The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall- Che Guevera
June 5, 1989 Tiananmen Square, Beijing, a day after the violent crackdown on the students protest against Chinese Communist Party, Chinese army was pressed into service to ‘evict’ the remaining protestors demanding freedom, democracy and change. Military tanks rolled into the square. An unassuming common man walked up to the front of the column of tanks waving his hands. He climbs the tank and talks to the army man. He is later taken away from the scene and he is never heard or seen again. Tank Man became the symbol of the now failed Chinese revolution.
Why did the Chinese revolution fail in 1989 and why it has never come to life again? Was the way the revolution managed was flawed or was there no need for it or the Chinese powers were more effective in stopping and containing it?
Revolutions are far and few in between. What makes a revolution successful? Is there a formula or a method to succeed? John Kenneth Galbraith listed 3 important conditions for the success of a revolution- A strong leader, a great number of disciplined followers and a weak opposition (after all successful revolution is kicking in the rotten door).
Let’s look at 2 revolutions which we successful before we review the Chinese revolution.
French Revolution It lasted from 1789-1799 which led to the end of the reign of Louis XVI. Jacobin Club members, Maximilien Robespierre and Jacques Necker led it from the front inspired by Diderot, Paine and Voltaire’s writings. France was in disarray as 7 year war had destroyed the LouisXVI’s empires finances and discontent was at its peak. Queen Marie- Antoinette’s excesses in spending public money for her clothes and jewels embittered the public. Eventually Bastille was stormed and Guillotine was brought down on the French empire of Louis XVI liberating France which saw the emergence of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Russian Revolution Also known as the October revolution it happened in the year 1917. Russia was in economic crisis post World War 1 and the rule of Nicholas II was despised by the public. Lenin and Kerensky led the revolution. There were 2 revolutions. In February 1917 Kerensky came to power after overpowering Nicholas II the last of the Tsarist autocracy. But the Bolshevik party led by Lenin overpowered the Kerensky led Trudoviks in October (actually November due to difference in calendar). Inspired by Marxist ideology, Lenin established the totalitarian Soviet empire until its collapse in 1989 which incidentally set the stage for the failed Chinese revolution seven decades later
Chinese revolution Mikhail Gorbachev took over as the General Secretary of Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985. Gorbachev quickly rolled out unheard of reforms in the communist countries anywhere. Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost (“openness”) and perestroika (“restructuring”) reverberated across Eastern Europe and brought down the Iron Curtain which eventually led to the fall of the Berlin wall in November 1989. The largest Communist state, China watched with baited breath the unfolding historic events in communist heartland. Who stoked the fuel of revolution in China? Hu it was!
Sorry for the intentionally unintentional pun. Hu Yaobang was the General Secretary of Chinese Communist party from 1981 to 1987. During his time in the office Hu tried to bring in freedom of expression and other liberties to the people. Communist Party over threw him and replaced with Zhao Ziyang, a hardline communist. He was disgraced and purged but remained popular among people.
After his death in April 1989, 100,000 students marched in Beijing as a tribute and started a sit-in in Tiananmen Square which lasted up to June 5. People’s anger against inflation, corruption and excesses of the sons of the top leader Deng Xiaoping and Zhao Ziyang stoked the fires of the revolution. Gorbachev’s visit in May to China created another rallying point for the protestors and people. But the revolution failed. Why?
Applying the conditions of Galbraith to the Chinese revolution answers the question. There was no effective leader, no large uprising beyond Beijing and the opposition (Chinese government) was not weak. Yes, corrupt or inefficient but not weak. The Tank Man image epitomised both the hope and capability of the common man and the powers against which they were pitted.
Chinese government suppressed the violent protests with the strongest force. Many were executed and jailed. According to the government “confirmed death toll was 241, including 218 civilians (of which 36 were students), 10 PLA soldiers and 13 People’s Armed Police, along with 7,000 wounded”. Many independently estimated the true number to be double the count shared by government.
In its briefness, the Chinese revolution parallels with Prague Spring revolution in erstwhile Czechoslovakia. In the January 1968 the reformist government of Alexander Dubcek started a period of political liberalisation. Communist countries under Warsaw Pact invaded the country in August 1968 to put a stop to the reforms.
Arab Spring (Jasmine Revolution) in Arab states has resulted in chaos and little change. Galbraith’s conditions continue to evade these countries to facilitate a revolution.
Post revolution China has emerged unscathed from the 1989 incidents and has emerged as a global manufacturing and economic power. Sensing the mood of people the new leader Xi Jiping has started a purge against corruption and power broking. However, freedom of expression, civil liberties and free press remain a distant dream.
Democracy is sadly is not ‘Made in China’.