By Eric Vandenbroeck
As pointed out before during the 1980's, largely due to the relatively liberal political environment and the policies of reform-minded top leadership, Chinese nationalism had a moderate orientation, this changed following the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown when history and memory were developed to become a new power.
The centerpiece of this post-1989 state-sponsored revival of Chinese nationalism was the so-called patriotic education campaign, a comprehensive program that revamped history textbooks, reconstructed national narratives, and renovated historical sites and symbols throughout China. The sole purpose of this program was to rekindle the Chinese population’s sense of national humiliation and, consequently, their antipathy toward the West. The “patriotic education campaign” achieved remarkable success in reawakening the most parochial and xenophobic strains in Chinese nationalism. Through official propaganda and a distorted historical narrative, the CCP was able to convince large segments of the Chinese population that the West would not want to see a powerful and prosperous China. Periodically, the official propaganda apparatus would go into overdrive whenever there were international incidents in which China was apparently disrespected or poorly treated. A first example that we have previously analyzed was the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis. Other examples are the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade by NATO during the Kosovo war in 1999, and the midair crash between a Chinese fighter jet and an American navy reconnaissance plane over the South China Sea in 2001.Of course, American responsibility in some of these made it easier for the Chinese regime to convince their population that the United States harbored hostile intent toward China. For instance, Washington attributed intelligence failure to the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. This might be true, but it sounded unconvincing to the average Chinese, who firmly believed that the United States, the world’s most advanced country, was incapable of making such dumb mistakes.
Deng Xiaoping’s strategy meanwhile was the redefinition of the “one-hundred year history of humiliation” as a new source of legitimacy of the CCP’s rule and the unity of the Chinese people and society.
The first batch of secret transcripts known as "The Tiananmen Papers" was published in English in January 2001 by PublicAffairs a Hong Kong-based publisher. The extended Chinese version of this book was published in April that same year under the title 中國六四真相 (Pinyin: Zhōngguó Liùsì Zhēnxiàng, translated as June Fourth: The True Story) by Mirror Books in Hong Kong.
Rather than meeting the demands of protesters for more liberal reforms and free markets, the Communist government doubled down on repression, aiming to stamp out the spirit of liberty behind the protests.
"For some time, an extremely small group of people who stubbornly promoted bourgeois liberalization cooperated with foreign hostile forces to call for revising our constitution, schemed to destroy [Deng Xiaoping’s] Four Cardinal Principles [for upholding socialism and Communist Party rule] and to tear down the cornerstones of our country; they schemed to change . . . our country’s basic political system and to promote in its place an American-style separation of three powers; they schemed to change our People’s Republic of democratic centralism led by the working class and based on the worker-peasant alliance into a totally westernized state of capitalist dictatorship," Peng Zhen, the former chair of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, said shortly after the massacre.
Foreign Affairs magazine published these remarks late last month before they became public when a new batch of documents was published as Zuihou de Mimi: Zhonggong Shisanjie Sizhong Quanhui “Liusi” Jielun Wengao (The Last Secret: The Final Documents From the June Fourth Crackdown).
The speeches once again make clear how the lessons taken from Tiananmen continue to guide Chinese leadership today.
For example ice President Wang Zhen expressed a widely shared view that the demonstrations werejust the latest move in a decades-long plot to overthrow communism:
After the October Revolution [of 1917], 14 imperialist countries intervened militarily in the newborn Soviet regime, and Hitler attacked in 1941. After World War II, U.S. imperialists supported Chiang Kai-shek in the Chinese Civil War and then invaded Korea and Vietnam. Now they’d like to achieve their goal the easy way, by using “peaceful evolution”: . . . buying people with money, cultural and ideological subversion, sending spies, stealing intelligence, producing rumors, stimulating turmoil, supporting our internal hostile forces, everything short of direct invasion.
By demonizing domestic critics and exaggerating the role of foreign forces, the victorious conservatives revealed their blindness to the real problems affecting their regime.
But although the first post-Tiananmen leader, Jiang, claimed the label of “core,” he did not establish true dominance over the system, and his successor, Hu Jintao, did not even claim the label. President Xi has made himself a true core and awarded himself the label in 2016, after four years in office. He achieved that position by purging all possible rivals, packing the Politburo and the Central Military Commission with people loyal to him, creating an atmosphere of fear in the party and the military with an anticorruption campaign that targeted his opponents, and moving quickly to crush any sign of dissent.
Xi’s placing himself in an unassailable power position, with no rivals and no limitation on his time in office, in 2018, Xi pushed through the removal of constitutional term limits on the state presidency, has created the conditions for a future succession crisis. When the question of succession arises, as it must in one form or another, according to the Chinese constitution, whoever is serving as vice president should succeed Xi as state president. But there is nothing on paper, and no informal norm or custom, that says who should succeed him as general secretary of the party or as chair of the Central Military Commission, positions that are far more powerful than that of state president. There is no evidence that Xi has designated a successor, as Mao did, and this may be because Mao’s experience showed how a designated successor can become a rival waiting in the wings. On the other hand, failing to name an heir is equally problematic if one wishes to see a smooth power transition.