Tiananmen and the Chinese dream
June 4th, 2013
07:30 AM ET

Tiananmen and the Chinese dream

By Kelley Currie, Special to CNN

Editor's note: Kelley Currie is a senior fellow with the Project 2049 Institute in Washington. The views expressed are her own.

June 4 marks the anniversary of the peak of the People’s Liberation Army’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protests that took place across China in 1989, crushing hopes throughout that country, and the world, that the Chinese Communist Party’s monopoly on political power might be giving way to a more democratic, representative and accountable political system.  In the years since those heady and ultimately tragic days, China has emerged from its Maoist totalitarian nightmare to become a global economic and political power of growing strength and uncertain intention. Yet despite the decades of change, the Chinese political elite – or at least important elements of it – seems trapped in an authoritarian mindset only marginally less paranoid, insecure and shortsighted than during Mao’s rule.

The yawning mismatch between the forward-facing reality and aspirations of the Chinese people and the defensive, anachronistic thinking of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is putting pressure on China’s unstable operating systems, and the ongoing leadership transition has only appeared to exacerbate these pressures, as various sides battle for influence. Indeed, over the past week, as the sensitive Tiananmen anniversary approached, Chinese netizens have been buzzing in particular over a blog post that appeared last week in the Chinese-language Investors Journal (and just as suddenly disappeared at the hands of the censors). The post boldly compares the present debate about the Party and constitutionalism with references to the atmosphere around the Democracy Wall in 1976 and Tiananmen protests:

“[T]he war of words last week between Weibo and official media over ‘constitutionalism’ was of an intensity nothing short of, and perhaps surpassing, what we saw [in 1989] during the controversy caused by the World Economic Herald. At that time, it was possible for official mouthpiece [newspapers] to trumpet their own theories after summarily shutting the door on [the World Economic Herald].”

The debate about constitutionalism was precipitated by President Xi Jinping’s December 2012 comments that no organization or individual possessed a “special right to overstep the constitution and law.” A flurry of commentaries has since appeared among academics and in state media and social media forums. Yet while supporters of constitutionalism have seemed to have the edge in popular Weibo and Sina blog posts, a recently leaked internal speech given by Xi calling for the Party to be vigilant against spiritual pollution and the advance of “Western universal values” has dampened hopes that he favored reforms.

More from CNN: Can China become a melting pot?

It’s a well-trodden path. Even the great reformer Deng Xiaoping, who took the helm after Mao’s death in 1976, continued to couch goals of “reform” and “opening up” in language that positioned policies as the ideological heirs to Mao Zedong though.

So what about Xi’s recent talk of the “Chinese Dream”? While on the surface, such rhetoric evokes the idea of the “American Dream” of personal and family achievement as being the bedrock of a successful society, it increasingly seems that the Chinese version is centered on something quite different: the reemergence of the Chinese nation to its rightful place through the assertion of its economic and military power. After all, not only does Xi’s “Chinese Dream” require the continued leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, but it also represents the logical conclusion of the Party’s life-long effort to conflate the identity and aspirations of Chinese and their state with those of the Party.

But in articulating a nationalist vision as the key purpose of the Chinese state, and using it as an argument against universal values and democratization, Xi is playing with fire. Since 1976, the Party has relied heavily on performance based legitimacy and coercive power to maintain control, but as both of those pillars become increasingly shaky, such appeals to nationalism are turning out to be the Party’s last refuge. Turning to nationalism in this way is dangerous for the same obvious reasons that it would be anywhere else. Yet there is an added degree of difficulty for China’s leaders, because invoking this kind of nationalism simultaneously invites public participation in the political life of the country while maintaining “forbidden zones” where the Chinese citizenry remains unable freely to express themselves politically.

In 1989, with the decision to violently suppress nationwide protests and shut down the possibilities of further political reform, Deng and his colleagues in the Politburo flatly rejected calls for China to move forward with the “Fifth Modernization” of democracy. Instead, they attempted to substitute that dream with a transactional bargain: go make money and live your life, and let us take care of the politics. Now, as that bargain is becoming increasingly frayed, the leadership is trying to negotiate another deal with some combination of coercion and reward. But it is cleverly portraying it in terms designed to uplift a nation that is increasingly searching for something beyond material comforts.

Unfortunately, the “Chinese Dream” is being used not only as inspiration for the nation, but as a counterweight to the growing appreciation and desire in China for universal values, including fundamental freedoms of expression, association and belief, and the right of the citizenry to choose their own government through democratic means. The Chinese patriots who were killed for these same aspirations 24 years ago should be all the reminder that is necessary of the lengths that the current Chinese leadership will likely be willing to go to maintain its hold on power.

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Topics: China • Human Rights

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soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. jackinbox

    Xi says all things to all people, like any other politician. He gets all of your hopes up then do what he sees good for his "performance based legitimacy". I don't see anything wrong with a performance driven system. Performance itself changes with time: poor man wants to be rich, rich man wants culture and quality of life. These changes are happening right now.

    Our problem is we tolerate non-performing legitimacy. We spend our national effort on holy wars, gay marriage, and gun control. None of that has anything to do with performance.

    June 4, 2013 at 10:47 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      No doubt Xi wants to move China in another direction: to take the best values out of Western culture and leave out all decadence. His "China Dream", is something he has linked to a Chinese renaissance, where the country can take its rightful place in the world. Perhaps he doesn't want to disappoint his father, revolutionary veteran Xi Zhongxun, one of the Communist Party's founding fathers.

      June 5, 2013 at 3:29 pm | Reply
  2. desert voice

    CNN should not forget that 4th of June 1989 also marks the crucial date for the American Polonia, since this day we celebrate the fall of Communism! June 4th 1989 was therefore a sad day for China, but a glorious day for Poland!

    June 4, 2013 at 3:20 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Spoken like another hateful, weak minded, brainwashed Tea Partier! Thank you, desert voice.

      June 4, 2013 at 5:13 pm | Reply
  3. Joseph McCarthy

    It seems like on the 4th of June of each year, we never fail to hear the right-wing fanatics in this country bawl their eyes out over what happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Enough is enough! Then again, if these upstarts did succeed in their endeavor over ther, China would have destabilize and we'd all be languishing in a far worse depression than is the actual case! Enough said!

    June 4, 2013 at 5:18 pm | Reply
    • Karl

      That's funny, I was going to post the same thing here. I get so sick and tired of listening to these right-wingers cry over Tiananmen Square year after year after year! Enough already!

      June 4, 2013 at 8:19 pm | Reply
  4. vistar hornbill

    I often looked at every angle of the bigger picture, and over a longer and far horizon; I thought horribly what could happen if Tianamen's revolution succeeded in bringing down the Communist Government. I therefore support Deng's reluctant decision to stop a potentially destructive social and political tsunami.

    Hypothetically, had the revolt succeeded, China would today be a completely divided and decimated country. We must remember China also has a Muslim majority state. So, potentially , different ethnic groups would be ruling the various states – according to their own culture, tradition and religion even. There might not even be a central Government to set things in order to achieve a succcessful national economy to become what it is today in China. It would have been like going back to the tumultous past when a divided China was so weakened that foreign devils managed to conquer, occupy , loot and abused Chinese freedom.

    It was a hard dicision to make for China's paramount leader, but it was the correct move – for the sake of China's 30 year plan for the tuture and prosperity of the people. Which we are currently seeing in China.

    China's form of Democracy , besides the achieved peace and prosperity, will come to a united China, you can bet on that – thanks to the lesson learnt from the Tianamen incident.

    June 4, 2013 at 10:59 pm | Reply
    • Gone in china

      But at least you can't slay your people,especially the students who could be the elites of china in the coming years,that was huge shame

      June 5, 2013 at 7:31 am | Reply
    • Quigley

      Good posting, vistar. How true that rings!

      June 5, 2013 at 10:00 am | Reply
  5. TexanDF

    To you chinese communists and flowers, everything outside your ideology would be right-wing. In other word you have no idea what right wing and Tea Party are. So, you might be better to just shut up, close your door and kill you own people just as you have been doing all the time. Hopefully and surely your brutality will completely destabilize china and get your communist government overthrown by your people!

    June 5, 2013 at 12:42 am | Reply
    • Karl

      Such is to be expected from someone like you with your obvious limitations, TexanDF. That comment of yours is one of dumbest ones here yet! I bet that you don't know a thing about Chinese history nor a word of their language, do you? Furthermore, I bet that you didn't even finish grade school, did you? It doesn't appear that way judging by your post above!

      June 5, 2013 at 1:54 am | Reply
  6. Tony

    Americans plz, do u guys really have to mentions this every year, someone must did this for some purpose, cause you guys have your own issues to remember, dont know? go check what happened in May 1970, same thing as what happened in China. I mean, governments all have issues, doesn't mean anything.

    June 5, 2013 at 11:22 am | Reply
  7. Marine5484

    Forget Tiananmen Square for a minute. I'm still quite angry at what happened at Kent State in Ohio back on May 4, 1970! Tiananmen Square is in far off China whereas Kent State is in here in America. The worst part of this is is that those cursed Ohio Guardsmen literally got away with murder all because they had a jury biased in their favor. How outrageous!

    June 5, 2013 at 8:02 pm | Reply
  8. tianan man

    i was in tiananman square on may 19th. it seemed calm but there were police and military everywhere, watching, looking for trouble. i explained to my 10 year old son where the young kids had erected the goddess of democracy and where they were machine gunned down. I pointed out where the man in the white shirt with the grocery bag stopped the line of tanks. then we walked over to the forbidden city side of the street using the underground tunnel. the streets were barricaded so you couldn't walk out into the street. as we approached the gate to the forbidden city, i saw a military guy standing on a concrete soapbox suddenly launch himself into the air and run at full tilt toward the street. i saw papers (pamphlets?) blowing way up in the air as the military grabbed a 40ish looking man and hustled him into a waiting paddy wagon type bus already stationed there by the forbidden city. the arrested man looked at me eye to eye and i acknowledged him, and his actions, but i have no idea what he was protesting. I do know he will spend most of the rest of this decade in some kind of detention or other for tossing those pamphlets (which nobody dared grab–because they flew over the barricade into the street). this was just another day in tiananman square. this man will spend years of his life in jail and nobody reported it until i did here. china is a country whose government is scared to death of it's people. deathly afraid of them. it's simmering, and it's just a question of time, when–not if–it will blow. by the way, the sky was a thick hazey grey with no blue anywhere, because of the degradation to the environment. whoever that man was, and whatever he was protesting, i will never forget the look in his eyes. he was saying "you see what it is like here?" yes, i saw. i hope the world sees also. tiananman square wasn't just a time and place long ago. and to those citing may 5 1970, as if the comparison shows some similarity– just remember that csny had a song about it on the airwaves in a matter of days, and it was covered on the daily news in the country where it happened, and it's in the history books, and library books, while june 4 1989 is a date that does not exist within the borders of china, except in hushed whispers, and grieving family members and a very few brave souls like the man i saw on may 19th.

    June 20, 2013 at 6:32 pm | Reply

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