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  • Tiananmen and BeyondChina's Great Leap Backward
  • Merle Goldman (bio)

This past spring the world looked on in wonder as millions filled the streets of Beijing and 80 other Chinese cities, defying the Communist regime and demanding democracy. Epoch-making events seemed to be in the offing, yet the military assault launched on June 4 transformed China overnight from a country seemingly on the road to democratic reform to one displaying anew the worst features of totalitarian oppression. What could account for such a sudden and shocking change of direction?

Any attempt to answer such a question must begin with Chinese history. That history reveals that sudden shifts in the country's political climate are nothing new. China has experienced periods of despotism beginning with the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty (221-202 B.C.), who devoted his reign to the brutal suppression of all dissent. But the country also has long-standing countertraditions, including the Taoist distrust of the state and the Confucian stress on the duty of the educated classes to resist oppression, criticize the mistakes and faults of the rulers, and propose reforms. Rulers could lose their moral right to rule—the "mandate of heaven"—if they were despotic and conupt. Thus in remonstrating against their rulers, the Chinese student protesters last spring were following an age-old tradition of the Chinese literati.

Periods of despotic rule and tightened control have alternated with benevolent reform and relative relaxation even under Communist rule. With modem technology at his disposal and a Stalinist model to follow, Mao Zedong created a totalitarian state with more control over everyday life than any traditional tyrant could ever dream of. Yet even in the [End Page 9] depths of the Stalinist 1950s, Mao himself launched the Hundred Flowers campaign, urging students and intellectuals to vent their grievances. This they did, calling for democratic reforms and the rule of law, demands very similar to those heard in 1989. But what Mao gave, he could also take away: a campaign led by none other than Deng Xiaoping branded the reformist students and intellectuals as "rightists"; half a million were sent away for "labor reform." The economic irrationality of the Great Leap Forward at the end of the decade led to the death of an estimated 20 to 30 million Chinese. A brief respite followed in the early 1960s, but when a number of intellectuals and officials tried to shift away from Mao's policies, they provoked Mao's anger and the launching of the Cultural Revolution's reign of terror and mindless destruction.

Despite his past involvement in the antirightist campaign, when Deng came to power in late 1978, he appeared to be a reformer who would repair the damage of Mao's rule. Students and intellectuals welcomed him accordingly. He proved to be the ablest ruler in the history of twentieth-century China. With the assistance of Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, his protCgCs and intended successors, he rehabilitated the victims of the previous persecutions, introduced economic reforms, and relaxed the party's control over all areas of society, including intellectual life. Deng's reforms helped to make possible the most hopeful, prosperous, and politically stable decade that China has known since the end of the last century.

Deng followed in the tradition of the late-nineteenth-century "self-strengtheners," officials who sought to make China rich and powerful by introducing Western science and technology while also trying to preserve political and ideological orthodoxy. Deng was not against all political reform: early in his regime, on 18 August 1980, he acknowledged that the tragedies of the Mao era were not solely attributable to the aberrations of Mao and the Gang of Four but were due to the existing system with its "excessive concentration of power," wherein "party leadership is reduced to nothing more than the leadership of a single person." Yet with economic reforms beginning to take effect and China's gross national product beginning to grow at a rate of almost ten percent a year, the need for political change came to seem less urgent.

When the economy began to stagnate in the mid-1980s, however, Deng again encouraged discussion of...