A bridge from Mao, Deng to Xi: Review of Vijay Gokhale’s ‘After Tiananmen: The Rise of China’

China watcher Vijay Gokhale profiles the post-Tiananmen ‘golden decades’, and explores the backdrop to Xi Jinping’s phenomenal rise to the top  

Updated - December 09, 2022 04:26 pm IST

Published - December 09, 2022 04:02 pm IST

Aerial view of the Pudong Lujiazui Financial District in Shanghai

Aerial view of the Pudong Lujiazui Financial District in Shanghai | Photo Credit: Getty Images

President Xi Jinping and his government are facing an unprecedented backlash to his zero-COVID and stringent lockdown policies. Leaked videos show people’s anger exploding over excessive and draconian epidemic control measures across several cities, stemming from China’s authoritarian government. The success of these policies in the early days of the epidemic in 2020 is what probably prompted Xi to persist with this approach in 2022. There is additionally fear of a huge spike in infections and deaths due to the new COVID variants, and reluctance to import and deploy large scale mRNA technology vaccines developed in the West.

All this has happened in the wake of the quinquennial week-long Congress of the Communist Party, which has practically sealed President Xi’s bid for a historic third term. The current political turmoil, people’s unrest and sharp economic slowdown is a huge challenge, drawing comparison with the situation in 1989 which led to the Tiananmen Square incident.

Growth and investment

One of India’s best Chinawatchers and experts and a former top diplomat Vijay Gokhale is the one you turn to, to decipher the current situation and the prognosis for what lies ahead. The rise of Xi and his subsequent consolidation and centralisation of power should be understood in the context of the decades preceding Xi’s coronation. Gokhale’s new book, After Tiananmen: The Rise of China, is a sequel to his earlier tome, Tiananmen Square: The Making of a Protest. The latter is a lucid first-hand account of 1989, when tanks rolled into the square and thousands of protesters were killed. It contains detailed sketches of the dramatis personae and the global backdrop of the events as they unfolded. It also debunks the western view that the uprising was a sign that democracy was finally breaking out.

A file photo of a young woman caught between civilians and Chinese soldiers in Beijing during the Tiananmen protests.

A file photo of a young woman caught between civilians and Chinese soldiers in Beijing during the Tiananmen protests.

The present book charts the trajectory of China, its economy, and politics over the next two decades since Tiananmen. This has been a golden period, with spectacular growth, massive investments, growing international clout, close trade engagement with the world, and the establishment of China as the undisputed second geopolitical pole. Its economy grew by twenty times in two decades, with a corresponding staggering increase in foreign direct investment. In turn, China became an export engine, contributing to two decades of stable disinflationary growth in the West. It became a member of the WTO and even a champion of free trade.

Maritime muscle

During this period, China discreetly beefed its maritime muscle too attaining much dominance both in its neighbourhood and in farther waters, while all the time deceiving Americans that their maritime concerns were only about near seas. As Gokhale says, “China’s diplomacy on the South China Sea between 2002 and 2010 must rank amongst the more sophisticated displays of foreign and national security policy by any country in recent times.” This is closely linked to China’s concern that its growing energy dependence on West Asia made it vulnerable to the safe passage of ships through the Malacca Straits. In just three years from 1999, China doubled its import of oil. The strategic location of Andaman and Nicobar Islands makes it wary of a possible combined U.S. India naval blockade, and hence unease with the Quad formation. This is dealt with in the chapter called ‘The Malacca Dilemma’, one of seven thematic chapters, the last one being on India-China relations. 

After Tiananmen: The Rise of China
Vijay Gokhale

The 20-year period chronicled in the book is bookended between the Tiananmen incident and the Global Financial Crisis which dented belief in the U.S. style finance led capitalism. This can be called the post-Deng Xiaoping and pre-Xi period, when the key actors were Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. It may be tempting for historians to write off this period as led by non-charismatic and inconsequential leaders. But this was the most impressive and glorious period of modern China, as Gokhale proves conclusively. Apart from living standards, this period saw a dramatic improvement in infrastructure as well as in research and education.

Placards depicting Chinese President Xi Jinping, during in a solidarity protest against China’s COVID-19 lockdowns, in Tokyo

Placards depicting Chinese President Xi Jinping, during in a solidarity protest against China’s COVID-19 lockdowns, in Tokyo | Photo Credit: Reuters

But this was also a period of the rise of various Princelings and the Shanghai Faction, which exposed the dark side of the Communist Party, the rampant corruption which ultimately led to a purge and the rise of Xi, and re-assertion of the supremacy of the Party. The full story of Xi’s reign, only second to Mao, is still unfolding, and we await Gokhale’s next book to recount it. Meanwhile, the present book is an excellent chronicle and analysis of the intervening golden decades serving as a bridge from Mao, Deng to Xi, when China pursued its most dynamic, bold and ultimately effective reforms.

The reviewer is Vice-Chancellor, Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, Pune.

Spotlight on China
At the opening of the Communist Party of China’s once in five years national congress this October, Xi Jinping spelt out a decade-long vision vowing to boost China’s economic strength and self-reliance in science and technology. Warning of rising external threats in an increasingly turbulent world, he said Beijing would “strengthen national security” and “achieve basic modernisation of the armed forces.” The year saw the publication of a host of books on China, which explore the transformation of China into an economic powerhouse, its role in Asian geopolitics and relations with India and other countries like Afghanistan. 
China after Mao: The Rise of a Superpower 
Frank Dikötter; Bloomsbury 
In his latest book, the historian explores how China was transformed from a backwater economy in the 1970s into the superpower of today. Based on archival documents, Dikötter examines China’s approach to the 2008 financial crash, the country’s hostility towards perceived Western interference and its development into a thoroughly entrenched authoritarianism.  
How China Sees India and the World 
Shyam Saran; Juggernaut  
After joining the Indian Foreign Service, Saran spent six years in China in two stints and witnessed its “rapid and far-reaching transformation”. In his book, he explains why though both India and China were roughly at the same economic level once, India is now a “retreating image in China’s rear-view mirror.”  
Understanding the India-China Border: The Enduring Threat of War in the High Himalayas 
 Manoj Joshi; HarperCollins 
In 2020, China and India came close to war. The nuclear adversaries amassed troops and equipment along the border in eastern Ladakh. The entire 4,000-kilometre Sino-Indian boundary is disputed. This book explains what is happening on ‘the roof of the world’, and why that matters for the region and the world.  
The Comrades and the Mullahs: China, Afghanistan and the New Asian Geopolitics 
Ananth Krishnan, Stanly Johny; HarperCollins 
The U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan in August, 2021, ending a two-decade war and paving the way for the Taliban to take over. How will this impact Afghanistan’s future and Asia’s geopolitics? In this volume, two journalists examine Beijing’s foreign policy, and how its Belt and Road Initiative is shaping China-Afghan relations.  
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