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The PLA’s Rising Prominence

Tanaka Naoki [Profile]


June 4 marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the 1989 crackdown on the pro-democracy protests at Tiananmen Square. Over the past quarter century, many theories that were offered on the course China would take have disappeared, and the country itself has undergone a vast transformation. I will review some of the theories that were once widely held.

One was the idea that economic development would be accompanied by modernization of politics. Another was that the freedom of association would inevitably be recognized as a logical consequence of economic development. For the development of the Chinese economy, it is necessary to raise value-added productivity. Raising value-added productivity requires more than fresh input of labor and capital; there must be enhanced sophistication of both human capital and the level of research and development.

For this, the freedom of association is indispensable. However, political modernization has been frozen since the Tiananmen crackdown, and prospects for greater freedoms are opaque at best. What was rejected during Tiananmen was more than a list of student demands; obviously, the crackdown squashed the basic building blocks of China’s future. 

Imperial Visit Amid a Shifting Paradigm

There are growing demands for political freedom in countries around the world. But in China, the Tiananmen crackdown narrowed the scope of political options for the Communist Party of China itself. 

Deng Xiaoping reportedly believed that China would come to ruin unless it took firm control of the situation, and the military was mobilized to forcibly disperse the students. At the time, few thought that members of the People’s Liberation Army would actually fire on their own compatriots. Comments have been made by soldiers themselves to this effect. With the party’s decision to turn the PLA against its own people, though, the CPC lost its legitimacy as the leaders of a people’s revolution.

No longer able to justify its political dictatorship on such grounds, CPC leaders opted to draw on the party’s irrefutable role in winning the “War of Resistance” against Japan. The post-Tiananmen period thus marked the start of an escalation in the anti-Japanese rhetoric taught at schools.

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko made a historic visit to China in 1992—just three years after Tiananmen. At a private gathering, I had an opportunity to ask Miyazawa Kiichi, who was prime minister at the time, why he approved the imperial visit despite lingering opposition to the visit, both domestically and internationally. “The opinion of China experts whom I repeatedly consulted regarding all possible scenarios was that Japan-China relations were likely to steadily worsen over time in five to ten years,” he told me. “It was a difficult decision, but the visit by the emperor, which was needed to put many of the outstanding bilateral issues behind us, had to be made in 1992, which marked the twentieth anniversary of the restoration of diplomatic ties.

Some commentators note that the visit was intended as a lifeline to China, which had become isolated from the international community, but as far as I know, the situation was not quite that simple. Already by then, the bilateral relationship had begun to shift from the friendship paradigm that marked the first 20 years since normalization to one of rising tensions, in which the two countries are still mired today. It is no doubt the case that the visit was made before further deterioration of bilateral relations would prevent Japan from making such a decision. 

Washington’s Misinterpretation

As the PLA went along with the party’s decision to fire on its own people, the CPC feels it owes them something. The PLA was created as a branch of the party and therefore, is not supposed to rebel against the party’s decisions. But the crackdown on Tiananmen Square drove a wedge between the two. While the change was clearly perceptible, many governments around the world failed to recognize it for years—most notably, Washington.

Premier Zhu Rongji was China’s chief negotiator when the country was seeking accession to the World Trade Organization in the late 1990s. On the US side, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin was lobbying members of Congress to secure their backing for China’s membership, but he was largely unsuccessful—primarily because Democratic lawmakers embraced the position of organized labor, their chief supporters, which insisted on including an escape clause to protect American workers from a sudden surge of Chinese imports. Not even President Bill Clinton could persuade lawmakers to compromise, so when Zhu visited the United States, he was essentially forced to return home empty-handed.

I spoke with Rubin soon after he stepped down as treasury secretary, and he seemed quite anxious about China. He was of the opinion that the CPC was divided into conservatives and reformists and that it was in America’s interests to work closely with the latter. He believed that sending Zhu home without Congressional blessing would weaken the hand of the reformists, and he wanted to hear my views.

In other words, the dominant view of China in Washington near the end of the 1990s, a decade following Tiananmen, was that there were two competing forces within the CPC and that US interests could be served by marginalizing the conservatives. The reality was, though, that by that time, a broad chasm had already emerged between the CPC and the PLA. This became much clearer during the presidency of Hu Jintao.

  • [2014.07.28]

Economic analyst and president of the Center for International Public Policy Studies. Born in 1945. Completed his doctoral studies in economics at the University of Tokyo. Served as president of the Twenty-first Century Public Policy Institute and as a member of numerous governmental councils. Published works include Kin’yū kuraishisu—Shin gurōbaru keizai to Nihon no sentaku (Financial Crisis: The New Global Economy and the Choices Facing Japan) and Maibotsu suru kokka (The Buried Nation).

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