These days it takes a medieval fantasy to help us remember why liberal democracy is worth cherishing.
For decades, the voices of dissident Chinese, like human rights lawyer and activist Teng Biao, were occasionally heard and never listened to by the larger world. Some, like Wei Jingsheng, author of the famous “Fifth Modernization” essay during the Democracy Wall movement in 1978, or Wang Dan, student leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy protests, became minor celebrities in the world of human rights and democracy promotion. Yet even the most prominent among them failed to change in any material way the world’s policies towards China. As always, a combination of profit motive and wariness of antagonizing Beijing has led nations around the world to defer to China, ignore its human rights record, and downplay years of predatory actions. It is, to quote Teng Biao’s Liberty Forum essay, not a “China dream,” but rather a “China nightmare” that the world faces.
A Less Remembered Anniversary
The Chinese Communist Party is confronted with two momentous anniversaries this spring. The first occurred last month, marking the centenary of the May 4, 1919 movement organized by students at Peking University protesting the weakness of the new Republican China in the face of Western imperialism, and the ceding to Japan at the Versailles Peace Conference of Chinese territory previously held by Germany. The May Fourth Movement served as an inspiration to reformers through the 20th century and, as argued by Rana Mitter in A Bitter Revolution (2005), shaped both rhetoric and policy in China all the way through the events of May and June, 1989 (the more prominent of this spring’s anniversaries), and the memory of which the CCP has successfully buried.
The student and labor protests of the original May Fourth Movement took place within a larger milieu known as the New Culture Movement. Its thinkers and activists, lashing out at reactionary, Confucian ways for holding back a country that had just overthrown two millennia of imperial rule in 1911, sought to upend social, political, and economic relations. Perhaps most famously, the aspirations of that era were captured by the radical intellectual Chen Duxiu, dean of Peking University and a founder of the CCP in 1921, who argued that in order to instill Western notions of equality and human rights as well as strengthen itself, China needed both “Mr. Democracy” and “Mr. Science.” Though Chen soon ran afoul of the party he founded, and became a political nonentity, his binary formulation of China’s modernization program inspired generations of activists after him.
Yet it is one of the tragedies of modern China that only half of Chen’s program was fully adopted. It is the triumph of “Mr. Science” that is responsible, in no small part, for the nightmare that Teng Biao laments. To be clear, “science,” in this context, is the broad national strengthening of China through economic and technical means. To be sure, both democracy and science were shunted to the sidelines from the 1920s through the 1970s, as China went through the convulsions of Nationalist rule under Chiang Kaishek, war with Japan, civil war, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution. But as Deng Xiaoping began to assert his control over the CCP and government in the years after Mao’s death in 1976, science came back as the core element of public policy.
Deng and His Heirs
First came the “Four Modernizations” in 1977: in agriculture, industry, science and technology, and defense. Then came the Third Plenum of the Eleventh Central Committee of the CCP, in December 1978, where specifics for achieving the modernization goals were laid out, including nods to “people’s democracy” but more notably allowing so-called “side-occupations” in agriculture and decentralizing certain elements of centralization in industrial decisionmaking. Calls for more democracy, such that issued by Wei Jingsheng in his famous “Fifth Modernization” wall poster, were not merely ignored by the government but actively suppressed. Wei, then a worker in Beijing, was arrested and spent a total of 18 years in prison.
Deng instead focused solely on economic modernization. Technology transfer from the West was an important and core element of the modernization plan drawn up in the 1970s. This included the purchase of entire industrial plants and increased foreign ventures in China, foreshadowing the “indigenous innovation” and “Made in China 2025” policies that have become a concern to the West in recent years.
A rise in inflation, budget deficits, corruption, internal migrations, and the widening income gap between rural and urban Chinese—all came from the success that Deng and CCP General Secretaries Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang had in pushing structural reforms during the 1980s in the face of conservative opposition. By the mid-1980s, with science well established through Deng’s Four Modernizations, professors such as Feng Lizhi and university students began to push once again for democracy to be elevated to the same level of national focus. Large-scale demonstrations in late 1986 were succeeded in the spring of 1989 by a massive outpouring of student support for the recently deceased Hu, who had been forced to resign two years previously.
Despite indelible images of “Tank Man” and the peaceful attempts by Beijing citizens to prevent units of the People’s Liberation Army from clearing Tiananmen Square, the military once again put down radical youth threatening the state’s control—the first time being two decades previously, during the Cultural Revolution, at the height of the Red Guards madness. In 1989, the ensuing June massacre, whether of “only” hundreds or several thousands, was ordered and fully backed by the CCP, marking an end to democracy’s attempt to establish itself in China.
Why the Momentum Stopped
The events of June 4 and after could have been an inflection point in modern Chinese history, leading to even more massive demonstrations, the collapse of the CCP, major reforms, and possibly even the dismemberment of the People’s Republic of China itself. Instead, the Party enhanced its repressive apparatus and sought to deflect attention from dangerous political ideas by even farther-reaching economic reform. Despite pious condemnation of the massacre, the capitals of the developed world soon reverted to business as usual, as Teng Biao notes, with the administration of George H.W. Bush making the determination that severing ties with Beijing would only eliminate any remaining influence Washington had.
What was more, the West doubled down on its support of China’s economic modernization, giving a boost to Deng’s 1992 revitalization of his radical reform plans. Indeed, as Teng notes, “the extinguishing of the democracy movement and the [subsequent] economic miracle are closely linked.” What the West assumed and hoped was that, by helping China achieve its economic miracle, it would surreptitiously reintroduce liberalization over time. Instead, Teng Biao correctly concludes that “economic power and high technology have greatly strengthened the CCP’s control.” The result is “high-tech totalitarianism.”
Here is where China’s nightmare becomes the world’s problem. In order to “make the world safe for the CCP,” its “high-tech Orwellian state [has] become a menace to other countries and to universal values,” writes Teng Biao. One must stop at this point to try and understand just why the CCP feels threatened by a world that has since the early 1970s done little other than try to integrate it into global economic and political systems. What accounts for Beijing’s basic distrust of the foreign? Why did it feel impelled to build a military designed to target and destroy the one power whose presence in the Indo-Pacific region helped maintain the stability of which China took such efficient advantage for the building of its formidable trade empire?
From Political Blocs to Internet Blocs
More specifically related to Beijing’s use of high-tech for social control, was it necessary that the regime’s attempts to use such systems to manipulate the Chinese people be exported abroad—either to interfere with other nations, or to track down the small numbers of isolated and largely powerless expatriate Chinese the CCP feared?
In this latter exercise, of course, today’s China is no different from its erstwhile communist ally, the Soviet Union, which throughout its history hunted down apostates and exiles around the world, eliminating them for fear of counter-revolutionary uprising. It is in the nature of an authoritarian/totalitarian regime that it must destroy those who proffer alternative visions of the society it has placed under its thumb. The West, privileging individual rights and civil freedoms, would naturally become caught in between the regime and its targets if it simply gave rhetorical support to democratic norms while avoiding any serious attempts to deter Beijing’s machinations. What became a struggle combining the regime’s intent to hold on to power with ideological confrontation inevitably opened up a new field of confrontation between the two sides. From there, Chinese cyber espionage against Western targets, be they insurance companies or government personnel systems, became fair game.
Yet there is another, perhaps even more insidious, way in which China’s high-tech threat to the world has emerged. As Teng Biao notes, Western companies, including Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Intel, and others, have enabled the CCP’s surveillance state by turning their products into tools of control. Those possibilities were always inherent in the technology, but were largely dismissed by Westerners who assumed that digital advancement meant always increasing personal freedom. Yet from providing client information to designing self-censoring search engines, Western tech companies have helped mature China’s digitally repressive environment. And Beijing has, in turn, begun to export the fruits of that cooperation, selling visual recognition systems to other autocrats, as well as to democracies—all of which has the effect of separating the Internet into the original, and freer, Western-designed half, and a far more closed, controlled half based on Chinese models.
Herein lies a serious threat to liberal (what Teng Biao calls “universal”) values, and to the presumptions of the open society that we in the West take for granted. A world of Internet blocs is simply a mirror image of a world of political blocs—and perhaps later of economic and military blocs. It is precisely to prevent those liberal values from once again threatening the CCP’s survival that China has pursued a path of national self-strengthening and now high-tech development that tightens its ability to control all aspects of Chinese life.
What Is to Be Done?
In talking about communists, it is perhaps appropriate at this point to raise Vladimir Lenin’s question: “What is to be done”?
Before doing so, we should reiterate both that the West is responsible in part for China’s extraordinary rise and strengthening, and also that it was not necessarily wrong to pursue the policy of engagement that Washington and others did, starting in the 1970s. That bet—that China would eventually adopt global norms of doing business and even liberalize in certain respects—now appears to have been misguided. Yet in the atmosphere of post-Mao recovery, in which Deng was pushing economic reforms and reining in the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, it was not entirely fanciful to believe that China might pursue another path, one harking back perhaps to the calls for Mr. Democracy arising from the May Fourth Movement.
After 1989, that belief was suddenly much harder to maintain. But the compelling political calculation was that politics would follow economics, and a continued integration of China into the world would lead to a more moderate, if not liberalized, China.
The West must now accept that, as long as the CCP exists in its current form, it is all but inconceivable that it will loosen its control over the Chinese people. Xi Jinping is the latest (and perhaps most virulent since Mao) defender of authoritarian control, but China’s President is merely a creature of the CCP’s ideology and iron logic of domination. Economic engagement may still continue, but no longer can the world pretend that it will moderate China. The choice for the West and its allies, therefore, is whether to continue to abet the power of the PRC leadership, which has committed to realizing the final triumph of science in China’s era of modernization. Can liberal governments let go of the profit motive, in order both to make a prudent defense of their interests and to take a justified moral stand?
The ability of any outside actor to materially change power relations inside China might be limited. But the recognition of such does not mean that acquiescence in a system of repression at home and predatory action abroad is the only option remaining to us.