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The Tiananmen massacre and China’s pragmatist soft power

Jianli Yang, a Tiananmen massacre survivor and former political prisoner of China, is the founder and president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China and the author of It’s Time for a Values-Based “Economic NATO.”

The Tiananmen pro-democracy movement of 1989 stood against government corruption and for freedom, attracting countless democracy-seeking supporters before ultimately ending in the bloody Tiananmen massacre.

The massacre caused a global outcry, focusing the world’s attention on China’s human rights atrocities. And since then, the country has been unable to escape condemnation and sanctions from the international community over human rights violations.

Over the past 34 years, however, the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) hasn’t just survived the Tiananmen crisis, but it has also established “pragmatist soft power,” which poses a significant challenge to liberal democracy as the only path to modernity.

So, how did this happen? And how should the democratic world respond?

The Tiananmen massacre struck terror into the hearts of ordinary Chinese citizens, while also creating a sense of crisis within Communist regime, as its rulers now faced a changed domestic and international environment and unprecedented skepticism regarding the legitimacy of its rule. The subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc deepened the cloud over the heads of Chinese officials, who wondered whether the CCP might be next.

So, as the West wavered over whether to link trade with China to its human rights record, Deng Xiaoping, the country’s former paramount leader, embarked on his famous southern tour in 1992, promoting China’s economic reform and opening. Communist officials then soon recognized three realities: the CCP’s grip on power had nothing to do with Communist ideology; continued economic growth was the CCP’s only hope of staying afloat; and to maintain its totalitarian regime, the CCP would have to coddle domestic elites in exchange for their loyalty, while enticing foreign elites with market opportunities in exchange for their indifference toward China’s human rights record.

Chinese officials then accordingly devoted most of their time and energy to boosting GDP, bribery and seeking lavish perks. As a result, the CCP elites, who once described themselves as the “vanguard of the proletariat,” either became get-rich-quick capitalists themselves, or became brokers, patrons and supporters of domestic and foreign capitalists.

As a United States government report noted, political power in China was “dancing a full-swing tango with capital operation.” And several factors — including low wages, low human rights standards and lax environmental regulations — combined to create a “golden opportunity for domestic and international speculative capitalists.”

Essentially, China’s international isolation in the wake of the Tiananmen massacre was short-lived. And as trade with China was decoupled from the country’s human rights record, the debate about how to deal with China in the post-Tiananmen era landed on the “trade-to-change” theory.

The idea was that trade with China would inevitably lead to a burgeoning middle class, which would come to demand greater political freedom and rights, leading to the country’s democratization. But that didn’t come to pass. Instead, the “trade-to-change” policy created a prisoner’s dilemma, where each country dependent on the Chinese market acted to satisfy its own myopic self-interest without regard for the longer-term consequences — let alone the well-being of the Chinese.

Over the past three decades, China has thus achieved rapid economic development under the one-party CCP regime. And by the time Xi Jinping took power in 2012, the country was already the world’s second largest economy, rapidly closing the gap with the U.S. in the technology and defense sectors — in other words, the “China miracle.”

And far more ambitious than his predecessors, Xi has placed great faith in the “China miracle,” wielding it as a form of soft power, which has allowed him to abandon Deng’s principle of “biding time,” openly throwing his weight around and challenging global liberal values with the goal of achieving a bipolar world order instead.

Prior to his rule, in order to create and expand soft power, China’s post-Tiananmen leaders tried to conjure up an alternative human rights theory, promoting Confucianism for propaganda purposes, and portraying the CCP as “carrying the torch” of traditional Chinese culture, both at home and abroad. And along similar lines, Xi has also sought to promote China with slogans like the “Chinese Dream” and the “community of common destiny for mankind,” and he has advocated for “telling China’s story well” — a euphemism for presenting the country’s history in a way that suits the totalitarian CCP’s needs.

But while these efforts achieved little, if any, in terms of winning people’s hearts around the world, there’s no doubt that under Xi, China has greatly expanded its global influence, making inroads in every corner of the world. And the answer to this lies within the post-Tiananmen “China miracle” itself.

The Tiananmen massacre diverted China from a path in which sustained economic development could have led to liberalizing political reforms, such as those envisioned by former Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang and other open-minded leaders before the massacre. Instead, development in post-Tiananmen China was carried out as a matter of deliberate state policy — unlike countries like the U.S. and the United Kingdom that developed “without knowing.” And it allowed the existing ruling structure to absorb the most talented and ambitious members of the elite into its own ranks.

This meant that dazzling economic growth took place as the CCP maintained fear among the masses and encouraged its leaders — especially the elite class — to ignore politics and simply make as much money as possible. It was an approach that ensured the worst form of capitalist excess, along with limited human rights and morality, and was delivered with the most competitive punch possible.

Thus, “the middle-class prediction” failed in China because the middle class owed its success to privileged relations with the state.

Buoyed by the momentum of its post-Tiananmen domestic success of such naked pragmatism, the CCP has since gone on to use its soft power to support China’s continued rise and expansion and to rival the U.S. It’s a form of soft power that focuses on pragmatism with no regard to values or morality, a formula that disregards human rights, holds contempt for democratic values and venerates money.

And China’s pragmatist soft power is particularly appealing to less-developed nations. When negotiating Belt and Road deals with non-democratic countries, the CCP doesn’t care about the human rights abuses, government corruption or lax environmental regulations of the target country — something that morally upright democracies simply can’t compete with. As former U.S. official Larry Summers noted when paraphrasing the leader of one developing country: “From the U.S., we get a lecture; from China, we get an airport.”

More recently, China scored a major diplomatic victory with its pragmatist soft power, successfully brokering the Saudi–Iranian détente. And building on this momentum, it now wants to broker an end to the Russia–Ukraine war on its own self-serving terms.

Luckily, however, so far this approach has reaped only limited rewards for China in the world’s developed democracies — despite Beijing’s frequent attempts at economic coercion. But, unfortunately, the economic overdependence of virtually every democracy on China still leaves the liberal world extremely vulnerable.

Thus, in order to compete with and overcome China’s pragmatist soft power, we need a values-based economic “NATO” for the world’s democracies — an alliance that would engage in the collective defense of its members to counter China’s economic coercion, place human rights and democratic values at the heart of its soft power promotion in developing countries, and support their economic development.

Any gains the CCP makes on the global stage will only increase the scale and scope of its authoritarianism, both domestically and abroad. But if last year’s White Paper movement — the first nationwide protest in China since Tiananmen — proved anything, it’s that, despite the CCP’s soft and hard power, the Chinese people continue to desire freedom and democracy. Therefore, change is possible in China.

And international democratic forces can support this change by combating the CCP’s pragmatist soft power in the international arena.

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