Tiananmen Square already seemed foreboding. On the cold Beijing morning when I found myself surrounded by thousands of Chinese hailing from the interior parts of the country—all standing in rapt attention for the flag that would be hoisted at the crack of dawn—it seemed even more foreboding. While the People’s Liberation Army soldiers marched in front of the iconic portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong, I found myself thinking: Tiananmen isn’t just a place, it’s a state of mind.
To foreigners, Tiananmen invokes a clear mental image: The lone liberal dissenter attempting to block the armed forces of reaction. But it may well connote a different state of mind for those in China.
“We don’t talk about it…it’s sensitive,”?said a college student I met.
“It was necessary to preserve stability,” said another. He continued: The Communist Party was in the process of reforming the economy; so, while it created jobs, it was necessary to see the country didn’t erupt into chaos.
And with that one statement, the famous post-Cold War consensus— that economic development could be a precursor to political reform— would now find itself grasping for validity in the same country that was supposed to prove it right. The Middle Kingdom was always the poster boy behind this idea: The China Model, promising dizzying 9% growth, became so vaunted that Vietnam and Myanmar adopted it.
At some point, it even seemed that this model was far superior to other growth stories, most notably India’s. Kevin Hassett at the Washington, DC-based American Enterprise Institute noted evidence in 2007 that developing “countries that are economically and politically free are underperforming the countries that are economically but not politically free”. The hope remained, then, that quicker economic growth would sooner yield a time ripe for political reform. But has it? As Milton Friedman warned in his 1962 book, Capitalism and Freedom, economic freedom is only one necessary—but hardly sufficient—condition for political freedom.
So why isn’t it sufficient for China? One part of the problem is that the entry of capitalism found itself facing an already existing and far more potent ideology: nationalism. Those who still defend Mao do so on the grounds that he unified the far corners of China. And those who yet defend single-party rule, it would seem, are motivated by a similar nationalistic feeling—one that extends from plain patriotism, at best, to fanatical jingoism, at worst.
Mao’s own version of Marxism-Leninism, not unlike Stalin’s in the 1940s, went lock and step with nationalism. Fantastic socialist experiments were meant to make the country great, while people were asked to make socialist sacrifices for the sake of the country.
In similar vein, to the factory worker whose income has doubled in the last decade, Deng Xiaoping’s reform movement is not just unquestionable ideology, it’s life-giving. And if an economic crisis happens to take away his job, it’s still the Communist Party that helps keep him alive through its war chest of subsidies and stimulus packages.
As China grows wealthier, instead of asking for political rights, its people appear to be thankful for the new-found prosperity. Dissenter Yu Hua wrote last month in The New York Times that the political zeal found in 1989 has now simply been replaced by a zeal for stock markets and foreign goods.
So, as I stand shivering in the same place where this political zeal was silenced two decades ago, I look around for what other states of mind I can find. The soldiers have now dispersed from their ranks and are as excited as the others to pay homage to the flag and the Chairman’s portrait. In 1979, when Deng began reform, I imagine, they would have excitedly looked upon that portrait. Today, they’re still excitedly looking, but it just happens to be through the lens of their shiny new digital cameras.
Abheek Bhattacharya is an assistant views editor, Mint. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org