Twenty years ago, China could have followed the path of the Soviet Union. Now the picture is very different: but China's leaders could still learn from Gorbachevby Archie Brown / June 4, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
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Twenty years ago today in China the prolonged pro-democracy demonstration in Tiananmen Square was brought to a brutal end, when troops and tanks moved in and hundreds of people were killed on the streets of Beijing. While the western world remembers this event, it’s worth bearing in mind that June marks another, very different anniversary. Just 20 years ago democratic reforms in the Soviet Union also astonished the world. Contested elections brought into being the First Congress of People’s Deputies, held between 25 May and 9 June. From the outset, this was a legislature in which the executive was criticised and real debate took place. Its proceedings were televised live and watched by more than half the adult population.
In 1989 it looked as if Russia and China were travelling in opposite directions. What was then still the Soviet Union was moving towards democratic and accountable government. In China, radical economic reform had already made great progress, but the response to the Tiananmen Square demonstrators of Deng Xiaoping (the father of the Chinese economic reform) was to impose martial law.
China and Russia remain two countries fascinated, influenced, and sometimes repelled by the experience of the other. Had the Soviet experience continued to be one of evolutionary democratisation as it was between 1986 and 1989, it would have had a very positive influence in China. Twenty years ago, the general secretary of the Chinese Communist party Zhao Ziyang told Mikhail Gorbachev that Soviet political reform was being followed with huge interest in his country and that the intelligentsia were demanding that China emulate the example of perestroika. Zhao himself, as his newly-available posthumously published reflections (Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Zhao Ziyang, 2009) make clear, had personal sympathy with the goal of political reform and was opposed to the ruthless crackdown on the pro-democracy demonstrators. Visiting Chinese research institutes in 1988, I myself found enormous interest in the Soviet perestroika. I even heard party intellectuals say: “We need a Chinese Gorbachev.”