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Sydney Morning Herald


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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 sacrifice.

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 chair.

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 peasants.

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 confrontation.

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 agriculture.

To do that, one needed mass labour, large-scale bureaucracy, centralised government, and obedience to hierarchical authority.

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 foundations.

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 liberal.

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 uncomfortable manner?

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 reformers.

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.


 Editor: Pyotr Patrushev’s books and articles can be found on his website,



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