The Shock Doctrine

The Caricature of Deng as a Tyrant is Unfair

Henry Kissinger, Washington Post, August 1, 1989

Both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives have, after extraordinarily cursory debate, voted overwhelmingly to impose sanctions against China going well beyond the measures already taken by President Bush. Such a lopsided vote in direct opposition to a popular president with considerable experience in Chinese affairs is remarkable.

The vote was also unprecedented. I cannot recall sanctions invoked by either the president or Congress against a major country in reaction to events entirely within its domestic jurisdiction. The case of South Africa concerned a peripheral player on the international scene. The only comparable precedent -- the Jackson-Vanik Amendment designed to spur Jewish emigration from the U.S.S.R. -- backfired. And it only withheld additional benefits; it did not withdraw existing benefits as do the congressional sanctions against China. Moreover, Congress established no criteria for eventually lifting the China sanctions.

To avoid any misunderstanding, let me summarize my own views regarding the events around Tiananmen Square. No government in the world would have tolerated having the main square of its capital occupied for eight weeks by tens of thousands of demonstrators who blocked the authorities from approaching the area in front of the main government building. In China a demonstration of impotence in the capital would unleash the lurking regionalism and warlordism in the provinces. A crackdown was therefore inevitable. But its brutality was shocking, and even more so the trials and Stalinist-style propaganda that followed.

Nevertheless, China remains too important for America's national security to risk the relationship on the emotions of the moment. The United States needs China as a possible counterweight to Soviet aspirations in Asia, and needs China also to remain relevant in Japanese eyes as a key shaper of Asian events. China needs the United States as a counterweight to perceived ambitions from the Soviet Union and Japan. In return China will exercise a moderating influence in Southeast Asia and Korea and not challenge America in other areas of the world. These realities have not been altered by events around Tiananmen. Should this reciprocity evaporate, Soviet policy would gain in flexibility and Japan would doubt the Asian role of the United States. America's position in the rest of Asia -- especially in Korea -- could become uncomfortable indeed.

Anyone familiar with the history and attitudes of China will therefore share the reluctance of President Bush -- who is after all a humane and compassionate man -- to launch the United States on a course both dangerous and undefinable.

At least two questions need to be addressed:

(a) Why should the United States Congress challenge a relationship that has enjoyed bipartisan support for nearly two decades?

(b) What is to be achieved by the course advocated by the congressional majority?

The passions result in part from the impact of television coverage. The media described events accurately enough, but television could not -- in the nature of the medium -- supply the historical or political context (Ted Koppel's special being an important exception).

But what happened in Beijing was not a simple morality play. The conflict grew intractable because serious individuals were in conflict over important issues. What began as a student protest for greater popular participation in government fused with the intraparty struggle of factions headed by the deposed general secretary, Zhao Ziyang, against groups surrounding senior Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping over the pace of economic reform and the need for political change. I have known Zhao Ziyang fornearly a decade. He is an attractive human being and a dedicated reformer who in his last conversation with me outlined a program of price reform which was both indispensable as a move to market economics and politically risky because it was bound to raise prices.

But I also know Deng as a reformer and a good friend of the United States. I remember him during a visit of mine to Beijing in 1975 when he stood up against the Gang of Four on behalf of ties to America -- a warning to those who now claim China has no place to go regardless of sanctions. Though I have never discussed it with him, I suspect that President Bush's perceptions are heavily influenced by the same experience.

Thus in my view the caricature of Deng in American discussions as a tyrant despoiling Chinese youth is unfair. For the past decade and a half, Deng has been the driving force behind Chinese reform. He introduced aspects of market economics and sought to institute a more predictable judicial system. His tragedy is that he has been too successful in the economic field and too hesitant in the political area. He has been too committed to communism to be prepared to face the fact that free-market economies cannot be instituted by a totalitarian Communist Party; but he was also too committed to progress to abandon a course bound to undermine one-party rule.

In a similar dilemma, President Mikhail S. Gorbachev of the Soviet Union has sought to construct a power base outside the Communist hierarchy, specifically in the Supreme Soviet. By contrast, Deng, survivor of the Long March, sought to forestall the decline of Communist power by reforming it. He tried to subject every party member to review, and when that failed, he restricted the Communist Party hierarchy to essentially conceptual tasks.

Neither course worked. The weeding out of 30 million party members aborted because it had to be administered by the very people who needed to be removed. The reduction of the role of the Communist Party created a vacuum, especially after Deng moved Zhao from the prime minister's position to the office of general secretary of the Communist Party to replace Hu Yaobang.

As a result, Zhao Ziyang's reform program, which in the best circumstances would have been difficult to implement, foundered. Trapped between a government he no longer controlled and a Communist Party indifferent to his policies, Zhao Ziyang appealed to groups beyond his normal Communist reform constituency. In early May, two weeks into the student upheaval, Zhao contradicted Deng before the Asian Development Bank when he stated that the student protest was not a serious matter. Two weeks later when welcoming Gorbachev, Zhao stressed on television that Deng was making all the key decisions. This was generally interpreted as an attempt to place all the blame on Deng.

By then certainly it was apparent that the protesters had obtained support from organs beyond the capacity of student groups. Tens of thousands of protesters would not have survived day after day in the main square of the capital without food, elementary sanitation and medical care. Almost all reporters agreed on the excellence of their communication. Access to the main square of the capital was no longer controlled by the government.

None of this detracts from the fact that most of the grievances of the protesters were real. At the same time, the government in Beijing was unlikely to preside supinely over its own demise. For two centuries the overwhelming problem of China's domestic politics has been the maintenance of national unity. In the Chinese perception, ever since the Opium Wars of the 1840s, foreigners have systematically nurtured Chinese disunity to despoil the country. At my first meeting with Prime Minister ChouEn-Lai on my secret trip to China in 1971, he expressed -- to my amazement -- his conviction that Japan, the United States and the Soviet Union all had as their ultimate aim the division of China.

No doubt Deng and his associates saw the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square as a threat not only to their own rule but to the cohesion and ultimately the independence of China. They remembered that during the Cultural Revolution, the student Red Guards created by Mao ultimately spawned so many competing groups under the same banner that the army had to be called on to rescue coherence from these autonomous satrapies. If the government could not control the main square of the capital, its ability to govern the rest of China would quickly erode.

I support the appeals for moderation of the summit meeting of the democracies as well as the measures President Bush has already taken to express his concern. But what would be the goal of going further in a situation of such complexity? Would it be to punish Beijing for past actions now irrevocable? Would it be to promote what the United States might regard as the reform faction? Does the United States really want to commit itself to overthrowing the government of China?

Punishing a country for past actions is bound to backfire. To go further than the steps the president has already taken would be to court a demonstration of impotence. Sooner or later the punitive sanctions will fail, if only because the Chinese government cannot undo its past actions, and geopolitical realities will dictate a rapprochement between the United States and China. By then, however, an essential element of American foreign policy could be in tatters.

It has been argued that the United States must bring pressure on the government in Beijing lest it antagonize the emerging forces in China. But does the United States know enough even to identify these forces or to understand how to help them? Would the success of the students in Beijing have brought democracy or civil war? The anniversary year of the French Revolution should remind us that the course and outcome of revolutions cannot be deduced from the proclamations of its creators. Within the last decade the Iranian revolution consumed its democratic spokesmen.

U.S.-Chinese relations prospered during the passage from Mao to Hua Guo Feng to Deng despite their bitter antagonisms, because America stayed aloof from the impenetrable thicket of Chinese domestic politics. It was perceived by all contenders as committed to the eternal Chinese goals of territorial integrity and the well-being of its people.

Such an attitude is all the more important now because Chinese change did not end with the events on Tiananmen Square. I believe Deng's statement that he remains committed to economic reform. This has, after all, been the theme of his long life and the cause of his personal suffering. The hesitation of eight weeks before the crackdown, the efforts by even Li Peng to meet with student leaders, the visit of Zhao Ziyang and Li Peng to the hunger strikers in the hospital demonstrate the reluctance.

The Chinese leaders must realize, or their successors will learn, that economic reform is impossible without the educated groups that supplied some of the fervor of the Beijing upheaval and of the workers who furnished much of the muscle. Thus, as so often in Chinese history, the rhythm of Chinese life and of Chinese common sense is likely to produce some practical solution. It would therefore be extraordinarily unwise for the United States to disengage from China at a moment of such fluidity or to adopt policies likely to be interpreted in Beijing as attempts to overthrow the government.

Advocates of additional sanctions claim that China's interest in American help is so great no sanction would jeopardize the relationship. That could be a dangerous illusion. If the Chinese leadership concludes -- albeit reluctantly -- that the outside pressure to which America is supposed to be the counterweight is overbalanced by America's interventions in China's domestic affairs or even by the inability of the executive and Congress to develop a coherent policy, it could invoke Chinese xenophobia as a defense against perceived American intervention in its domestic affairs.

The challenge of China thus goes beyond the events at Tiananmen Square. And President Bush's refusal to let himself be stampeded will in the long run serve America's national security as well as the values America cherishes.
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