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Foreign Affairs China's Blue Collar Blues

Top-down economic reform in China has triggered protest from its victims -- a classic Marxist proletariat

by Trevor Corson

(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part two or part three.)

CHINA'S native chroniclers have long thought that Chinese history moves in circles. Anniversaries resonate with eerie significance, promising opportunities to celebrate progress but also reminding everyone of the possibility of repetition. Divining China's future direction at the start of the twenty-first century must begin with a reading of its anniversaries at the end of the twentieth. And China has seldom experienced a year so replete with the contradictions of overlapping, politically potent anniversaries as 1999.

For China 1999 was the eightieth anniversary of the May Fourth movement, when the Chinese intelligentsia first advocated the adoption of Western science and democracy. But it was also the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of communism in China. And the twentieth anniversary of the beginning of the era of economic reform under Deng Xiaoping. And the tenth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square democracy movement and massacre.

Discuss this article in Post & Riposte.

More foreign correspondence in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

From the archives:

"China: A World Power Again," by Robert D. Kaplan (August, 1999)
"The lessons that China's leaders learned from Tiananmen Square were from their own history."

"Our Real China Problem," by Mark Hertsgaard (March, 1997)
The price of China's surging economy is a vast degradation of the environment, with planetary implications.

"Once Again, Long Live Chairman Mao," by Orville Schell (December, 1992)
A recent return to deifying Mao is less straightforward than it seems.

"China's Andrei Sakharov," by Orville Schell (May, 1988)
The speeches of the astrophysicist Fang Lizhi have galvanized students and given political discourse in China a new depth of field.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashback: "China's Gilded Age," (March 5, 1997)
"How China after Deng's death can combine a capitalist economy with its legacy of communism is anybody's guess."

Related links:

June 4th Massacre 1989 Movement
Information, news briefs, and articles. Posted by an organization called Human Rights in China.

June 4th Anniversary Petition
Updates on the struggle for democracy and human rights in China, and an online petition directed to President Jiang Zemin. Posted by the June 4th Organization, an activist group.

Chronology of the 1989 Democracy Movement
A timeline (with photos).

Which anniversary means the most to China now? The May Fourth movement and the Tiananmen movement suggest that China is heading toward democracy, if haltingly. The massacre revives the grim spectacle of China as a fascist juggernaut. Deng's reforms herald economic freedom and the victory of business over ideology. But it may well be the anniversary of the establishment of communism that has circled back most unexpectedly.

Tiananmen was commemorated last June at Harvard University, where the democracy movement's most influential student leaders -- Wang Dan, Shen Tong, Chai Ling, Wu'er Kaixi, and a dozen of their fellows -- were reunited, over dinner, for the first time since 1989. The centerpiece of all the events was a stirring speech by Coretta Scott King; remarks followed from Representative Nancy Pelosi, of California, and emissaries of Vaclav Havel and the Dalai Lama. Pelosi declared the movement to be at a turning point, with victory over the Communist regime in sight.

The message was bold and inspiring, but the reality is more complicated. Pelosi has been the dissidents' stalwart ally since 1989, when she first championed their cause in Congress, but since then her influence on this issue has waned on Capitol Hill. So has the clout of the dissidents themselves. During the 1992 presidential campaign they basked in Bill Clinton's good will, but today they must settle for a presidential candidate with more dubious prospects -- Gary Bauer was the only other politician to join Pelosi at the Harvard events.

The dissidents, all exiles, are not just at a loss for new American political patronage; they have also become estranged from their own generation in China and from their Chinese successors at American universities. After Bauer and Pelosi left the Harvard events, a furious discussion in Chinese erupted among the dissidents, led by a woman who had just arrived from Beijing. "For ten years since Tiananmen I've fought to keep the movement alive underground in China," she complained bitterly. "But the only thing our classmates want to do now is make money. They're only interested in business!" At Harvard a few weeks earlier a public meeting of Tiananmen leaders had been marred by a volley of angry questions that a younger Chinese Harvard student aimed at Wang Dan. He blamed the students of 1989 for creating a bloodbath and setting democracy in China back, not moving it ahead.

China experts friendly to the Tiananmen dissidents have begun to admit that the movement is of questionable significance for China today. An especially pessimistic assessment came from Chantal de Rudder, a senior editor at Le Nouvel Observateur, in Paris, who had befriended the student leaders in Beijing in 1989. De Rudder had just returned from a long stay in China, so I asked her at the Harvard dinner what she made of Pelosi's optimism about the democracy movement. "In China now there is no nostalgia for 1989," she replied. "Even liberal intellectuals in China have done well by the economic reforms. They don't want to upset stability. They want gradualism." Casting an eye over the assembled dissidents, De Rudder shook her head sadly. "These activists are doing what they can, but it doesn't mean a lot. For the moment they have no influence in China."

Around the corner from where the anniversary dinner was held are the offices of the nation's most distinguished institute for Chinese studies, Harvard's Fairbank Center for East Asian Research. The center is named for the late John King Fairbank, widely admired as the father of Chinese studies in the United States. The director of the Fairbank Center, Elizabeth Perry, a professor of government at Harvard, considers herself a friend to China but harbors no illusions about the regime. Her specialty is Chinese popular protest from the nineteenth century to the present day. Perry's work suggests that resistance to the Communist regime today often has less to do with advocating an American-style political system than with reviving communism.


(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part two or part three.)

Trevor Corson is a contributing editor and the acting managing editor of Transition magazine, at Harvard University. His essays and reviews have appeared in The American Prospect, AsianWeek, and Dollars and Sense.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; February 2000; China's Blue Collar Blues - 00.02; Volume 285, No. 2; page 20-33.