For 150 years, China has been a land of turmoil and tragedy. In the early 1840s, following the first opium war with Great Britain, the Manchu dynasty, which had ruled the “Celestial Kingdom” since the middle of the 1600s, had its empire rudely opened to Western influence.
This was clear evidence that the “Son of Heaven” on the throne in Peking no longer had the favor of the gods. The Taiping Rebellion followed and, from 1850 to 1863, China was thrown into thirteen years of revolutionary turmoil. Led by a religious fanatic who believed he was the incarnate brother of Jesus Christ, the Taiping revolutionaries caused the death of 20-30 million people as well as massive destruction throughout central China.
During the last decades of the 1800s, China fell victim to the rivalries between the Western powers which were vying for control of Chinese territory and monopoly “spheres of influence.” This culminated in the Boxer Rebellion of 1900.
In 1911, the Manchu Dynasty fell at the hands of Chinese revolutionaries who promised democracy, national unity and socialism. But ushered in was fifteen years of political and economic disintegration known as the “Era of the Warlords.”
In 1927, the Nationalist (Kuomintang) Party established itself in power in Nanking under Chiang Kai-shek. Promising national unity and economic modernization, the Nationalist government soon degenerated into a regime of corruption and military dictatorship. At the same time, a Communist movement arose in the countryside under the leadership of Mao Tse-tung.
In 1931-32, and again in 1937, China fell victim to Japanese invasion, plunging the country into eight years of war. In 1945, civil war broke out between the Nationalists and the Communists, resulting in Chiang Kai-shek withdrawing to Taiwan and Mao Tse-tung becoming Marxist master of mainland China in 1949.
China then suffered under the iron fist of Communist tyranny: collectivization of land, nationalization of industry, thought-control, massive political purges causing the deaths of millions, and regimentation of every aspect of daily life. This culminated in the “Cultural Revolution” of the 1960s that brought China to the edge of social and economic destruction.
In the 1970s, a new Communist leadership came into power under Deng Xiaping. The new leadership introduced privatization of farmland, permitted limited private enterprise, opened China to foreign investment and allowed Chinese students to read Western books and study abroad. Having had a taste of limited economic freedom, a growing number of Chinese now wanted political and intellectual liberty — “democracy” — as well. This Deng Xiaping and the Communist Party were unwilling to give. The outcome was the massacre in Tiananmen Square in June 1989.
This finally brings us to the book under review, Tell the World: What Happened in China and Why by Liu Binyan. Mr. Liu has co-authored the volume with Ruan Ming and Xu Gang. All three were members of the Chinese Communist Party. All three repudiated their memberships.
The first part of the book is a moving, eyewitness account of last spring when thousands of young Chinese came to the center of Peking, uncertain of what they wanted, but quite certain of what they did not want: intellectual repression, political privileges and corruption, denial of civil liberties, and one-party rule by the Communists. They were supported in this by younger Party members, the government press corps and large segments of Peking’s population.
And we all saw how it came to an end on June 4 when the troops moved in and killed perhaps thousands of unarmed students, with thousands more arrested and tortured in the weeks that followed.
The second part of the book offers a fascinating and detailed inside look at the workings of the Party’s inner circle during the period leading up to the massacre. Deng Xiaping’s career in the Party is traced, and it is clearly shown that Deng has always been a Communist. The authors quote Deng’s views of how the Party should handle China’s emerging democracy movement: “China has such a big population it doesn’t matter if we kill a few hundred thousand…. Kill two hundred thousand in exchange for twenty years of stability.”
Finally, the authors grapple with the future. As long as the “Gang of the Old” live and rule, they say, there will be no change. Their mind-set has been molded by sixty years of conspiracy, terrorism, belief in class conflict, and self-assurance that they are the Marxian vanguard that led the Chinese masses out of ignorance and feudal exploitation; they continue to believe that they are still needed to guarantee China’s future. But the authors are convinced that, as in Eastern Europe, the Party’s days are numbered. China has an increasingly literate population comprised of people who want to think for themselves and expand their freedom.
One can only hope that the authors, who see a free China on the horizon, are right. Unfortunately, China’s history tempers their optimism with doubt. China’s turmoil and tragedy are almost certainly far from over.
Made available by Future of Freedom Foundation.