Prospects for Political Change in China

Reflecting on the twentieth anniversary of the Chinese government crackdown on pro-reform protests in Tiananmen Square, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof says China is likely to evolve toward more political freedom, following Asian models such as South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, or Indonesia.

June 2, 2009

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof, along with his wife Sheryl WuDunn, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for their coverage of the events in 1989 in Tiananmen Square where the Chinese government brutally cracked down on pro-reform protestors, killing hundreds. Reflecting on the events twenty years later, Kristof says that Chinese leaders have shown themselves to be exceptional economic managers. "[T]hat is one reason why China has more and more leverage internationally, and why we end up going to Beijing hat in hand." He says that for the majority of Chinese today, events of 1989 are not very significant, but among the elite and intellectuals Tiananmen certainly matters. "[T]here certainly are voices within the Communist Party who would like to see the verdict on Tiananmen changed, but who know that’s not going politically anywhere right now--that would be too divisive."

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Kristof says China is likely to evolve toward more political freedom, following Asian models such as South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, or Indonesia. "[I]n each of those cases you had a rising middle class, you had increasing education standards, [and] more and more interaction with the rest of the world. As a result, each of those things tended to undermine the dictatorship and create aspirations for more political participation in varying degrees," he says.

This week, while the American media is taking note of the terrible events that the occurred in Tiananmen Square twenty years ago, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is in Beijing praising the Chinese economy and assuring the Chinese that the U.S. economy will stay strong in this difficult time. I wondered what this tells us about the future.

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Well, it’s reflective of the fact that the Chinese government may have done a really lousy job dealing with human rights and dealing with this huge problem of Tiananmen, but it has done an exceptionally good job not only managing the economy, but also raising material living standards of an awful lot of Chinese. The economic management of the leadership has been exceptionally good and that is one reason why China has more and more leverage internationally, and why we end up going to Beijing hat in hand. They’re a very complex and fascinating group of leaders.

The current leaders?

Yes. In a sense they’re engineers. The people who rise to the top in China aren’t politicians who are great on television as they tend to be in democracies. Rather they’re people who are very, very smart. The Prime Minister Wen Jiabao maybe has the highest IQ of any leader of a major country. But he’s got zero political vision and you don’t really have a sense that he has a view of where China is going to evolve politically. He just wants to keep a lid on things and that may involve throwing people into prison, censoring the press, and so on. But in terms of an economic vision and solving problems, getting ahead of the curve, looking into where there are going to be infrastructure bottlenecks, where there are going to be environmental challenges, he has been and in general the Chinese leadership has been exceptionally good.

"The economic management of the leadership has been exceptionally good and that is one reason why China has more and more leverage internationally, and why we end up going to Beijing hat in hand."

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And Hu Jintao, the president?

Hu Jintao--it’s a little harder to see exactly what he’s been doing and what his role is. He seems to be a little less hands-on in terms of details, but certainly he’s running the most important and fastest growing economy in the world right now and has done a pretty good job on details, while ignoring any kind of a larger vision of where the country is going.

Where does Tiananmen Square, that historical moment, figure in the minds of Chinese today?

It varies a great deal with the Chinese. For the great majority of the population I don’t think it’s very significant. If you were a peasant off in Guizhou Province then it’s largely irrelevant. In general for people in the countryside, people in towns outside of Beijing, workers--there are a lot of bad things that have happened in Chinese history and Tiananmen by the numbers is just tiny. If you think about almost 30 million people dying as a consequence of the Great Leap Forward at the end of the 1950s and early 1960s, then a few hundred people--400 maybe 500 people--dying in Tiananmen is nothing. But having said that, one of the lessons of Chinese history is that if you are a Chinese leader, you can get away with killing workers, you can get away with killing peasants, but you can’t really get away with killing students or intellectuals. They’re the ones whose grievances fester and linger. They write history. And so among the elite and among intellectuals, Tiananmen certainly matters. And it’s those elite, it’s those intellectuals who rise in the Communist Party. So there certainly are voices within the Communist Party who would like to see the verdict on Tiananmen changed, but who know that’s not going politically anywhere right now--that would be too divisive.

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What would they like to see different?

There’s a view among the "modernists" within the Communist Party that you can’t continue to reform the economy and to develop an economy unless you loosen the political controls. One example is corruption. Corruption is a huge problem all across China and everybody recognizes it and the Communist Party leaders know that. And they have tried very hard to arrest it. They send out judges, and they send out prosecutors, and when they catch corrupt officials in some cases they sentence them to death. It’s something they take very seriously. But the problem is that if you don’t have a rival political party, then it’s very hard to take that far enough. If you don’t have a free press, you don’t have that kind of oversight. So there are a lot of people within the party who think that they’re just never going to get a handle on corruption as long as they have this top-down political system and that the only real check they can have to reduce the corruption is going to be a free press. They want a parliamentary political system at least at a local level. In Taiwan, democracy was introduced initially by electing mayors and that would be the argument that some party members in China would advocate. They would say "the country may not be stable enough to elect a president, but we can introduce democracy and elections of local leaders much more than we have."

"[O]ne of the lessons of Chinese history is that if you are a Chinese leader, you can get away with killing workers, you can get away with killing peasants but you can’t really get away with killing students or intellectuals."

Five years ago you wrote a column "The Tiananmen Victory" and you talked about the possibility of a political transformation in China. What would have to happen to bring political change?

Nobody’s ever made much money predicting how China is going to evolve politically, and right now we’re on a course where there’s just nothing in it for any of the leaders to raise this issue. They’ve selected a team of leaders that will inherit power at the next Communist Party Congress and they want that transition to go smoothly. Maybe at some point after that, in another five years or so, they’d be willing to cautiously to raise these issues. But it’s a little like [it was in] Mexico after the 1968 killings on the eve of the Olympics. Everybody knows something terrible happened, it’s the ghost that haunts the ruling party, but for a long, long time it’s something that also everybody wants to avoid. And one can avoid that while pushing for more openness of some kind. Indeed, in China, there is more openness in many ways. People have much more space to do all kinds of things whether on the Internet to criticize the government in modest ways, but what you don’t have is any kind of meaningful political pluralism.

Now I was struck on my last trip to China by the consumer society that now exists there--the incredible burgeoning of buying power of people flocking to stores. To me, as someone who lived in the Soviet Union many years ago, the difference was so dramatic.

People sometimes see China through the lens of a communist country because it of course claims to be communist. So they think of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and I don’t think that’s the best model. The model that is better is South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia, places like that. In each of those cases, you had a rising middle class, you had increasing education standards, [and] more and more interaction with the rest of the world. As a result, each of those things tended to undermine the dictatorship and create aspirations for more political participation in varying degrees. In Singapore, even now it’s not nearly as vibrant a democracy as one might expect given incomes and education. Ultimately in those places, there has been pressure for more openness and I think the same is going to happen in China. All these people, if they get to choose among ten kinds of coffee and choose the schools they send their kids to and universities they send their kids to, then they will also want to be able to choose the political parties that are ruling over them.

I notice that this new book has just come out the secret memoirs of Zhao Ziyang, who, of course, was the party leader who was thrown out because he opposed the crackdown in Tiananmen. Have you read the book yet, and did it tell you anything?

I have. What struck me was that in the final chapters he talks about how his own views evolved and how he came to believe that the economic reform process in China could really only be confirmed and strengthened in a parliamentary political system with a free press. His view was that, just as a market economy is the most efficient economic system to produce growth, a market political system--a parliamentary political system--is the one that is really going to be most efficient at building a stronger China and a richer China.

I know it’s coming out in Chinese in Hong Kong--do you think the book will get much traffic in China?

I don’t think the average person is going to be very much interested in what Zhao Ziyang had to say fifteen and twenty years ago. I don’t think it will have broad resonance, but among party officials, among the party intelligentsia, it will certainly circulate. The party will try to keep it out, but it will be circulating. It will have a certain amount of influence and will be read with interest, but at the end of the day the Communist Party probably is going to be able to keep the lid on things through the next transition to power barring some kind of incident--you can never predict what that might be. It’s certainly true that people are becoming less afraid of the government. While China has managed economic problems very well, there still are a lot of people who have lost their jobs and have been sent back to the countryside and that does create a certain risk of instability that might not manifest itself any time in the next five years or could lead to some kind of major protest tomorrow, you just never know.

What do you remember the most about Tiananmen Square twenty years ago?

I remember after getting a call that the troops had opened fire, riding my bicycle down the Avenue of Eternal Peace.... And riding frantically as the crowd was rushing in the other direction. And then after I got to Tiananmen, the troops--they arrived shortly after I did--opened fire on the crowd. I just remember these rickshaw drivers who, whenever there was a lull in the shooting, would go out and pick up the students who’d been killed or wounded and they’d see me as a foreigner and they’d drive past me slowly so I could see the kids who’d been shot and they wanted the story to get out. What struck me the most was I’d probably been a little supercilious about how uneducated workers didn’t really understand what democracy was about and it was true--they would have had difficulty articulating that, but here there were people who were risking their lives to promote democracy, whatever it was, and showing just unbelievable courage that night. It was an example of courage that I’ve rarely seen matched and never surpassed, and it was by these uneducated rickshaw drivers.

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