»  National Review

February 5th, 2001

  The Tiananmen Papers


January 8th saw the publication of the so-called "Tiananmen Papers," transcripts of high-level discussions among the Chinese leadership in the period leading up to the suppression of the 1989 student movement. What do these documents reveal about the inner workings of the Chinese leadership? What guidance do they offer to the new U.S. administration in the task of, as foreign-policy wonks say, "managing the relationship" with China? And what can they tell us about the future course of events in China?

Though they offer few surprises, the Tiananmen Papers fill in some key details for us and give a precise chronology of the decision-making that led up the victory of the hard-liners and the storming of Tiananmen Square in the early hours of June 4th, 1989. We already knew from indirect evidence what kinds of things must have been said, but it is fascinating to see the actual words spoken by China's senior leaders during the crisis. These documents serve to remind us of the fundamentally lawless nature of the Chinese communist government. The fact of their having been leaked to the West, together with the fierce indignation with which the Chinese government has denied their authenticity, also offer some clues about differences of opinion at the highest levels of the Party apparatus.

In the matter of lawlessness, it is clear from the Tiananmen Papers that Jiang Zemin, the current President of China and General Secretary of the Communist Party, owes his positions not to any constitutional procedure, but to a voice vote taken on May 27 1989 by the "eight elders," a cabal of senior party leaders led by Deng Xiaoping. You will search China's constitution in vain for any reference to this body, yet they made all the key decisions leading up to the June 4th massacre.

Jiang's term of office as party leader ends in October 2002, his presidency in March 2003. Jiang's second-in-command, Li Peng, also holds party and state positions due to expire in those years. These two men were the hard-line victors of the 1989 uprising. Li managed the suppression of the student movement; Jiang replaced a more liberal General Secretary, who was cashiered by the "eight elders" and has been under house arrest ever since. By clarifying the roles of these two men in the 1989 atrocities, and by showing the illegitimate nature of Jiang's ascension, whoever leaked the papers may be hoping to weaken Jiang and Li — and by extension, the hard-line faction they represent — preparatory to the changing-of-the-guard period that begins next year.

However, while the leaking of these papers suggests the presence of a faction pushing for political reform, the content of the material does not offer much hope for the success of this faction. To the contrary, we see the ease with which party hard-liners dispatched their opponents, once everyone was convinced that there was a serious threat to Party supremacy. Nor do these conversations indicate that "reform" means the same thing in the upper ranks of the Chinese Communist Party as it does in the minds of western observers. The most liberal of the leaders represented here is Zhao Ziyang, the one now under house arrest, and presumably the inspiration for younger reformers. Zhao speaks encouragingly of:

 … the need to accelerate the reform of our political system, especially the building of a system of socialist democracy based on law. Times have changed … democracy is a worldwide trend …

So far, so good. But then:

We must, of course, insist on Communist Party leadership and not play around with any Western multiparty systems.

Of course. Another impression that emerges very strongly from the Tiananmen Papers is of Chineseness — most especially, of long continuity in the thinking of China's leaders. Some of these conversations might have come from the Imperial reactionaries of the "Hundred Days" back in 1898, when an attempt to reform the old imperial system was crushed by the Dowager Empress Ci Xi. Among the invariants of Chinese leadership psychology, now as then, is the conviction that all China's misfortunes are caused by the manipulations of malevolent foreigners. Li Peng (4/28/89): "This turmoil is the result of long-term preparation by a tiny minority of bourgeois liberal elements hooked up with anti-China forces outside the country."

Given that Li, Jiang and the rest of China's current leaders — the victors of the 1989 struggle — are now in their seventies, can we not hope that a younger, more open generation is in the wings, impatient to take over and try their hand at genuine reform? I doubt it. The Chinese Communist Party may have sunk into Brezhnevism — there is precious little ideology on display in the Tiananmen Papers — but they have done so in a much happier economic environment than Brezhnev's USSR. China's ruling class is fat from corruption, a bloated nomenklatura with a huge vested interest in the status quo, and a much greater willingness than the Soviets had to permit economic freedoms — so long as they are allowed to skim off the cream for themselves. Anyone with ideas about real political reform will face this entrenched ruling class, determined to defend its wealth and privileges, and well able to do so as long as the economic pot can be kept bubbling.


Ninety-five years ago Sun Yat-sen, struggling to bring down the decaying Manchu dynasty, put forward his "Three People's Principles": nationalism, democracy, and socialism. Few of Sun's ideas made much headway in the chaos of Imperial collapse and the warlord period that followed, but the "Principles" did at least identify the three arenas in which China's future was then to be, and is still to be, decided: the national, the political and the economic.

The 1989 uprising was a crisis in the second arena, a political crisis. The student marchers, and the millions of citizens who lined the streets to cheer them on, were sick of the Communist Party's lies, bullying and corruption. The communists have, in their own way, addressed these issues. They have overhauled the state religion, fortifying the empty clich é s of Marx- and Mao-think with a heady infusion of hyper-nationalism, historical grievance and racial victimology. The snooping and bullying has been much reduced, and citizens who do not attempt to organize themselves into groups outside the Party now have wide latitude in what they can say and do. (The state of affairs Karl Wittfogel memorably labeled "a beggars' democracy.") Corruption continues to soar, but is now more decently veiled, and offenders who have not been sufficiently careful to cover themselves with strong political patronage are occasionally punished.

Politics has, in short, been taken care of. The next great crisis in China will take place in one of the other two arenas identified by Sun Yat-sen: the national, or the economic.

China's "national question" is still unresolved. What exactly is China? Does it include the "three T's" — Taiwan, Tibet and East Turkestan ("Xinjiang")? Any mainland Chinese will tell you, usually with great vehemence, that it does, always has and always will. The actual inhabitants of those territories, however, have a different opinion. This fact will sooner or later assert itself, to the deep discomfort not merely of China's leaders, but of ordinary Chinese people, who are unwilling to acknowledge that their "nation" is actually the old Manchu empire, reassembled by force. (Though minus Outer Mongolia, which the Chinese still covet.)

Economic crisis will strike when the gross inefficiencies in China's economy cause it to fall behind the sleeker, less corrupt models of east Asia and the west, causing the steady year-on-year gains of the last two decades to drop to zero or go negative. The keys here, intimately linked, are corruption, environmental degradation, and the rule of law — the first and second present at staggering levels, the third nowhere to be seen. Even the Taiwanese, who have had (and still have) their own problems in this area, are taken aback by the scale of mainland corruption. Last year, Taiwan businessman Wang Yung-ching entered into partnership with some mainland investors to build six semiconductor plants. His proud boast that one of the mainland investors was the son of Chinese President Jiang Zemin aroused widespread comment in Taiwan, much of it in tones of disgust. Jiang's son, and the thousand of other "princelings" who are sapping the nation's economic vitality, are of course above the law. (Not necessarily something to look for in a business associate. In 1998 Li Peng's son closed down a mutual fund he had been a partner in and walked off with the assets of $120m, stiffing several thousand small investors, some of whom had their life savings in the fund. Pressed to act, the Chinese authorities arrested Li's Taiwanese business partner and sentenced him to death!)

The idea that the release of the Tiananmen Papers presages some kind of political crisis at the scheduled "changing of the guard" in 2002-3 is therefore, I think, mistaken. The People's Republic is fundamentally unstable in all three of the aspects identified by Dr. Sun — as a nation, as a polity and as an economy. The Tiananmen papers show that the Communist Party is considerably adept at managing political instability and crushing reform. They are masters of politics. Whether their brutish, lawless methods will be as successful in managing a territorial or economic crisis remains to be seen.