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George Washington University Law School

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Monday, June 4, 2007

Han Dongfang on the June 4th anniversary

Today is the 18th anniversary of the June 4th massacre in Beijing. This commentary by exiled Chinese labor leader Han Dongfang (韩东方) has obvious relevance for law and governance in China.

June 4, 1989 - The opening act of a tragedy

Han Dongfang

EIGHTEEN years have passed since the bloody suppression of the 1989 democracy movement in China. Among the most memorable images of that time - alongside the chilling scenes of the dead and injured on the streets of Beijing, and the inspiring vision of the young man in a white shirt standing in front of the tanks - were those of a frail and trembling Deng Xiaoping, the man who ordered the crackdown, at a televised meeting on June 9 with the soldiers and leaders of the People's Liberation Army. This footage revealed another side of the "great man": that of someone haunted by the tragic consequences of his own actions and in desperate search of historical vindication.

Hoping to wash the blood from his hands and calm his troubled soul, Deng needed an explanation for the crackdown - in essence, a justification for wholesale murder - and the mantra he came up with was "safeguarding social stability". Increasingly over the past 18 years, the Chinese government has cited China's spectacular economic development as a way of justifying the crackdown on the 1989 democracy movement, claiming that social stability has been the key to economic growth. This flawed logic has underpinned the authorities' relentless suppression of political dissidents, arrests of labour rights activists, and persecution of civil rights advocates that continues to this day.

In recent years, however, the policy of using terror tactics to maintain a fragile façade of social stability in China has begun to backfire. Eighteen years after the suppression of a democracy movement that was opposed to corruption, corruption has become an incurable illness at the heart of the Communist Party. At the same time, the breakneck pace of economic development has brought about clear and tangible evidence of social disintegration on all sides. As a result, an autonomous civil rights (wei quan) movement has now sprung up and begun to penetrate cities, towns and villages around China. Too many citizens have been adversely affected by the government's corruption-ridden paradigm of growth without democracy, and more and more of them are now fighting back, using the language of rights and rule-of-law as their weapon.

China's post-Tiananmen economic success story has caught the imagination of the world; but in fact, the increasing gap between rich and poor since 1989 has been equally spectacular. Take the reform of state owned enterprises (SOEs), for example, and in particular the creation of the SOE share system that forced workers to pay to become shareholders, since having no shares would mean losing one's "rice bowl." Those without savings even had to borrow to take part in this scheme. The workers knew it was a trap, but one they had no way of avoiding. In the end, the great majority of the reformed enterprises made losses or went bankrupt, and the workers' accumulated life savings simply vanished into thin air. In most cases, the money ended up in the pockets of corrupt enterprise bosses.

Although murmurs of resentment could be heard everywhere, for many years China's workers dared not openly give voice to their anger, largely because of the officially prolonged "June 4 crackdown effect", which was like a sharp sword hanging constantly over their heads. Any organized attempts at protest or resistance were branded as "threats to social stability" and were met with harsh repression. The resultant lack of any effective, organised opposition from the workers left individual SOE bosses free to gradually reshape the entire businesses to their own personal ends.

In effect, the government's post-Tiananmen policies became a protective shield for the wholesale and unopposed transformation of China's public wealth into private assets. In the seven years between 1998 and 2004 alone, 30 million workers were forcibly laid off from SOEs. A huge proportion of them and their families were reduced to a state of permanent poverty, while in the process countless government officials and SOE managers became multi-millionaires.

Deng Xiaoping's hard-line policy of repression in 1989 was a mistake; trying to justify murder and the use of political terror in the name of stability was another mistake; and maintaining that political repression in exchange for rapid economic growth over the past 18 years has been a third mistake. As a result of these major policy errors, the Chinese government lost the golden opportunity that arose in the late 1980s to initiate political reforms and start building a democratic system. And now, two decades later, as the façade of social stability begins to crumble under the weight of growing worker anger and the rise of the civil rights movement, the Party is finding it has no option but to fundamentally reassess its ability to govern and to re-examine the very basis of its legitimacy.

Hence, in an attempt to assuage growing public anger and defuse the mass protests erupting all over China, the country's leaders have been obliged to put forward the goal of creating a "harmonious society." However, it is impossible to create a harmonious society unless one enjoys the trust and confidence of the people. And President Hu and Prime Minister Wen cannot secure such things by fiat or repression: they will have to earn them by actually implementing the "people-oriented" policies that they claim to espouse.

The man who ordered the June 4 crackdown passed away a decade ago, and both China's leadership and the government's socio-economic policies have changed conspicuously since then. But politically, the terror tactics remain in place and the "June 4 crackdown effect" still persists. China's current leadership now needs to make some bold new choices and stop repeating the mistakes of the past. Only thus will they be able to truly establish a "harmonious society" and re-establish the Party's popularity and legitimacy. The great mistakes of the past cannot be undone, but today's leaders could, given sufficient political wisdom and foresight, at least begin to repair the damage. Until that happens, the curtain will remain unclosed on the national tragedy prompted by the events of 18 years ago in Beijing.

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