I lived and worked in China for the best part of a decade, and I’ve never forgotten the words of one of my closest Chinese friends: “No Mao, no China. No Deng, no China open”.
He was, of course, referring to the revolutionary Mao Zedong and one of his successors, Deng Xiaoping — two giants of the 20th century.
Mao established Communist Party rule and Deng launched the economic reforms that set China on a course to become perhaps the most powerful nation of the 21st century.
They were also brutal figures.
Mao has been linked to the deaths of tens of millions of people in the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution. Deng ordered the massacre at Tiananmen Square in 1989, when the army opened fire on its own people.
This week has marked 30 years since that event and I have thought again about my friend and how we never discussed the massacre even though he had lived through it.
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Tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989ABC NEWS
The events of ’89 have been written out of Chinese history; an entire generation has grown up with no knowledge of it.
Much discussion this week has rightly focused on the student pro-democracy activists, yet what was truly taking place was a struggle not just on the streets, but inside the closed rooms of the Communist Party politburo.
The power of the party
To understand China is to understand the primacy of the party: No Mao, no China. No Deng, no China open.
In 1989 the Cold War was ending, the Soviet bloc was crumbling and the Berlin Wall was about to come down: it was a watershed year in global history.
American political scientist Francis Fukuyama pronounced “the End of History“: the triumph of liberal democracy over communist totalitarianism.
In China, the Communist Party was at the crossroads of its own history.
Reformers wanted to open up and move away from the legacy of Mao.
Hardliners foresaw the Soviet collapse and wanted to double down on authoritarianism; to them, the Tiananmen activists were part of a western plot: counter-revolutionary traitors who must be put down.
Deng Xiaoping as supreme leader straddled the reformers headed by the Chief of the Communist Party, Zhao Ziyang and the old party loyalists led by Premier Li Peng.
After Zhao visited the protesters, Deng ordered the crackdown and the army moved in.
Zhao was sacked and placed under house arrest until his death.
The rise of Xi
Watching on was a young party leader in Fujian province, Xi Jinping. Xi is a princeling, a son of the party; his father, one of Mao’s revolutionary leaders.
Xi had been schooled in party politics: as a youth, he was banished to the countryside for “re-education” in the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s-70s.
His father, Xi Zhongxun, opposed Deng’s crackdown and criticised the slaughter of the activists. He was banished from party leadership.
Today, his son Xi Jinping is the most powerful leader China has had since Mao. The Economist magazine has named him the most powerful person on the planet.
He leads a country on the verge of surpassing the United States as the world’s biggest economy. It is a country that since the Tiananmen massacre has lifted more than half a billion people out of poverty.
Xi upholds Deng’s bargain with the Chinese people: we will make you rich, but we will not make you free.
He has launched a crackdown on human rights; silenced dissidents, targeted lawyers and artists and locked up political rivals.
He has sent hundreds of thousands — perhaps a million — ethnic Uighur Muslims to “re-education camps” and confiscated their property.
For Xi, there is no China without the party.
An old speech with new meaning
In the lead-up to the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, a Chinese online media site released a speech that Xi gave in 2013 just after assuming leadership.
It is a fascinating, if disturbing, insight into the man.
Xi, lives in the shadow of Mao: “… if at the time of reform Comrade Mao had been completely repudiated, would our party still be standing? Would our country’s system of socialism still be standing? And if it was not still standing, what would we have? A world of chaos”.
The party’s future he says, like its past, is built on sacrifice.
“In our party’s 90 years of history, one generation of Communists after another did not hesitate to shed their blood and lay down their lives for the independence and liberation of the people.”
The speech shows a man distrustful of the West, indeed a paranoid leader jumping at shadows.
“Hostile forces at home and abroad often write essays on the history of the Chinese revolution or of New China, doing all in their power to smear and vilify that era. Their fundamental purpose is to confuse the hearts of the people. They aim to incite them into overthrowing both the Communist Party of China’s leadership and the socialist system of our country.”
Xi warns his party: “We must prepare for danger in a time of peace.”
Throughout the speech, Xi displays a messianic zeal, indeed using religious language of “faith” and “sacrifice”.
Xi is a deeply ideological figure, in an ideological battle with the West. He is pledged to defend socialism “with Chinese characteristics” and rejects Western liberal democracy.
He is a leader with his enemy firmly in view.
“We must have a deep appreciation for capitalism’s ability to self-correct, and a full, objective assessment of the real long-term advantages that the developed Western nations have in the economic, technological, and military spheres. Then we must diligently prepare for a long period of cooperation and of conflict between these two social systems in each of these domains.”
No political leader from Canberra to Washington should be under any illusions about Xi and his ambitions for his country.
A vision for the future
His China dream is for a “harmonious society”, yet he is prepared to achieve it with force.
He wants China to be engaged in the world, but on its terms.
How the West manages the rise of China is the political question of our age.
Xi Jinping has altered China’s constitution, abolishing two-term presidential limits. He is now “leader for life”.
And now, 30 years after the massacre at Tiananmen, my friend may have a new saying: “No Mao, no China. No Deng, no China open. No Xi, no China future.”