investigation of growing corruption in the Central Committee and Politburo. Because of his reputation among students as a rare honest official, his death in April 1989 set off a reaction which led to the Tiananmen uprising. Not by coincidence, in July 1989, a month after Tiananmen, new regulations banned the families of senior leaders from engaging in commerce.

Miles gives a list of some of the official families now involved in corrupt businesses. As he points out, “The relatives of retired revolutionaries—the real leaders of China—were not mentioned.” He could add to that list the Chinese who manufacture abroad the automatic weapons recently seized in the US; the FBI has named as responsible a weapons company of which one of Deng’s sons-in-law is an executive. One of his daughters is a regular visitor to Hong Kong, where she represents a property firm selling buildings just across the border. The Chinese military, sometimes known abroad as The People’s Liberation Army, Inc., “operated virtually outside the law,” Miles writes, managing thousands of enterprises from airlines to selling American ice cream. Miles also reports on a racket involving three hundred officers who sold demobilization papers to workers “so that they could enjoy the better housing and employment opportunities given to ex-servicemen.”

Some senior officials, Mr. Miles says, dislike the vulgarity and corruption arising from the Dengist reforms, and in his view they represent the views of many ordinary people as well. President Jiang has taken to calling for “spiritual reforms,” an old chestnut always available when it becomes important to savage the values of the West, but one that Jiang may now be using to strike a moral note in an atmosphere of greed and corruption. Chinese traditionally admire moral models: in the Mao period the Dazhai commune in northern China was celebrated for the spirit of selfless cooperation among its members, although this view was later discredited as propaganda.

* * *

In one of the most informative chapters in his book Mr. Miles describes the village of Nanjie in a backward region of central China, “a microcosm of a China run the way Deng Xiaoping’s conservative critics would like it to be run when ‘the chief architect of reform’ is no longer around.” A thirty-foot white marble statue of Mao hovers over its three thousand permanent inhabitants and eight thousand temporary workers, and unlike many other Chinese towns there are no signs of praise for Deng. In 1986, when the Dengist reforms had failed to lift Nanjie out of its grim poverty, local officials offered to pay its farmers forty-five pounds of flour each month in exchange for the land which they had been cultivating individually under the post-Mao “output-related responsibility system” which succeeded the communes. By 1989 almost everyone had joined the new system and factories were built on the accumulated land. On the remaining agricultural acreage, eighty people using new machinery were able to almost double the amount of grain which it had taken hundreds of people to produce during the reform years.

Nanjie is not a Dengist Potemkin village, says Mr. Miles, who visited the place. It has the biggest instant noodle factory in China, and also produces beer, cakes, and packaging materials. Its joint printing venture with a Japanese firm made $2 million within six months of opening. In this collectivist Eden, housing, fuel, and education are free. There has not been a single crime in Nanjie since 1988, the authorities there claim. There are many new buildings with free TV; the only personal possessions allowed the inhabitants are bedding, clothing, and cooking utensils. Heirlooms have been thrown or given away. Overtime pay and weekends off are unknown, but handouts and benefits make the average income double that of Nanjie’s neighbors and more than the national peasant average, with the result that the residents of the village have considerable savings. Nanjie must be one of the last places in China where everyone must study “Mao Thought,” and every day people go to work listening to loudspeakers playing the Cultural Revolution standby “Sailing the Ocean Depends on the Helmsman.” After the events of Tiananmen Square, every villager received a collection of Mao’s essays. Each household’s doorway has a metal plaque displaying up to ten stars. If a family is obedient to regulations on family planning, industriousness, and good behavior, it keeps the stars. If it loses a star it loses some benefits. Only seven stars, for example, means no free oil or coal. Six stars loses everything.

The mainstream press hates Nanjie and describes the conservatives’ praise for it as “lunatic raving.” Its practices are said to be devoid of “the principles of modern civilization,” and its success dependent on the economic reforms that have been carried out elsewhere. “Where reality ends and propaganda begins is, as often in China, difficult to determine in the case of Nanjie Village,” writes Mr. Miles. “But its importance lies not so much in what it actually is, [as] in the ideal it represents to its hardline backers….” Among these, he writes, were some of the officials whom Deng was forced to call out of retirement to support him in crushing the Tiananmen demonstrations in 1989.

Many Chinese leaders, including Deng’s supporters, have been warning in recent years that the scramble for money has undermined central authority, partly, they admit, because so many top officials are scrambling as fast as anyone else. Fewer and fewer provincial tax revenues find their way to the central treasury, and policies issued from Peking are steadily ignored. Mr. Miles, a voracious reader of official documents, quotes from a 1993 report of the Academy of Sciences which warns that the leadership has

not fully realized the danger of the central government’s rapidly declining power, or they have realized it and have no effective way of halting the continuing downward trend…. The continuing decline of central authority and power is an important potential cause of the collapse of Chinese society and the breakup of the country. This must not be overlooked.

This is a combustible situation, all the more so because of a little noticed danger mentioned by Mr. Miles: China is awash with weapons sold by the military and the police, or stolen from them. In the south, he says, villagers can buy automatic weapons and rocket launchers smuggled in from Vietnam, Laos, and Burma. (Such weapons are used in violent robberies in Hong Kong by ex-servicemen who are hired to do a one-time-only job by the colony’s gangsters and then disappear back across the border.) “It is important to bear in mind,” writes Mr. Miles, “that many Chinese have considerable experience with organized rebellion.” During the violence of the Cultural Revolution many young Red Guards fought each other in factional collisions, using modern weapons. One well-known dissident, Wang Xizhe, who recently fled to the US, had been in and out of prison since the Seventies, and told Mr. Miles that “in the event of political turmoil in China, former Red Guard leaders, now mostly in their forties or fifties, will play a role, not as cheerleaders for a Maoist revival but on the side of liberal dissidents.”

What is surprising about this forecast is that many other observers assert that one of the main signs that China will remain stable is that these very Red Guards have now subscribed fully to the Dengist slogan “to get rich is glorious.” But Miles’s contrary impressions here confirm my own; one of the most striking aspects of twentieth-century China, in the midst of violence, disillusion, and hopelessness, has been the idealism of many Chinese. Deng was an idealist once; the man whom the whole world saw on television standing in the front of the tanks in Tiananmen is, or more likely was, another.

* * *

After reading Mr. Miles’s book I went to Manila, where Presidents Bill Clinton and Jiang Zemin met on what was called “the margins” of the Asian Pacific Economic Community conference, although their eighty-five-minute conversation was the big news of the whole four days. Mr. Miles believes that despite everything many Chinese remain idealists. Having watched Mr. Clinton and Mr. Jiang, both practiced cynics, in action, I think that after Manila idealism will be harder to sustain. Mr. Jiang’s idea of a goodwill present to Mr. Clinton was a video showing an American World War Two bomber that had been recovered in southern China with “the remains” still inside. This took the place of the pandas that Peking used to confer on foreign dignitaries.

The really grisly part of their encounter was their avoidance of the subject of human rights. Mr. Clinton, who once condemned the coddling of “the butchers of Beijing” by his predecessors, mentioned not one name of a Chinese who had been imprisoned for his opinions. American diplomats in Peking used to read out long lists of such prisoners when meeting with Chinese officials, but this has been stopped. So much for Wei Jingsheng and Wang Dan, together with the rest of the dissidents, virtually all of whom are by now detained or in exile. This fitted in with Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s determination, while he was in Peking just before Mr. Clinton’s arrival in Manila, to have a relationship with China “that’s not rooted in a single issue.” Two years ago John Shattuck, the Assistant Secretary for Human Rights, preceded Mr. Christopher to Peking, where he had a talk with Mr. Wei, who was promptly arrested; then Mr. Christopher considered canceling his visit. This time Mr. Shattuck had no visible part in Christopher’s negotiations; but there would have been hardly any dissidents at large for him to meet.

Mr. Christopher also gave the Chinese a big present. Peking officials contend that there is no such thing as universal human rights; if there are rights in China, they consist essentially of adequate shelter and food. To suggest otherwise, it is maintained, is to interfere in China’s sovereignty and “to hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.” In Shanghai, speaking to students at Fudan University, where he was asked about human rights, Mr. Christopher said, “Each nation, with its own history and its own set of requirements, must find its own way on this subject.”

This was contradicted by President Clinton after he left Manila, when he addressed the students at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University on November 26. “The United States is proud to have supported democracy’s march across Asia,” he said. “…We do believe that freedom and justice are the birthright of mankind.” And then, for the first time on this trip, Mr. Clinton named a name: “The brave reformers in Burma led by Aung San Suu Kyi remind us that these desires know no boundaries. Their aspirations are universal because they are fundamentally human.” Such contradictory talk, in Manila, Peking, and Bangkok, shows the hollowness of the most recent Clinton policy of “constructive engagement,” which amounts to the view that it is always better to discuss sensitive matters with China behind closed diplomatic doors.

What will really shake the idealism of Chinese, however, especially those who take the history of the Tiananmen Square repression seriously, is the visit to the US in early December of General Chi Haotian, China’s Minister of National Defense. General Chi was received with full military honors in Washington and was presented to West Point cadets. They may have been aware of the official American handout on General Chi, which quotes statements in the Chinese press about his “plain down-to-earth workstyle,” and his fondness for shooting, riding horses, swimming, and calligraphy. In its detailed account of General Chi’s career, beginning with his birth in a peasant family in 1929, the US release omits something the cadets should know. According to an American army directory of Chinese “personalities,” he was in command of operations on the night of the Tiananmen killings, with well over 300,000 troops at his disposal from fourteen army groups and two airborne brigades. In response to charges of a cover-up the Pentagon said in early December that General Chi was not the “architect” of Tiananmen. If there were a similar event in Rangoon, West Pointers would not be left in the dark; nor would a general from SLORC, the Burmese junta, address them.

* * *

Mr. Miles would doubtless agree about the duplicity of US policy. What his otherwise excellent book ignores are some central questions, including the problems of population growth, the status of women, and gender distribution. China is a poor, backward, and unstable country whose enormous population, now nearly 1.2 billion people, poses a danger to itself and to the unborn. In some regions, because of the destruction of unborn or infant females, the ratio of all males to females is ten to one. Moreover, women are often singled out for political persecution and many of them were among the victims during the Tiananmen killings.3

The one-child policy, promulgated in 1980, was intended to halt the population explosion and then reduce the population from a projected 1.3 billion people to under seven hundred million within seventy-five years. Not only has China’s population continued to expand, however, although at a slower rate, but peasants, even in rich and relatively Westernized provinces like Guangdong just over the border from Hong Kong, have used a variety of techniques to ensure that their only infants are boys—capable, they believe, of eventually making more money than girls in order to sustain their parents in their old age. Throughout the early Eighties, infanticide was the commonest method of getting rid of girls. But now ultrasound equipment, illegal but widely and cheaply available, has ensured, according to official sources, that 97 percent of all Chinese abortions are of female fetuses.4 Many female babies are abandoned and some end up in orphanages, where the survival rate is low, as a recent report by Human Rights Watch/Asia vividly showed.

The result is that in many parts of China there are 118 males for every 100 females, as opposed to a normal ratio of 105 to 100. The country will have to deal with what one Chinese newspaper described as “an army of bachelors,” which will grow in the twenty-first century to over 100 million men, the population of an average African state, most of them with little prospect of finding a wife.

For at least ten years, moreover, Chinese newspapers and police reports have described the abduction or sale of thousands of women from poorer parts of China to richer regions. The stories usually report on the convictions of leaders of abduction rings who have so far been arrested, while many thousands more remain at large. Women from Vietnam and Thailand have also been sold or kidnapped.

Just before the UN Conference on women last year in Peking, the American-based group Human Rights in China published a 102-page document claiming that hundreds of thousands of women were being abducted or sold into prostitution and marriage. Referring to conditions of “virtual slavery” under which most Chinese women live, the report described them as “the silent victims of government policies which encourage or tacitly accept human rights abuses,”5 and stated that half a million female babies, five percent of the total expected to be born each year, are “missing.”6 The elimination of members of the next generation of Chinese women on an unprecedented scale, whether as fetuses or as infants, and the ill treatment of the survivors, including abduction and prostitution, may turn out to be among the greatest acts of social and cultural self-destruction in modern Chinese history.


  1. The most detailed and convincing account I have seen on what happened in Tiananmen Square at the height of the killings is in Jan Wong’s recent Red China Blues: My Long March From Mao to Now (Anchor, 1996), pp. 259- 260.
  2. The most compendious source for these hitherto unnamed prisoners is Detained in China and Tibet: A Directory of Political and Religious Prisoners, published in 1994 by Human Rights Watch/Asia, and largely compiled by Robin Munro, the main author of Human Rights Watch’s equally invaluable work on the scandal of China’s orphanages. The directory has entries like this: “Sun Sanbao, a worker at a shipbuilding facility in Hubei province, was sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment for allegedly organizing a strike during the 1989 pro democracy movement” (p. 97).
  3. “It is significant that women in China continue to suffer human rights violations for activities which are considered entirely legitimate and central to the work of NGOs across the world…. Women from all walks of life were among the peaceful protestors and unarmed civilians killed by the army in Beijing that day during the suppression of pro-democracy protests.” Women in China: Imprisoned and Abused for Dissent (Amnesty International, June 28, 1995), pp. 1, 3. A substantial defense of the status of Chinese women, Women in China, stating that while their status “is still not wholly satisfactory,” overall women “have stood up and become the masters of New China, like all citizens of the country,” and “they enjoy rights equal to those of men,” was published by the official Chinese news agency, Xinhua, on June 3, 1994. BBC Survey of World Broadcasts, FE/2019 S1/1, June 10, 1994. S1/1, S½.
  4. Caught Between Tradition and the State: Violations of the Human Rights of Chinese Women (Human Rights in China, August 1995), p. 52.
  5. Caught Between Tradition and the State, p. 1.
  6. For more information on missing females and gender imbalances, see Caught Between Tradition and the State, Chapter 2, especially pp. 49-51; Shripad Tuljapurkar, Nan Li, and Marcus Feldman, High Sex Ratios in China’s Future, Morrison Institute for Population and Resource Studies, Department of Biological Sciences, Stanford University, 1994 (mimeograph).
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Jonathan Mirsky was born in New York in 1932 and educated at Columbia University, Cambridge University, and the University of Pennsylvania. He has taught Chinese and Vietnamese history, Comparative...
Reviewed in This Article

The Legacy of Tiananmen: China in Disarray
by James Miles
University of Michigan Press, 379 pp.

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This article was first published in the January 9, 1997 issue of the New York Review of Books.

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