John Pomfret -- After Tiananmen, How Did the Communists Stay in Power?

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By John Pomfret
Sunday, June 7, 2009

On June 14, 1989, I was in the Associated Press bureau in Beijing. I had just filed a story about the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in China's capital. As the sun streamed through the office's grubby windows, the phone rang.

"This is the police in charge of resident foreigners in China," a male voice on the other end announced. "Are you Pan Aiwen?" He was using my Chinese name.

"Yes," I replied.

"You are ordered to appear at our bureau immediately," he said. Click.

Three days later, I was on a plane bound for Hong Kong, expelled from China. Officially, I stood accused of stealing state secrets and violating martial law provisions. My actual offense: I'd written about Tiananmen Square.

Since April of that year, when demonstrations first erupted, I had spent many nights on the square. I had frequented the dorm rooms of student activists and had wandered throughout the city, trying to chronicle the unfolding events. On the night of June 3, I was on the western outskirts of the city when the People's Liberation Army opened fire on protesters there. By the early hours of June 4, I was in the center of the square with the remnants of the student movement as the army tightened its noose.

Twenty years after the crackdown, the most intriguing question to me isn't how many people died, or whether there were deaths on the square itself or just on the streets that led to it. It's this: How has the Communist Party managed to emerge from that experience stronger than ever?

In 1989, a chorus of Western voices predicted the party's collapse. "One foot in power and one foot on a banana peel," was how the late, great David Schweisberg of United Press International described the party's predicament. I, too, filed my share of sensationalist dispatches, intimating a coming collapse.

But the party has defied such predictions. And it has done so by taking a brilliant step: giving a lot of Chinese -- in the countryside, the cities, the media, the security services and the government -- a bigger stake in preserving the existing system.

It's easy to conclude that the double-digit economic growth that has persisted since the early 1990s is what has kept the communists in power. And yes, Deng Xiaoping's trip to Shenzhen in 1992 opened the door to the resumption of pro-market economic reforms and an export-led growth strategy. The results include huge trade surpluses, a massive capital influx and the creation of Deng's social contract with the Chinese people: You can get rich and I won't mess with you, or you can dabble in politics and I will.

But China's communists needed a lot more to stay on top of the heap. Instead of thwarting change, as it had in 1989, the party realized that it needed to lead it. "Keeping up with the times" has become its new motto -- in the rural backwaters and the megalopolises, too.

In the countryside, where the majority of the 1.3 billion Chinese live, the party has encouraged township and village enterprises, or TVEs -- basically small factories in rural areas -- that have absorbed millions of farmers and constituted a powerful engine of growth. TVEs have been a major force in China's urbanization. Nearly 200 million people have moved off the land and into cities over the past 20 years.


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