Anniversaries do sometimes matter, but it’s not often that the anniversary of an entire year deserves noting and celebrating. However, the year 1989, now 20 years past, marks a crucial turning point in history.
The events of that year heralded the beginning of a new historical paradigm that we are just beginning to understand, but which we are evidently not yet willing to acknowledge.
Let’s look at the major events first.
On January 7, Emperor Hirohito, who had ruled Japan for some 62 years, died.
June 4 witnessed what will some day doubtlessly be seen as one of the most significant turn of events in the second half of the 20th century. It was then that troops of the Chinese Army opened fire, with submachine guns, on thousands of demonstrators in Tiananmen Square and other areas of Beijing. In the chaos that ensued, at least 1,000 campaigners for democratic change were murdered, and many more were taken away for brutal interrogation and incarceration.
On Nov. 9, 1989, an equally significant event took place on the border between what was then East and West Germany. The East German government allowed its citizens to travel to West Germany. This put the first big chink in the Berlin Wall, which had been built in 1961. In a year, the barrier was reduced to rubble and souvenirs.
On December 3, meeting off Malta on the Soviet cruiser the Maxim Gorky, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President George Bush declared that the Cold War was over.
To these four momentous events could be added the inauguration on Jan. 20, 1989 of George Bush, with his promise of a “kinder and gentler nation,” and Toshiki Kaifu’s succession to the post of prime minister of Japan on August 9. Bush was able, in 1989, to arrest Manuel Noriega, the president of Panama, and have him locked up in a Florida jail where he has been ever since; but had he really wanted a kinder, gentler America, he would have been wiser to lock up his eldest son, George W., and make Noriega ambassador to Cuba.
As for Prime Minister Kaifu, the only thing that distinguished his tenure was the fact that, for the first time in postwar Japanese history, the two houses of parliament had not been able to agree on which party should choose the prime minister. Eventually the dominant Liberal Democratic Party won out over the Japan Socialist Party, and Kaifu got the nod.
Why a new paradigm, and how does it affect us 20 years later?
Emperor Hirohito’s death marked the end of an era that saw Japan wage an aggressive and devastating war, only to stage a remarkable postwar recovery and rebuild itself into the world’s second biggest economy.
The primary goal of the people of the Meiji Era (1868-1912) had been to catch up with the West and overtake it.
OK, so what do you do when you do eventually catch up? Not enough thought and planning had gone into the kind of society — ethically, socially, politically — that the Japanese people would need to have in place in order to maintain prosperity and ensure that its fruits were equitably distributed among its citizens.
Consequently, in 1989, Japan’s economic bubble was on the verge of collapse. Over the next two to three years it did just that, with an insipid whimper that we have been forced to listen to ever since. Yet the disaster — and it was that, indeed — led to the emergence of no new paradigm for Japanese society, just more of the same old failed business as usual.
In China, the protests that culminated in the bloody clampdown on freedom of expression in Tiananmen Square on June 4 had begun to pick up momentum as early as April of that year. Hundreds of thousands of university students were demonstrating around the country. Zhao Ziyang, general secretary of the Community Party, and a leading reformer, addressed the students on May 19, recognizing, in effect, that their cause was just. But Zhao’s conciliatory gesture was negated by the party. He was put under house arrest and purged from history.
As for East Germany, the easing of travel restrictions was the beginning of the swift end of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet empire. Once there was a crack in the pressure cooker, the function of the lid became superfluous. The German Democratic Republic ceased to be a nation state in October 1990; and, as Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev and Bush stated, the Cold War was over.
Again, where’s the new paradigm?
The end of the reign of Japan’s wartime Emperor Hirohito in 1989; the end of Soviet communism (formally buried in 1991); and the blacking out of what looked like a glimmer of the hope for democracy in China. Yet Japan, the United States, Russia and China are essentially unchanged in their social and political structures. The ethos that dominates those four countries, despite them all now having new and dynamic leaders (save for Japan, where “dynamic leader” is an oxymoron), is still very much pre-1989.
Even Barack Obama, for all his rhetoric of change, seems dedicated to the reconstitution of an old America rather than the invention of a new one.
So where did we all go wrong in 1989?
The United States went wrong when it assumed it had brought about the collapse of communism and had “won” the Cold War. In actuality, the jerry-built communist edifice — structure, contents and scaffolding included — imploded and collapsed due to its own venal, pathetic mismanagement.
Japan went wrong by assuming that the giddy rate of growth seen for three postwar decades was bound to continue forever. Meanwhile, the rich got richer and the poor, including the middle class, got neglected. The society as a whole mistook the temporal glitter of luxuries for glaring, permanent needs.
China, too, has taken this path, as if all a country need do to sustain its people is to post high annual growth figures. But once that rate sags, the immense gap between the haves and have-nots is bound to become the primary issue that brings down an autocratic and corrupt government. If I were a leader of China today, I would be very worried about a hundred Tiananmen Squares blooming out across the nation in bright-red colors.
As for Russia, the new paradigm barely took root before it was promptly uprooted by a government that, as with China, put aggrandizement of economic power for its own sake over any concern for the environment or human rights. As Viktor Chernomyrdin, Russia’s prime minister from 1992 until 1998, said, “We all wanted something better, but we ended up with much of the same.”
All four countries have failed to recognize that a new system of social organization and justice is a must-do if we are to survive the assault on our planet by greed, waste and the devastation of the environment.
1989 is now a year long gone. But 20 years on, we can see how it all transpired — though today we are as trapped in the quicksand of those old ways as we were back then. And please bear in mind: You can’t get out of quicksand by pulling on your own hair.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.