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  • Strategies for Change in China
  • Liang Heng (bio)

While China's democracy movement may be only in its first stages, the progress of democratic reform in Eastern Europe and the USSR has given the Chinese people much hope. The emergence of democracy as the only enduring source of political legitimacy appears to be an inevitable trend of world development.

The most important challenge facing China's democracy movement is the need to devise a coherent strategy for its struggle against the totalitarian regime. After briefly assessing the current situation in China, I will propose some elements of such a strategy.

For 40 years, the power of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rested on four pillars: the personality cult of Chairman Mao; incorruptible government; iron party discipline; and the strength of the People's Liberation Army and the police. After the Cultural Revolution, Mao and his thought lost their charm; a crisis of confidence began to manifest itself throughout Chinese society, particularly among the younger generation. The people wanted change; Deng Xiaoping's economic liberalization and opening to the outside world were not, however, aimed at establishing a free market economy and a democratic political system, but at restoring the legitimacy of Communist rule. Although economic reform greatly boosted living standards, it also furnished many new opportunities for corruption at all levels of government. The slight increase in freedom weakened the party's control, even as it stimulated intellectuals and young people to demand more freedom of expression; [End Page 89] the movement to promote democracy soon surpassed the limits of party control. Seeing popular criticism as a challenge to its legitimacy, the CCP gave way to a great fear whose ultimate result was the Tiananmen Square massacre of 4 June 1989. The decision to have the army fire on the demonstrators cost the party whatever legitimacy it had left. Consequently, the party has been left with only the iron hand of military and police coercion to control society and the people's thought. Today, China has reverted to totalitarianism.

In the wake of the Tiananmen massacre, the Communist Party leadership remains deeply divided; the conflict between the provinces and the center grows more acute, and the people are full of frustration and fear. All through the spring of 1989, the CCP was divided over whether to use force against the democracy movement, with then-General Secretary Zhao Ziyang and many mid-level and lower-level cadres in opposition to armed coercion. After Zhao lost power, the hardliners reasserted themselves, criticizing the decentralization of economic policy and seeking to curb regional autonomy. Relations between the regions and the center remain tense; most of the people and the local cadres regard the central government of Premier Li Peng with quiet fury. Everyone is waiting for the death of Deng Xiaoping, when China will have its next opportunity to return to more moderate policies.

While these are auspicious circumstances for the rebirth of the democracy movement, the continuing tension between CCP hardliners and the people poses the threat of another crisis. Indeed, some of the democracy movement's leaders want so strongly to see the current government overturned that they hope for great chaos.

The recent collapse of communism in Eastern Europe suggests that there must eventually be a transition to democracy in China. This will surely take time because until 1989 China had nothing like the lively civil society and cohesive, experienced opposition groups that existed in countries like Poland and Czechoslovakia. Had there been such an opposition in China, June 4 might have turned out differently. Now, a Chinese democracy movement has formed overseas, but its lack of strong leadership and experience has hampered its efforts to pressure the totalitarian regime. Particularly lacking is a coherent strategy to order and guide its activities.

A Democratic Strategy

The current reality is that China's democracy movement must depend both on the maturity of nongovernmental associations and on the strength of reformists within the Communist Party. An effective strategy requires the formation of an alliance between these two forces; only then can we make peaceful and enduring progress toward democracy.

The democracy movement should both encourage reformers within [End Page 90] the party...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3214
Print ISSN
1045-5736
Pages
pp. 89-93
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-01
Open Access
No
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