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50 Out of 5,000 Years A 'Flyspeck' in Chinese History
The Communist Detour on the Road to Freedom In China
October 1, 1999
On October 1, 1999, the People's Republic of China
"celebrated" 50 years of Communist Party rule over mainland
China. It is an appropriate opportunity to reflect on the impact of a half
century of one-party control in the Middle Kingdom, from Mao to Jiang.
The Chinese civilization and culture have an
extraordinarily rich history extending over five millennia. Of China's
5,000-year history, the 50-year Communist interlude represents but one
percent—a mere flyspeck. It is an anomaly, giving rise to the question:
when will the Chinese people be free from Communist rule?
Recent Events in the People's Republic of China
In May 1999, ten years after the infamous massacre of the
democracy demonstrators of Tiananmen Square, other, very different
protests occurred in Beijing and throughout China. These demonstrations,
unlike their democratic antecedents, were orchestrated by the Communist
government. Their purpose was to exploit the tragedy in Belgrade during
which NATO missiles mistakenly hit the PRC embassy. But unlike the
Tiananmen protests of 1989, during which a statue of the Goddess of
Democracy drew conscious parallels with America's Statue of Liberty, the
government-organized demonstrations of 1999 were explicitly anti-American.
Whereas the Tiananmen demonstrations were a genuine expression of nascent
democracy, the more recent state-organized violence was a cynical parody
Will China in the future resemble the vision of the 1989
idealists who defied their Communist rulers? Or will Chinese society
remain subject to the will of the Communist Party Politburo, which
continues to reject those ideals?
Communist Party Secretary Jiang Zemin, who along with his
comrades was hailed by President Clinton last year as "the right
leadership at the right time," gave his preferred answer to this
question at a recent Chinese Communist Party anniversary gathering:
"The [Communist] system must not be shaken, weakened or discarded at
any time…. The western mode of political systems must never be
"Under Jiang's direction, the ruling Communist Party
has undertaken a massive government effort to suppress the freedom of the
Chinese people—focusing in particular on censoring ideas and
information. In 1998, the PRC convicted Lin Hai, a web page designer, for
"inciting subversion of state power" by exchanging e-mail
addresses with Chinese supporters of democracy in the United States. In
September 1999, PRC authorities arrested Qi Yanchen, a 35-year-old bank
employee, and confiscated his computer. Chi faces life imprisonment for
"subversion" because he published articles calling for political
reform in China. TIME magazine was shocked to find its recent special Asia
edition, titled "China's Amazing Half Century," banned in the PRC.
The magazine, while mostly laudatory about the Communist Party, included
alternative views of China's future written by the Dalai Lama and
democracy activists Wei Jingsheng and Fang Lizhi.
In the year since President Clinton visited China, the
regime has unleashed the harshest political and religious repression since
the Tiananmen massacre. Hundreds of supporters of the China Democratic
Party have been arrested thus far in 1999. And in a move reminiscent of
the Cultural Revolution, 1,200 Communist Party cadres accused of
sympathizing with Falun Gong, a pacifist non-political organization, were
detained and transported to a northern Chinese city for
The U. S. State Department's latest Human Rights Report
provides a grim picture of human rights in the PRC, noting
"widespread and welldocumented human rights abuses… [including]
instances of extrajudicial killings, torture and mistreatment of
prisoners, forced confessions, arbitrary arrest and detention, lengthy
incommunicado detention, and denial of due process." The annual
report cites "restrictions on freedom of speech and of the press, …
freedom of assembly, and … freedom of association, religion, and
movement." The Beijing regime's shortcomings include "[d]iscrimination
against women, minorities, and the disabled; violence against women,
including coercive family planning practices--which sometimes include
forced abortion and forced sterilization; prostitution, trafficking in
women and children, and the abuse of children."
According to the State Department's annual report, the PRC
"continued to restrict tightly worker rights, and forced labor
remains a problem." And the situation is even more severe in areas
that are not inhabited by ethnic Chinese: "Serious human rights
abuses persisted in minority areas, including Tibet and Xinjiang, where
restrictions on religion and other fundamental freedoms intensified [over
Recently more than 80 survivors of the PRC's laogai ("Reform Through Labor") work camps for
political prisoners met in Washington to tell the world about the PRC's
continuing human rights violations. Four to six million people are today
imprisoned in the nearly 1,000 camps that are part of the infamous laogai
system, where the victims, according to laogai survivor Harry Wu,
"are tortured and murdered."
Much attention has been paid to the Communist Party's
efforts at economic modernization. But according to Lian Shengde, a
student leader in the 1989 Tiananmen democracy movement who was imprisoned
in the laogai system before he was forever exiled from his native China,
"The international community has the ability to stop… this
totalitarian crackdown on Chinese citizens, because the Chinese Government
right now needs international investment; they need international
relationships." The question is whether commercial investment will be
used to promote civil and political reform in China, or rather whether it
will simply underwrite the Communist Party's continued control.
Fifty Years of Communism: A Review
The stark legacy of a half-century of Communism in China,
by all accounts, has been misery and death on a gigantic scale. The
succession of China's Communist regimes has been responsible for the
deaths of over 40 million Chinese citizens, through famine, political
persecution, and execution:
- Soon after it captured Beijing in 1949, the Communist Party
executed at least one million landowners as part of its agrarian
"reform" policy of controlling and redistributing land.
The program resulted in the deaths of nearly four million additional
Chinese citizens, who were seen as sympathizing with the landowners.
- During the 1950s, the Communists conducted pogroms against an
estimated one million members of the Chinese Nationalist Party.
- The Communist Party took China into the Korean war against
America, South Korea, and the United Nations in 1951, putting many
Nationalists on the front lines, and killing over 700,000 Chinese.
- Beginning in 1957, Mao Zedong's Communist leadership forced
millions of party cadres into "re-education" and
"self-criticism" camps when Mao ended his Hundred Flowers
campaign and labeled those who had spoken out "enemies of the
state." Thousands died or were killed in labor camps.
- In 1958, Mao unleashed his "Great Leap Forward." The
campaign sought to force immediate collectivization of agriculture
and imposed harsh demands on state-controlled industrial production.
The campaign led to the most widespread, deadly famine in human
history. An estimated 40 million Chinese men, women, and children
died in just three years, 1959-61.
- In 1959, the Communist Party's People's Liberation Army conquered
Tibet. In this conquest and its bloody aftermath, approximately 1.2
million Tibetans were killed.
- From 1966 to 1976, the Communist Party waged its "Cultural
Revolution" against the people and civilization of China. Over
two million Chinese were killed, and millions more so-called
counter-revolutionaries filled laogai labor camps.
- In early 1979, after the end of the Vietnam war, the Chinese
Communists under Deng Xiaoping invaded Vietnam. Thousands of Chinese
troops were killed before the Vietnamese pushed the People's
Liberation Army back.
- On June 4, 1989, Deng Xiaoping used the People's Liberation Army
to crush popular demonstrations in and around Tiananmen Square.
Hundreds of peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators were killed. Many
more were subsequently imprisoned and executed. Deng popularized the
motto "wending yadao yiqie"—"stability prevails
over everything"—that same year.
- Jiang Zemin has continued the Communist Party's heavy-handed
repression of freedom in China. Beginning in 1998, he carried out
the complete elimination of the Chinese Democratic Party. The 1998
U.S. State Department Human Rights Report concluded that the regime
had undertaken to arrest all leading dissidents, and that by year's
end, none remained active. In 1999 Jiang directed the state to crush
the Falun Gong, a peaceful, non-political spiritual movement.
Following these crackdowns, Jiang has ordered a nationwide return to
the study of Marxism and strict adherence to atheism.
- Jiang's possible heir apparent, Vice President Hu Jintao, offers
little prospect for improvement. Hu led a savage campaign of
repression as the Communist Party Secretary in Tibet, and along with
Jiang was a leader in the crackdown on the Falun Gong.
The PRC's Growing Military Assertiveness
The Communist Party under Jiang Zemin has, as Richard
Bernstein and Ross H. Munro wrote in the March 1997 issue of Foreign
Affairs magazine, determined "to replace the United States as the
dominant power in Asia…. It has, therefore, worked to reduce American
influence in Asia … to build up a military with force projection
capability, and to expand its presence in the South China and East China
Seas so that it controls the region's essential sea-lanes."
Former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, himself an
authoritarian, has observed about the PRC: "Many medium and small
countries in Asia are uneasy that China may want to resume the imperial
status it had in earlier centuries, and have misgivings about being
treated as vassal states having to send tribute to China as they used to
in past centuries."
Even in recent months, as it seeks Washington's approval
for its admission to the World Trade Organization, the PRC has been openly
antagonistic toward American and allied interests around the world:
- During the conflict in Kosovo, America's so-called "strategic
partner" in Beijing inaugurated the most vicious propaganda
campaign against the U.S. since the Cultural Revolution.
- When U. S. and NATO forces accidentally struck the PRC's Belgrade
embassy on May 7, the PRC responded by deliberately attacking U.S.
diplomatic posts across China—severely damaging the embassy in
Beijing and destroying facilities in Chengdu. Beijing rejected the
U.S. explanation and apologies, asserting to its people and the
world that the United States deliberately murdered PRC nationals and
violated international law.
- During the horrible violence in East Timor, the PRC opposed the
introduction of peacekeepers to protect the people who had voted for
- In July 1999, the Chinese Communists cut off the cross-Strait
talks with Taiwan and threatened to conquer Taiwan by force—a
threat repeated increasingly loudly throughout the balance of 1999.
In the heat of this bellicose rhetoric, the PRC declared on July 15,
1999, that it possessed the neutron bomb—whose plans it stole from
the United States. On September 30, Premier Zhu Rongji—a noted
"moderate"—warned a large audience of U.S. business
executives in Shanghai that the PRC was "impatient" to
resolve the Taiwan question "at an early date" and
explicitly threatened the use of armed force.
- In late July, in a threat not just to Taiwan but also to the
continental United States, China's official Xinhua news agency
boasted that Communist Chinese ballistic missile submarines could
strike targets worldwide.
- In August 1998 and in 1999, the PRC chose not to use its
diplomatic leverage with North Korea to restrain Kim Jong Il from
testing missiles. In fact, unclassified sources report that North
Korea's missile technology has benefited from PRC expertise.
- On August 2, 1999, the PRC tested its own new, road-mobile,
long-range missile capable of reaching the United States. Sending a
characteristic signal of defiance, the PRC's Dong Feng (East
Wind)-31 test occurred less than a week after the Congress had
approved extension of normal trade relations with the PRC.
- The Select Committee on U. S. National Security and
Military/Commercial Concerns with the People's Republic of China
revealed that during the late 1990s, the PRC illegally obtained U.S.
developmental and research technology that could be used to attack
US satellites and submarines.
- The PRC stole U.S. research and development work on
electromagnetic weapons technology during the late 1990s.
- The most recent CIA report of PRC theft of highly classified
nuclear weapons design information occurred in the late 1990s.
- In 1998, the CIA identified the PRC as the number one proliferator
of weapons of mass destruction technology in the world.
It remains to be seen whether the PRC's increasingly
belligerent behavior and its military buildup will contribute to the
preservation of Communist rule in China, or rather precipitate its demise.
Much depends on the U.S. and the free world. When asked what the United
States can do to promote democracy in its dealings with Bejing, Chinese
democrat Wei Jingsheng replied, "be as strong as China."
Undoubtedly, Wei referred not just to military strength, but to political
resolve. Not only can American military strength send a reassuring signal
to those within China who aspire for democracy, but also U.S. diplomatic
strength can counter attempted PRC coercion of other nations, and
guarantee smaller regional powers the breathing space to pursue their own
economic and democratic development.
How Long Will Communism in China Survive?
Despite Jiang's boast that China will "never"
reject its Communist system of one-party rule, both Chinese history and
the history of totalist regimes in the 20th century predict otherwise.
President Ronald Reagan clearly foresaw that the Tiananmen massacre marked
the beginning of the end for Communism in China. In 1989, he stated
unequivocally: "You can't massacre an idea. You cannot run tanks over
hope. You cannot riddle a people's yearning with bullets. Those heroic
Chinese students who gave their lives have released the spirit of
democracy and it cannot be called back."
China's best known leader of the democracy movement, Wei
Jingsheng, has summarized the Communist dilemma in the following terms:
"The Communist Party's control of China is like a wooden house in
which all the beams are rotten. We do not know when the house will fall,
whether it will be in ten minutes with the next gust of wind, or ten
hours, or ten days; but we can be certain that the house will fall. I
don't think we shall have to wait as long as ten years."
In the years following Tiananmen, confidence in the
Communist regime's political stability and longevity has waned. According
to PRC analyst Jack A. Goldstone, "The combination of forces revealed
[at Tiananmen]—a coalition of merchants, entrepreneurs, urban workers,
students and intellectuals, with some support from within the regime, in
revolt against a government that survived only because of continued
loyalty of key military and bureaucratic leaders—is quite similar to
that of past patterns of Chinese revolt."
Even more importantly, the ruling Communist party is
losing its battle for the minds of the people of China. In a 1999 analysis
entitled "Is China Stable?," Minxin Pei of the Carnegie
Endowment for International Peace wrote:
Even within China, signs of danger and nervousness abound.
Arguably, the Chinese government now faces the most severe challenge since
the Tiananmen Square demonstrations a decade ago. …[T]he government [is
maintaining] a tight watch over the country's tiny dissident community
lest something akin to the 1989 movement break out again."
Bernstein and Munro, in their March 1997 Foreign Affairs
article, have noted that "China's leaders, facing the prospect of
social uprisings, are sure to stress patriotic solidarity and unquestioned
leadership." But the Party's campaign to stress nationalism (instead
of Communist ideology and the legitimacy of one-party rule, both of which
are hugely unpopular) has encountered only mixed success. In a
man-on-the-street interview, one Beijing resident recently told the
Washington Post: "Definitely life has improved, but it's not like the
party says. It's not like they've done anything for us."
An article in the Economist (December 19, 1998) concluded,
"combine ethnic tensions on the fringes of the Chinese empire with
regional tensions along the coast and you have good reason to believe that
China is more likely to disintegrate than is commonly believed."
Robert D. Kaplan (author of China: A World Power Again) argues,
"Continued central rule from Beijing over such a vast and
increasingly populous nation may require more tyranny, not less. But
because more tyranny would ignite further strife, China may well separate
into economic fiefdoms, organized around great urban regions such as
Shanghai, in the north, and Kunming, in southern China's Yunnan Province,
whose economic power is extending into Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand."
For the time being, however, the PRC's immediate strategy
is simply more Communist control. As Ross and Monroe put it: "The
most likely form for China to assume [in the short run] is a kind of
corporatist, militarized, nationalist state, one with some similarity to
the fascist states of Mussolini or Francisco Franco."
If any nation on earth deserves political, religious, and
economic freedom, it is the earth's most populous one. China's
5,000-year-old civilization is truly one of the wonders of the world. In
many facets of human endeavor—art, religion, literature, commerce—it
has produced marvels. Its peoples have made and are making vastly
important contributions to the world.
The PRC's Communist rulers did not produce these marvels
or make these contributions. Indeed, first Maoism and more recently
Jiang's "socialism with Chinese characteristics" have imposed
alien ideologies on Chinese civilization. The contribution of fifty years
of Communism to Chinese culture has been only to undermine it.
The Chinese Communist Party of 1999 maintains that the
democracies that have taken root throughout East Asia—from New Delhi to
Seoul, from Bangkok to Taipei, from Manila to Tokyo—are at odds with
"Asian values." But Marx, Lenin, and Engels are hardly the
fountainheads of Asian culture. Nor is the authoritarianism preferred by
today's Communist rulers in Beijing unique to the East: western regimes
from Philip II, Louis XIV, and Bismarck, not to mention Hitler and
Mussolini, have been fond of this so-called "value," which found
its most virulent expression in the totalist ideologies of Europe in the
It was the Chinese Communist Party, not Chinese democrats,
or Tibetan Buddhists, or even Western influences, that devastated China's
incomparable cultural heritage during the Cultural Revolution. The
institution that has killed tens of millions of Chinese through execution,
slave labor, and man-made famine, and that today imprisons Chinese
citizens for their writings, does not mark the logical endpoint in China's
long march through the millennia.
For these reasons, Communism in China by rights should
follow Fascism, Naziism, and Soviet Communism to the ash heap of history.
But that result is not inevitable; it will occur only if those who cherish
freedom work diligently to bring it about.
Promoting a better American relationship with the PRC—and
promoting both Asian security and human rights in the PRC—requires
dealing with Beijing's rulers as they are today, not as we wish them to
be. They are not our strategic partners. Pretending that they are has
prompted a costly new arms race among India, Pakistan, North Korea, and
the rest of Asia, and it has given comfort to PRC efforts to undermine
America's stabilizing presence in the region.
The Communist Party's promotion of business and enterprise
in China is a positive step, but even in a purely material sense it is
woefully inadequate. After half a century of Communism, China's 1.3
billion citizens are able to buy far less from the U.S. than tiny Taiwan,
with less than 2 percent as many people but a free economy and a stable
democracy. China's markets will be free only when China's people are free.
American policy towards China must keep in mind the goals
we should be seeking: civil, political, intellectual, and religious
freedom for the world's most populous nation, and the swift release of one
of the world's greatest civilizations from the Communist bondage of the
past fifty years. For the sake of China's people, let us hope that this is
one anniversary the world will not need to observe much longer.