The Spectre of Tianamen

In the LRB, Chaohua Wang on Tianamen, 18 years after the massacre:

Two opposing interpretations of the movement of 1989 have gained ground, mainly in the West but also to some extent in China. The first is socio-economic. In early 1988, the government pushed forcefully to free prices, but the inflation that followed provoked such strong reactions throughout the country that it was compelled to reinstitute food rationing in the big cities in January 1989. Some American scholars have argued that this was a factor in the massive social unrest that manifested itself in the spring of 1989. In China itself, thinkers on the New Left have taken this argument a step further, seeing the military crackdown of 4 June as essentially paving the way for the marketisation of the economy, by breaking resistance to the lifting of price controls (they were removed again, this time successfully, in the early 1990s). According to this view, the driving force behind the mass movement, even its inspiration, was the refusal of reforms that would deprive the population of established standards of collective welfare. What the gunshots in Beijing shattered were the last hopes for the ‘iron rice bowl’ of socialism, clearing the way to a fully-fledged capitalism in China.

Another school of thought turns this argument upside down. In this account, the mass movement, far from clinging to the socialist past, looked boldly ahead to a liberal future. The growing number of banners written in English, and the styrofoam statue of a ‘Goddess of Democracy’, modelled partly on the Statue of Liberty, erected on Tiananmen in the last days of May, all show that America was the demonstrators’ real dream: not the iron rice bowl, but the market and the ballot box. Last month, George Bush presided over the erection in Washington of a monument to the Victims of Communism, in the form of a scaled-down bronze replica of the styrofoam goddess.