China: 10 Years After Tiananmen FREE    Join the HRW Mailing List 
Chen Yizi, Chinese Communist Party Reformer
In 1989, Chen Yizi, an economist, was director of the Research Institute for the Reform of the Economic Structure, a reformist think tank, before his escape to the U.S. in 1989. Once settled in Princeton, New Jersey, he organized the Center for Modern China to research and disseminate information on political reform, activities he continues from his home in New York City.

According to Chen Yizi, "The student movement set back the reform process twenty years." At the same time, he pointed out, it really was a mass movement. "Without the support and sympathy of other groups, including millions of Beijing residents, cadres, and intellectuals, the students would have had little, if any, impact."

"If you look at the demands made of the government, the banners carried, and the slogans shouted, you have to conclude that most participants were agitating for freedom of expression and association, and for greater democracy. They were also calling for an end to corruption, faster political change, and deeper economic reform. Only a handful advocated overthrowing the government," he said. "It was a nonviolent movement, not a small group conspiracy directed from outside the country like the Chinese government said it was."

"The solution offered by Zhao Ziyang to resolve the dispute according to the rule of law and democracy was correct. Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng were wrong to opt for a violent resolution. Why did they? To protect an interest group within the Party invested in the status quo. Deng Xiaoping was extremely conservative politically. As soon as support materialized for the reformist faction of Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, Deng acted to protect the old guard."

That decision, Chen believes, had a tremendous political impact. It alienated the then-current generation of intellectuals, now in their fifties and sixties, and the generation just beginning to surface. "The older intellectuals bore the most pain. They believed in the Party most of their lives, but the Party claimed one thing and acted otherwise. The Party has made people maintain a widespread lie once again, like after the Cultural Revolution. You have to say ‘yes' even when you disapprove. For many Chinese who watched the events on television or who have been overseas, there is an undeniable sense of shame that the Party put out these lies, like nobody died in Tiananmen Square."

Chen also pointed out the social impact of the government's response. "People had learned that they couldn't rely on their government. Their immediate reaction was to stall, do as little work as possible. After Deng Xiaoping increased the pace of economic reform in 1992, many people sought simply to take care of themselves, the hell with the fate of the country."

"There was a spiritual and psychological letdown for many who believed in the system, and that letdown can lead, as it did in 1989, to a corrosive assortment of social ills, among them a high crime rate, prostitution, and corruption. Other social and religious organizations begin to fill the gap left by the Party. Some people argue that in 1989, the Party lost its last chance to gain people's support."

According to Chen, economic and political policy after 1989 proceeded through two stages and is now in its third. For the three years following the crackdown, all centers of dissent were silenced, including students and other social groups and, importantly, mid-level and young government officials who believed in reform. "The most prominent official to get caught in the net was Bao Tong, Zhao Ziyang's chief aide, who was widely recognized as the most able, daring, and persistent believer in reform."

"Many small youth organizations were purged of their most ambitious members. Many in reformist institutions were imprisoned, fourteen in one think-tank alone, among them Bai Nanfang, Yan Guansan, and Yang Xiao, to name just three. The theoretical and cultural fronts also were hard hit with purges in journalistic and academic circles. The numbers of arrests and executions were staggering."

Chen pointed to five attempts to turn back the clock, all of which were instituted by Premier Li Peng and Yao Yilin, in charge of economic policy, and all of which failed. They tried to repeal the new responsibility system and re-establish communes; to abolish small-scale retail enterprises, the ge ti hu; to support and protect state-owned enterprises; and in the process to compress the size of provincial and local-level economies; and to reassert central authority over local-level enterprises. The results, he said, were a minus 3.7 percent growth rate and Deng Xiaoping's famous southern tour in early 1992. The responsibility system stayed, as did the special economic zones, and the market and state economies developed in tandem.

On the other hand, the fear of luan (chaos) fed by the fall of the Soviet Union and other Eastern European communist regimes, led to tighter political control. No dissent was tolerated. Leading intellectuals were diverted to other areas including business. Reform of the urban areas stalled and the policy of urban growth underwritten by rural privatization flourished. In fact, Mr. Chen, said, large amounts of state property and wealth fell into the hands of urban special interest groups. "Basically, the Party mobilized people's fear and greed, buying stability by advancing their economic interests."

Underneath the stability, he went on, social tensions thrived. Special interest groups within the government wedded power to money; corruption persisted and deepened; income disparity widened; laid-off workers took to the streets to demand food, work, and an end to corruption and special interests. In 1998, Zhu Rongji was assigned the job of solving the mounting economic and concomitant social ills.

"In June 1989, the government had no understanding of democratic principles, and, therefore, had to rely on violence. Intellectuals and students didn't understand that democratic principles involved negotiation among interest groups, and, therefore, they persisted in their demands. The weak democratic forces in society didn't know how to win or where to stop, thus they gave to conservatives the opportunity to crack down completely, in the process lessening their own chances of maturing and growing. In short, those who wanted China to turn democratic overnight were just as naive as those who believed in the ultimate communist state."

"I believe democracy can only be nurtured and grow and survive in an environment where an assortment of social groups have relatively compatible social strengths. No group should be able to annihilate another."

Forces outside China, he said without much elaboration, have only a limited role. But, he went on, overseas groups, such as his own Center for Modern China, can connect with overseas scholars now in their thirties and forties who are willing to make contributions to the reform process. Democratic change has to come from within, with workers, intellectuals, and government cadres already part of the system uniting. Those who belong to this last category, he argued, are the only ones with the strength and knowledge to move the process forward.

"There are three possibilities for change: the Party itself pushes reform; special interest groups, particularly within the Party, take over and transform it; or we have chaos."

In the meantime, Chen said if he could ask one thing of the current government, he would ask for implementation of the standards set out in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, both of which China has signed but not yet ratified. He would ask that provincial people's congresses set up anti-corruption offices; and he would ask that the government ameliorate sweeping censorship rules by establishing opinion sections in provincial newspapers to enable citizens to publicly express their opinions without interference.