China in the 1990s

The History of China. Editor: David Curtis Wright. 2nd edition. The Greenwood Histories of the Modern Nations Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2011.

Deng Xiaoping was a popular leader in China until June 1989. His decision to murder his way out of the challenges posed by the student-led protest movements will eventually stain his historical legacy, but a decade into the twenty-first century, the official government line is still that the suppression was warranted. Deng continued to rule over China’s modernization efforts until his death in February 1997.

After Tiananmen, Deng’s first order of business was to appoint people who would support him to the highest levels of the party and government. He dismissed Zhao Ziyang from his position as head of the Chinese Communist party and replaced him with the relatively unknown Jiang Zemin, who had been mayor of Shanghai. Jiang, a polyglot but otherwise a relatively bloodless figure and unoriginal intellect, parroted the line for Deng and emerged as his replacement and the paramount leader of China in the late 1990s and beyond.

Deng then rounded up thousands of students and their supporters who had participated in the Tiananmen demonstrations. Several student leaders managed to escape from China and flee to freedom abroad, but others did not, including Wang Dan, who was sentenced to 4 years in prison and then resentenced after his release to another 11 years in 1996. Trials of the arrested student leaders and other dissidents were held in 1991, when the world’s attention was focused not on China but on the first Gulf War in Kuwait and Iraq. The United States did not draw much attention to these trials, and there was probably some sort of tacit agreement with China during this time: the United States would tone down its denunciation of the Tiananmen Square Massacre if China, with its permanent seat on the Security Council, would not veto the United Nations resolution authorizing the Gulf War.

By 1991 Jiang Zemin was poised to succeed Deng Xiaoping, having consolidated political and military power into his own hands. He now concurrently held positions as party head, president of the People’s Republic of China, and the all-important chairmanship of the Military Affairs Commission. He then attempted to achieve a measure of popular support and legitimacy from the Chinese public by appealing to their innate patriotism and by continuing to foster economic development. The pursuit of wealth and continuing resentment of foreign (i.e., mainly American and Japanese) criticism and badgering of China would, he hoped, distract the Chinese people from seeking liberal democracy and freedom. He and Deng Xiaoping both concluded that the Communist regime in China would have fallen in 1989 had China not begun growing wealthy during the 1980s, so they continued to foster and encourage economic development. Jiang and Deng rejected notions that free market economic development always leads to democratization and were determined to make China a wealthy authoritarian state. For them, in other words, economic development in China was not the path toward democratization, but away from it.

Western journalists in the 1980s and 1990s often concluded that China had “gone capitalist,” but the Chinese government rejected this. “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” was the government’s preferred description for what was happening in China. That is, while some private sector enterprises were developing, most businesses continued to be publicly owned and managed, but with a relatively free market rather than central planning determining production and prices. The government continued to apply five-year plans for China, but these were much less artificial and intrusive into the private market than they had been during the 1950s.

By 1995, after Deng had slipped into ill health and senescence, Jiang was more or less running the country. A new leadership group, with Jiang Zemin at the core, had taken over in China. After months of insisting that he was in fine health, the Chinese media announced on February 19, 1997, that Deng Xiaoping had finally died, and Jiang’s transition to formal leadership of China was relatively uneventful. Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s post-Mao stability and the man who ordered the massacre at Tiananmen Square, died just short of his stated goal of seeing the return of Hong Kong to China on July 1, 1997. Jiang led China in celebrating Hong Kong’s return to Chinese control. For Jiang, 1999 was also a banner year because in December of that year the former Portuguese colony of Macao was also returned to China.

The honeymoon period between China and the Western world came to an abrupt end in 1989 after the Tiananmen Square Massacre. The disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 deprived the United States and China of the common foe that had in the 1970s driven them into each other’s arms in the first place, and the two countries were soon eyeing each other resentfully and suspiciously. Relations between China and the United States grew increasingly rocky during the 1990s as the United States and China began thinking of each other more as rivals than allies or strategic partners. From China’s perspective, the American-dominated Western world seemed to be harassing and criticizing China constantly about anything and everything, including its human rights abuses, its oppression of Tibet, its mistreatment of girl orphans, its burgeoning trade deficits, and its piracy of foreign intellectual property (including CDs, videotapes, movies, books, and computer program software). Beijing flew into a towering rage in 1995 and fulminated against Britain in its newspapers for weeks when Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, held free elections for the colony’s Legislative Council and introduced other democratic institutions. (Beijing dissolved the Legislative Council immediately after it took control of Hong Kong in July 1997 and replaced it with its own Provisional Legislature packed with unelected, pro-Beijing appointees.) Also in 1995, Beijing was infuriated that the United States granted a travel visa to Lee Teng-hui, President of the Republic of China on Taiwan. Lee’s purpose in going to the United States was to give an address at his Ph.D. alma mater, Cornell University. But Beijing perceived ulterior motives behind Lee’s trip and excoriated him and the American government for weeks over his brief visit to the United States. During the flap over Lee’s visit, the campus of Nanjing University was plastered with government posters denouncing Lee and the United States. Ordinary university students, however, seemed to care very little about their government’s anti-American tirades and were consistently friendly and polite to American students.

Paranoia in the Chinese leadership and populace grew in the 1990s as more and more people became convinced that the United States and its allies in the West were out to “contain” or “restrain” China and deny it its rightful place among the major nations of the world. Concern over human rights was, in the estimation of the Chinese government and many ordinary Chinese citizens, simply a fig leaf to mask American animosity toward China. How could the United States, with its astronomically high murder rates, race riots, homeless-ness, urban blight, drug abuse, spectacular mass murders, gang warfare, racism, and gun proliferation seriously expect its preachy pronouncements on human rights to be taken seriously? Something more sinister lurked behind America’s insistence on respecting human rights, they concluded.

In the West, on the other hand, there was increasing concern about China’s growing swagger and its increasingly defiant attitude toward the outside world. China, after all, supplied harsh dictatorships with nuclear technology and utilized slave labor in prisons to manufacture cheap toys for sale in the West. Would the rest of the democratic and industrialized world be able to convince China to comply with internationally accepted human rights standards and behavioral norms? Right-wing elements in the U.S. Congress and in private American think tanks began in the mid-1990s to characterize China as a potential threat to American security and global dominance, and the publication in 1997 of the influential book The Coming Conflict with China by Richard Bernstein and Ross H. Munro fed these fears to a wider American reading public. Concern that Chinese spies had stolen American technology for miniaturizing nuclear warheads, which would greatly boost any nuclear missile program, emerged during the late 1990s and further muddied the already troubled waters of Sino-American relations. Even though he was an immigrant from Taiwan, Chinese-American nuclear physicist Wen-ho Lee was arrested and charged with divulging nuclear secrets from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico to the Chinese Communists. (He was later cleared of the most serious of these charges in September 2000.)

The United States was not the only Western nation whose relations with China were strained in the 1990s. The Chinese government expressed continual irritation with Western censure of China’s human rights abuses, and its response was always the same old tired, predictable song: China as a sovereign nation was free to abuse its citizens in any way it saw fit, and any criticism from the West of how China governed itself constituted gross interference in China’s internal affairs. The Chinese government turned a deaf ear to the explanation that human rights belonged to human beings regardless of their citizenship and thus transcended considerations of national sovereignty. The lens through which China continued to view the rest of the world was, first and foremost, colored by national sovereignty.

The single greatest strain on Sino-Western relations since the Tiananmen Square Massacre came in May 1999, when NATO aircraft bombing the Serbian capital city of Belgrade destroyed the Chinese embassy there. NATO claimed that the bombing was accidental and immediately apologized profusely to the Chinese government for it, but this did not mollify public opinion in China. Some Western strategic analysts speculated that the bombing was a deliberate response to the Chinese embassy’s communications assistance to Serbian forces, whose own communications infrastructure had been largely disrupted during NATO’s bombing campaign against Serb atrocities in Kosovo. Enraged mobs in Beijing and other major Chinese cities surrounded American and British diplomatic compounds, foreign student dormitories, and any other place they identified with the Western presence, including even American fast-food outlets, and pelted them with projectiles. Security forces worked hard to maintain order and minimize the destruction, but rioters were permitted to throw almost any object light enough to pick up at the American and British embassies in Beijing. Mobs denounced President Bill Clinton as Adolf Hitler and equated NATO with the Nazis, and on American television Li Zhaoxing, the Chinese ambassador to the United States at the time and a diplomat with only a mediocre command of English, lectured American journalists on the evils of NATO rather than listening and responding to their questions. In Beijing, the American ambassador and several members of his staff remained sequestered in diplomatic offices and away from their residences for several days. Electronic mail and other forms of international communication and news coverage remained intact throughout the crisis. Although a few Westerners in various parts of China were roughed up and spat on, none were killed or seriously injured.

Several Western journalists insisted that the riots were planned and orchestrated by the Chinese government, but this is untrue. With a few notable exceptions, Western print and media journalists do not understand China and greatly underestimate the depth of patriotic and nationalistic feeling there today. They come close to libeling the Chinese people as mindless automatons who do not express outrage at Western atrocities unless their government tells them to do so. The anti-NATO riots were in fact almost completely spontaneous, and the Chinese government did not organize or orchestrate them; facilitate might be a better word. That is, the government decided to go along with the gathering protest movements rather than risk resisting them and thereby inflaming antigovernment as well as antiforeign sentiment. Popular uprisings in China are very frequently two-edged swords that can cut against the government as well as foreign indignities. The Boxer Uprising of 1899 and 1900 was originally antidynastic until the Qing government coopted it, redirecting popular indignation away from itself and toward Western powers and their embassies. The anti-NATO riots of May 1999 did not start out as anti-government protests, but they easily could have turned against the Chinese government if it had been seen as being too soft on NATO or condemning of the outburst of antiforeign sentiment. So Chinese government officials went along with the protestors to some extent, appearing on television to express understanding of their indignation but warning them to maintain order. In Beijing the government provided buses for protestors to ride to the American and British embassies, where Chinese security forces permitted vandalism of embassy property but thwarted attempts to storm the embassy compounds. The Chinese government had wisely released a safety valve, and within a few days the entire crisis had dissipated and life went back to normal. Jiang Zemin and his core leadership group parried a potential crisis for their government and walked, with calm and finesse, a delicate tightrope between alienating Western business interests in China on the one hand and alienating the enraged and nationalistic Chinese masses on the other.

In Beijing, many of the very same students who had hurled brick shards at the U.S. embassy a few days earlier soon lined up there to obtain their student visas to study at American universities. The majority of them harbored secret plans to remain permanently in the United States. (Fewer than one-third of the Chinese students who go to America ever return to China.) Their brickbat-and-visa relationship with the American embassy reflected the larger comic complexity of young Chinese intellectuals’ love-hate attitude toward the United States: the America that had enraged them a few days before was now doing them a favor. The same might be said of the Chinese government, for which the anti-NATO protests could not have come at a more opportune time. In May 1999, the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre was looming on the horizon, and nervous Chinese government officials were contemplating various ways of maintaining June 4, 1999, as just another ordinary day. The anti-NATO riots were exactly the distraction the Chinese government needed, and the critical date passed in Beijing and elsewhere in China without commemoration, gathering, or comment.

Sino-American friction continued throughout the rest of the year. American officials responded to the anti-American riots in China by leveling new charges of espionage against Chinese scientists living in the United States. A loosely knit group of American researchers concerned about China’s ultimate strategic intentions gained considerable influence with conservative representatives and senators in the U.S. Congress. Known informally as the Blue Team, this group villified the Beijing leadership and encouraged the U.S. government to pursue a harder line with China. Some Blue Teamers even went so far as to speculate that the running of the Panama Canal by the Hong Kong-based harbor management firm Hutchison Whampoa Limited was actually a Chinese Communist plot to gain control of Central America and deploy nuclear missiles there aimed at the United States!

China had legitimate historical grievances against the Western world and Japan; it would be impossible for reasonable people who review China’s modern history to conclude otherwise. The fear in some quarters in the 1990s, however, was that China might eventually translate its accelerating development and nascent historical resentments into a confrontation, or perhaps even open warfare, with the West. Perhaps China would even attempt to ally itself with other nations and civilizations hostile to the West in this cause. In his influential book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Harvard scholar Samuel Huntington argued that in the post-Cold War world, China’s relations with Islamic countries and Russia might well be “less conflictual,” while its relations with the West will probably be “more conflictual” (Huntington 1996, 245). Would a Sino-Islamic entente eventually emerge to threaten or challenge the West?

During the 1990s an angry and xenophobic book entitled China Can Say No (a book that drew the inspiration for its title and content from The Japan That Can Say No by Japanese nativists) created something of a firestorm of discussion and public debate in China. Other such shrill, ultranationalistic books soon became available in China, even in respectable, mainstream bookstores. One of the most prominent of these was China’s Road Under the Shadow of Globalization (Quanqiuhua Yinyingxia di Zhongguo zhi Lu; Beijing: Zhongguo shehui kexue chubanshe, 1999) by Fang Ning, Wang Xiaodong, and Song Qiang. More than a mere rant piece about the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, their book was a sustained polemic, a protracted diatribe, against the government and people of the United States of America. Loving China necessarily entails hating America, they argued. No accusation against Americans was too fanciful or far-fetched for them. The book claimed that the United States did not care about its relations with China: America wanted rather to trample China beneath its feet, America obtained considerable strategic benefit from its bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, patriotism for Americans amounts to world domination, and America is the most unfriendly nation in the world.

As with paranoid conspiracy theorists and ultranationalists everywhere, they filled their writing with bold-faced type and half-digested works of real scholars they sought both to denigrate and to emulate. Also like conspiracy theorists the world over, they speculated on the hostile intentions of foreign nations, bemoaned their fellow countrymen’s lack of nationalistic consciousness, exhorted them to recover their former greatness, and railed against liberalism, intellectuals, globalization, and free trade. They themselves were middle-aged men born in the 1950s, but they were trying their best to convert China’s younger generations to their xenophobic point of view.

Their book contained a discussion of race and a crude treatment of the “biological differences between races.” White Americans and other Westerners, they claimed, were looking into the possibility of conducting race-discriminating biological warfare (195), and it was undeniable that most of the people able to utilize the technology of the information age are currently white people (196). African Americans avoided racial extinction at the hands of white Americans because they were “physically stronger and more suited to slavery in plantations” (192), and regional separatism is not the problem in the United States that it is in Canada or Northern Ireland because white Americans came very close to “completely and utterly wiping out all Indians” (193-94).

They seemed unable to grasp the essential points and arguments of distinguished Harvard scholar of international relations Samuel Huntington in other than racist terms. The “clash of civilizations” that Huntington and other Western scholars foresee was, they argued, actually a conflict between races (222). There is a Chinese saying that perfectly describes their approach to Huntington: “With the hearts of petty men, they attempt to measure the innards of a gentleman.” If the paranoia and ultranationalism of the book could somehow be divorced from its cultural particulars, the book’s overall paranoid approach and xenophobic tone might well have been indistinguishable from the far right-wing neo-fascist trash available at a typical American gun show.

It would be comforting and reassuring to assume that the people who adhered to such extremist ideas were amateur autodidacts and other frustrated cranks who washed out of Ph.D. programs because of their lack of focus and discipline. In fact some such ultranationalists were affiliated with respectable institutions in mainland China and even in Taiwan. For example, a professor of foreign languages at National Taiwan University in Taipei, Taiwan, argued with shrill, emotive intensity that freedom would make China lax and democracy will make China collapse. What was so great about freedom, and what was so good about democracy? Power was much more important to China than democracy. Because Westerners were frightened by China’s enormous population of 1.1 billion, they used freedom and democracy to divide and weaken the Chinese. The professor warned Chinese compatriots that “when Westerners give you the thumbs-up and call you ‘good,’ you are nothing but an unmitigated traitor to China!” These rants were contained in a multiauthored book that slavishly parroted the Chinese Communist party line and overflowed with spite and venom toward Chinese dissidents and overseas exilees (“Xiang jianshe Zhongguo di iwan tongbao zhi jing” [My respects to the hundreds of millions of compatriots building China], in Lin and Wei 1999, 206-8).

Of course there were many rational voices in China in the 1990s that discussed China’s international relations in more sober and reasoned terms. Many Chinese intellectuals were embarrassed by the shrill tone of such ultranationalistic works and preferred to direct foreigners to more solid and reasoned works by China’s large community of responsible intellectuals. The debate in China about democracy, liberalism, and human rights was maturing during the 1990s and was not controlled by extremists who ranted about “Asian values” and rejected respect for human rights as unworkable in China. Contemplations of China’s future by such renowned scholars as Yan Xuetong and Li Shenzhi were much more rational and evenhanded.

China changed fundamentally in the 1990s. During this decade the youth of China turned away from agitating for increased liberalization, democracy, and freedom in China and turned toward making money and indulging their ultranationalist impulses, usually at the expense of the United States and Japan. The long and time-honored tradition of student protests and marches was killed at the Tiananmen massacre of June 1989. In 1995 at a Kentucky Fried Chicken store on the Bund in Shanghai, a young Chinese man who was a university student during the 1980s said it all to me: “Since Tiananmen, nobody cares about democracy and freedom any more. Now we’re only interested in making money.” The students and youth of China today have traded their political birthright for a mess of economic pottage.