The West has flattered itself about the benign
nature of the Chinese regime, and is still deluding itself both on the
extent of its own moral superiority and the true causes of the Beijing
When I think of the recent events in China, three
images stand before me. One is the picture of the "pyjama student",
apparently the son of a high-ranking party official, defiantly
challenging the leaders during a meeting, before collapsing in his
The other is the Styrofoam statue of the "Goddess
of Democracy", hastily erected by the students in Tiananmen Square.
And the last, less obvious image, is of the great
Yellow River (Huang Ho), also referred to as "China's Sorrow".
What the West has to confront yet is that the
struggle in China was not just about democracy or corruption. It was
also about power, and particularly about the perennial tug-of-war
between fathers and sons, which pervades not only Chinese, but the whole
of human history.
To understand the outcome of the current bout of
this struggle, we have to remember that the great bulk of Chinese
population still comprises peasants who, having most benefited from
Deng's agricultural reform, have stood aside from the confrontation. To
their inherently conservative outlook, students, intellectuals and even
city workers could easily be presented as "thugs", "bourgeois liberals",
or even "counter-revolutionaries".
It is no surprise that party propaganda has now
begun to build up Deng as another Mao-like incorruptible "Father of the
Nation". The humiliated and cowed students are paraded on television as
a visible spectacle of the rebellious sons, now disgraced and punished.
Selected workers who took part in the riots are sentenced to death. To a
conservative mind, with punishment so colourful and palpable, guilt must
be equally real.
Like countless emperors and warlords before him,
Deng and his band of "angry old men" built their strategy on two
concrete pillars - the loyalty of the military and passivity of the
By contrast, the student strategy, as righteous
and timely as it might be, was built on Styrofoam and cellulose. They
almost completely lacked proper organisation, planning, and
infrastructure. Even their attempts at dialogue with the authorities
seemed to have more style than substance.
In retrospect, what was actually surprising was
not that they were eventually defeated, but that they got away with such
defiance for so long and had managed to cause such seemingly
conciliatory gestures by the leadership in the early stages of the
In the end, the "Goddess of Democracy" was pulled
down by the soldiers as easily as it was erected. The TV coverage made
good news abroad, but mattered little once the massive Public Security
Bureau unleashed its dissident-netting operations, while the habitual
paranoia began to grip the masses, setting relative against relative,
father against son, mother against daughter.
For most Westerners, it is hard to imagine just
how male-dominated, paternalistic and centralised the Chinese society
was and still is. The most crucial fact of life throughout the long
Chinese history was the need to maintain a huge network of dykes, rivers
and canals which formed the backbone of their intensive system of
To do that, one needed mass labour, large-scale
bureaucracy, centralised government, and obedience to hierarchical
When authority was lax or corrupt, one had floods
and disasters which took literally millions of lives, as they did in
1854. Thus the Yellow River's other name became "China's Sorrow".
But authority in Imperial China also implied
responsibility, conveyed by the Heavenly Mandate to rule.
The most central quality sought by the Confucian
men of power was jen - humanity. Authority had to be morally justified
by an adherence to a code of ethics which was more stringent than that
of the population at large. The ruler had to be "first in worrying about
the world's troubles and last in the enjoyment of its pleasures".
It is perhaps significant that recently the
epithet of "heartlessness" - the antithesis of humanity - was applied to
leading conservatives in China and Russia by their critics.
It may be futile to speculate how this attitude of
"heartlessness" crept into Chinese life. Was it a result of internal
corruption and disintegration, or was it a result of China having been
raped by the West during the last 150 years? All we do know is that the
lure of the unifying pseudo-father (Mao Zedong in China, and Stalin in
Russia) had ultimately proved disastrous. The chickens of communist
delusion of social harmony have finally come to roost at Tiananmen
Square, as they did earlier behind the barbed wire of the monstrous
gulag in the Soviet Union.
The West also has to accept at least partial
responsibility for introduction of the rationalist, materialist world
view to China, which further helped to undermine its spiritual
For modern Chinese thinkers such as Wu Chih-hui,
soul or spirit had to be banished from the universe. Progress depended
on proliferation of material goods which would satisfy our needs and
allow us to resolve the mystery of life on the basis of rigorous
scientific thinking and human management.
Modern rulers of China aspired to become spiritual
Henry Fords imbued with almost limitless autocratic power and a sense of
self-righteousness which made Savonarola look like a muddle-headed
Another Chinese rationalist thinker, Hu Shi,
reversed the old Buddhist fable of the monkey who tried to jump away
from Buddha's realm but, no matter how far or near he jumped, he always
landed on Buddha's hand.
Hu Shi insisted that science had now become the
pinnacle of knowledge from which the human mind, like the proverbial
monkey, can no longer escape.
It was only an extension of this philosophy to
begin to think of people as soulless automata who can be sacrificed to
production quotas or to the vagaries of internal party struggle.
The blind, surreal fury of the massacre in Beijing
has wiped out years of rational political and economic thinking and
planning both in the West and in China itself. Is history, after all,
the domain of "the prophet, the madman and the genius", rather than
something amenable to human intellect?
Have we approached yet another historical juncture
where blind forces of history and the human unconscious combine to
create a whirlwind of self-fuelling disorder and violence? Are we about
to land again in Buddha's dispassionate hand, but in a most
Perhaps now, at the end of the 20th century, one
need not be so fatalistic. The old men of China may sooner or later get
their just deserts. Economic sanctions and moral indignation may be more
enduring than the Chinese leaders expect.
Even the mirage of the instant celluloid fame may
one day, as it did in Poland and Czechoslovakia, prove to be a catalyst
to renewed political action of an older and wiser generation of
But the lessons of Beijing will be even more
valuable if they could make us more self-critical, rather than
self-congratulatory, and more aware of the deeper causes of our own
behaviour. In this, the recent events in China are only a dramatic
example of a universal human dilemma.
The hail of bullets at Tiananmen Square had shown
how far we are from finding an effective way of bridging the gap between
frightened and entrenched old men in power and the young hopefuls for
whom the only way of making a noticeable political statement is a
glorious sacrifice of their yet unlived lives.
To find an effective answer to this dilemma may be
the real challenge of our times.