China in 2018 celebrated 40 years of economic reforms whose impact is unparalleled in modern history. With high export- led growth, per-capita incomes rose by 70 times. Hundreds of millions of the rural poor found employment, and moved into the urban and industrial middle class. Foreign investors poured in a cumulative $2.7 trillion, and reaped handsome rewards. China became a factory to the world. These reforms were initiated and nurtured by their paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, also known as the architect of modern China. Once a lieutenant of Mao Zedong, he was from the first generation of leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). But after Mao’s death in 1976, when Deng took the reins in 1978, he led a radical departure if not outright reversal of Maoist economic ideology, toward a market-based economy with flexible prices. The results are for all to see.
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But what about political reforms? Were the free market-based reforms a precursor to also establishing a Western-style capitalist democracy in China? This question is moot in hindsight. But during the first decade of reforms, there was much wishful thinking in the West that political change in China was imminent. Waves of pro-democracy movements were already visible in Eastern Europe and the USSR, and echoes in China were anticipated. The first decade of China’s reforms was turbulent, with student protests, dissenting intellectuals, and palpable fissures even within the CCP. This fuelled speculation in the Western press that political reform was coming. According to Vijay Gokhale, former diplomat, and author of Tiananmen Square , the West completely misread the unrest. He says, “It was not a democratic revolution… It was a power struggle.” Deng was committed to economic reforms, but for him the supremacy of the CCP was sacrosanct, and political reform was out of the question. Gokhale highlights this as an essential feature of the Chinese political system. There is unwavering consistency and continuity in this political ideology, from Mao to Deng to Xi Jinping. The Tiananmen episode is now a closed chapter in Chinese history, and even the world forgot about it, since the fall of the Berlin wall just a few months later consumed all the headlines. Within a year of Tiananmen, the West was back to doing business as usual with the Chinese communists, who had laid out the red carpet welcome to their special economic zones.
Even then, the world should have no illusion about the brutal suppression of the Tiananmen Square protest. Gokhale calls it a seminal event of modern history. In Deng’s own words, such was the portent of this incident that “if the rebels had their way, there would have been civil war”, and millions would have died. Today’s Chinese youth probably shrug off their government’s response as something that was necessary to protect China’s sovereignty, stability and prosperity.
Lucid and insightful
Gokhale spent more than a dozen years in China in three different stints, and retired as India’s foreign secretary. He has the keen eye of a historian, the lucid and gripping style of a novelist, analytical insight of a scholar, and the phlegmatic disposition of a diplomat. He was witness to the Tiananmen Square incident and his book is a ball-by-ball commentary of the 50 days preceding the events of June 4, when tanks rolled into the Square, and thousands of protesters were killed. Organised in 10 well-researched chapters, it provides character sketches of the dramatis personae, describes the global and domestic backdrop, and leads the reader as if to a crescendo, or an anticlimax, if you wish.
The book is a must-read for all students and scholars of China. The book badly calls for a sequel to spell out the lessons to be learnt and a prognosis for the future.
Tiananmen Square: The Making of a Protest ; Vijay Gokhale, HarperCollins, ₹499.
The reviewer is a Mumbai-based economist.