Commentary / Japan

What's not happened since May 35, 1989

by Kuni Miyake

By the time you read this column, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will be ready to leave for Tehran. This week I first wondered if I should write about Abe’s trip to Iran, the first visit to the country by a Japanese prime minister since 1978, but finally decided not to, because I strongly felt that I should write something about the 30th anniversary of May 35, 1989.

Like “VIIV” or “Eight Squared,” “May 35” is another argot for the bloody crackdown on student protesters occupying Beijing’s Tiananmen Square that started before dawn on June 4, 1989. People often ask each other what they were doing on a historic day and for “June 4,” I am no exception.

I was the deputy director at the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) Division of Japan’s Foreign Ministry. The office, by definition, is destined to deal with whatever accidents, incidents, mishaps or other unpopular troubles caused by the U.S. forces in Japan and nobody envied my post at that time.

Once an accident or incident happens, it is often followed by a series of similar events. When June 4 took place in Beijing, we were extremely busy with the U.S. forces’ three consecutive aviation accidents in Japan. Nonetheless, we were literally glued to the TV screen showing CNN’s live coverage on China all day.

Indeed, it was a shocking scene that, unlike the fall of the Berlin Wall, ended with bloodshed and a still-unknown number of deaths and casualties. It was a decision made by leader Deng Xiaoping, who ordered People’s Liberation Army units to remove the students by force from the center of Beijing.

Later we learned that Deng had warned his comrades that “there is no way to back down now without the situation spiraling out of control,” and therefore he made the decision to move troops into Beijing to enforce martial law as a demonstration of the government’s position of intolerance for popular political protests.

Now in Beijing everybody feigns ignorance. I don’t blame those ordinary Chinese interviewed on the streets who unanimously said, “I don’t know about it.” Their behavior isn’t wrong; it’s politically correct. What was wrong were the views of those of us in the West who dreamed a dream about China after June 4.

Here is how we erred about China. We conveniently invented four sociopolitical scenarios for the future of Chinese society. They are the four models in the matrix of China’s economic and political possibilities — economic growth versus decline and democratization versus dictatorial government as follows:

The first model asserted that economic development makes China richer and eventually creates a modern civil society that would lead to the democratization of China’s political system. Its supporters claimed that post-June 4 economic sanctions against China should be lifted so the world could engage it in the global community.

The second model, on the contrary, said that China’s economic growth would only reinforce the dictatorial communist regime in Beijing and therefore we must increase economic pressure. Advocates of the second model opposed lifting sanctions and China’s accession to the World Trade Organization.

In fact, in my capacity as Japan’s chief negotiator on trade in services, I was seated at the negotiating table with a Chinese delegation at the WTO building in Geneva in 1994 when the accession talks resumed. I remember — despite its claim to the contrary — that China was not ready for WTO membership at that time.

Since then I had opposed China’s accession to the WTO because I knew Beijing would not keep its promises on trade liberalization and could be a consensus-breaker in the organization, where decision-making by consensus is honored. It’s no wonder that the WTO has ceased to function effectively since China became a member.

Who was wrong? We all were.

There’s no use crying over spilled milk. What China is now is the result of our miscalculation. After the passing of 30 years since June 4, we finally but painfully realized this unpleasant fact. What is more important now is for us not to repeat miscalculating the future of China in the next 10 to 20 years.

No civil society developed in China, although we thought in the late 1990s that the veterans of the 1989 Tiananmen incident would remain in the Communist Party and would eventually change the system from the inside toward democratization. We were wrong again. It’s time for us to stop our wishful thinking and become more realistic.

Now that China’s economic growth has started to slow down, we have a choice between the third and fourth models in China’s future matrix that I mentioned earlier. The third model predicts that the economic decline will lead to popular frustration and eventually force the communist regime to fall. But looking at North Korea now, this may not happen.

The fourth model, on the contrary, foresees that such economic difficulties will only prompt the dictatorial regime to further strengthen its grip on power and impose harsher rule on the Chinese people. The question is how patient China’s ordinary people can continue to be in times of such economic difficulty.

The counterargument for the fourth model is that, unlike the second model, the Communist Party cannot financially afford such governance. The Chinese are neither as obedient nor patient as their Japanese counterparts. The endgame of the CCP’s 70-year-old rule remains unknown.

Finally, let me say some famous last words. If Deng had not used force against the students in 1989, would the Communist Party — as was the case in the Soviet Union — have lost power in the early 1990s? Probably, if not inevitably, but of course this would not guarantee genuine democratization in China. Look at Putin’s Russia now.

Conversely, this could also mean the Chinese nation may not dramatically change regardless of what happened in Beijing in June 1989. But such an outcome is too sad. What happened 30 years ago must have meaning. If not, those brave students suffered for nothing and died in vain. Their actions should also be recorded in the great history of China.

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at the Canon Institute for Global Studies.