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de Tian’anmen Chine

The Tiananmen Legacy

Translated Saturday 7 June 2014, by Isabelle Métral

The Tiananmen Legacy

Twenty-five years after the Tienanmen revolt, democratic aspirations are still strong and social tensions rampant.

Lina Sankari

Measured by the scale of China’s History and its several-thousand-year-old dynasties, a quarter of a century is an infinitesimal interval. And yet, it seems things have never moved so fast. Since 1989, time has accelerated to the pace of the drastic change that has swept over the country. Twenty-five years is a short interval to assess the impact of the Tienanmen demonstrations that were quelled with fire and the sword.

Following the 15th of April 1989, and the death of Hu Yaobang, the liberal reformer and former general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), 100,000 students flocked only a few yards away from the government’s seat to demand freedom of speech and protest against inflation and decreasing incomes. The Tienanmen’s revolt, a mirror reflection of the deep political crisis that was then rocking the party, was described by the People’s Daily as “a deliberate plot” by “a handful of people moved by shameful counter-revolutionary intentions”. The editorial lay the ground for the confrontation and boosted the movement. A million young people camped on the square until martial law was imposed and the army opened fire during the night between the third and fourth of June.

In his memories, CCP former general secretary Zhao Ziyang, a supporter of parliamentary democracy in order to “manage the consequences of the shift to the market economy,” evokes the hot debates among the State’s top officials: “I said at the time that most people were asking us to correct our imperfections and did not want to topple the political system.”

No existing model seems convincing

How do things stand to-day? Many Western observers are agreed that since the Tiananmen protest all political reform has been frozen, which has hampered the opening –up of the economy. The real facts are not so clear-cut. Moreover, it is open to question what democracy means. Yu Keping, an academic, explains that reform in China is

“not a reform of the political system in the sense quite a few learned people in the west see it, for it does not entail a drastic overhaul of the political cadre.”

In a country where fear of instability is paramount and “harmony” is the motto, no existing model seems convincing. Wu, a physics student at the university of science and technology in Beijing, observes that

“China has its own characteristics and it is inconceivable to copy the Western system where the government is not as efficient. Progress towards democracy and transparency must be the result of patient compromise for should the party be called into question, then instability would follow. And no one wishes to go through a deep revolution.”

How then do citizens think that they can have a part in the reforms that are essential for the country to keep developing? The question is all the more urgent as during the last decade, Wen Jiabao, the former prime minister, has been heard to praise “the spirit of democracy” and criticize “the excessive, unbridled concentration of power”. Researcher Chloé Froissart thinks that

“in the Chinese political system, democracy has two aspects. First, the régime has a democratic and republican front, and a constitution, a system of assemblies at the municipal, provincial, and national levels and is a multiparty system. At each administrative level, five parties are represented next to the Chinese Communist Party in the Chinese people’s consultative political conferences. Secondly, the people’s participation is regularly made to uphold the continuing rule of the CCP, or by one faction against others.” The structure makes of the people’s participation,” a means to reinforce the State and the party’s legitimacy. “Consultative democracy” makes it possible “to help the party better to reflect all the diverging interests in society and better synthesize the existing social contradictions,”

the academic adds. He observes that some of the associations’ demands (associations have been quite militant over the last few years) are met by political reform.

Since 1987, villages have directly elected their representatives. Thanks to an amendment passed in 2009, citizens can even sack their corrupt representatives. In late 2011, Wukan’s inhabitants in the southern province of Guangdong accepted the principle of elections. “In the weeks that followed the Wukan events, other villagers’ revolts broke out against their representatives and these are sometimes repressed, sometimes discreetly paid attention to, historian François Godement notes.

In the 2000’s, workers went out on strike repeatedly in order to demand hikes and a part in the factory’s management. According to Chloé Froissart, the government considers that

“this democratic participation might take place within the cadre of reinvigorated trade-unions thanks to direct elections that would enable the workers’ representatives freely chosen by the workshop to supplant party cadres or members of the factory management in the positions of union representatives.”

Small steps, these, to try and contain the political effects of social conflicts everywhere rampant.

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