Friday 20 Jul 2018 | 10:54 | SYDNEY
Friday 20 Jul 2018 | 10:54 | SYDNEY

Tiananmen and democracy


Rory Medcalf


3 June 2009 16:55

'On the night of June 3rd, while sitting in my courtyard with my family, I heard intense gunfire. A tragedy to shock the world had not been averted, and was happening after all.' So wrote former Chinese Premier and Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang. Zhao had tried to prevent the Tiananmen massacre — and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

His posthumously-published secret memoir should be required reading — on both sides of the great firewall — for anyone who wants to understand not only the terrible events that occurred precisely 20 years ago in Beijing but also what they might mean for the future of China and the world. Here is leading Australian China expert Richard Rigby’s excellent analysis of the book and its layers of meaning.

Even for the non-specialist, there are some compelling messages in these pages, transcribed from tapes recorded by Zhao and smuggled out by supporters.

What strikes me is the extent to which such momentous events turned on the decisions and rivalries of a handful of people in China’s top leadership. What if the rest of the leadership had at any stage accepted Zhao’s repeated advice to pursue conciliation with the protesting students? What if Zhao had not had to visit North Korea at a crucial time, creating scope for Li Peng to publish the People’s Daily editorial that condemned the students and hardened attitudes? What if just a few more individuals in Deng Xiaoping’s ruling clique had sided with Zhao’s effort to continue political reform, rather than turn it violently back?

Zhao argued that China would ultimately need to move towards a version of liberal democracy for its people’s wellbeing to be met and sustained. It might be argued that history has not — yet — proved him right. But his journal confirms that there is nothing inevitable about China’s maintaining an authoritarian system. Next time popular pressure for reform begins to mount, a future Zhao might fare better than did the honourable man of 1989.

A pessimist, however, might heed the following, from Roderick MacFarqhuar’s foreword: 'how would [a pro-democracy reformer] implement these ideas in the teeth of Party opposition at all levels of society? It took a disaster of Cultural Revolution proportions to shake China out of the Stalinist economic model...the Party would have to be shaken to its roots for its leaders to contemplate following the final message of Zhao Ziyang’s testament.' 

Photo by Flickr user Tiananmen-20, used under a Creative Commons license.