Back in May, in the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake, a few China correspondents started talking about the possibility of a “Chinese Glasnost”. First was Philip Taubman, veteran of the New York Times Moscow bureau, warning what happened “When The Kremlin Tried a Little Openness“. Four days later, Nicholas Kristof called Chinese media’s coverage of Sichuan “China’s Glasnost“. Kristof doesn’t seem to understand what Glasnost was, saying:
In the 1980s, China’s hard-liners ferociously denounced “heping yanbian” – “peaceful evolution” toward capitalism and democracy… My hunch is that the Communist Party is lurching in the direction, over 10 or 20 years, of becoming a Social Democratic Party that dominates the country but that grudgingly allows opposition victories and a free press.
Kristof was in China at the end of the USSR and his hunch about gradualism seems more on the money about China. Taubman saw glasnost first hand, however, and gives a better description of what it was. Ironically, it makes clear why both of them are wrong that anything like glasnost is likely to occur in China now:
Mr. Gorbachev realized his country was rotting from within, paralyzed by repression and ideological rigidity, a backward economy and a deep cynicism among Russians about their government… As Mr. Matlock said last week, “If you remove the power of repressive state organs while stirring up a nation with many problems, you will get a process you can’t control.”
Obviously, China is not paralyzed by ideological rigidity (hampered, but not paralyzed), it’s economy is anything but backward, and most importantly, the Chinese are not deeply cynical about their government. Moreover, glasnost was an explicit policy of calling into question the recent Soviet history that happened within a matter of a few short years. In 1989, a mere four years into glasnost, the censorship bureau Glavlit was openly telling the New York Times that their banned list was cut in half and Solzhenitsyn’s works was in publication. China, in contrast, has often taken two steps forward, one step back in loosening restrictions, mostly through unofficial moves without loud proclamations and always reserving the right to silently roll back any changes. China’s censors don’t give interviews, boast of reductions or allow the publication of several of China’s Solzhenitsyns (see below). Meanwhile, China’s economic reforms began long before Gorbachev even took office, and their period of collectivism and centralization before that much shorter.
But perhaps most revealing about terms like “Chinese Glasnost”, and other Soviet comparisons, is what it says about Western views of China. Mr. Matlock, a former U.S. diplomat, quoted in Taubman’s article, states the underlying assumption – that repressive nations inevitably turn into democratic capitalist ones when restrictions on speech are loosened. That’s the argument Francis Fukuyama put forward in “The End of History” in the heady days following the end of the Cold War (and we’re still trying to shake off), and it’s part of the argument of the 1990s for engaging China – that the Communist Party could not survive the openness necessary for China to integrate with the world. As one writer for the conservative Heritage Foundation wrote in 1992 in an article titled Subversion through Development:
The notion here is simple: When communists engage in perestroika or glasnost – as China has done since the inception of its so-called “open door” policies in the early 1980s – they implement, by definition, meaningful market reforms. These reforms, even if only partial, open a communist country to outside influences, and in the end create political grievances that under- mine the extant regime. This pent-up political demand cannot forever be contained-, certainly it cannot be readily channeled. When all is said and done, reform communism proves to be communism’s last stage.
In 2000, China scholar Arthur Waldron argued that China has been conducting glasnost policies, arguing that glasnost means that media can report on corruption and moral lapses, but not “why those lapses are occurring, whether it has anything to do with the general structure of government and society—on that they must remain silent, in classic glasnost style. Gorbachev unleashed glasnost hoping that it would lead the Communist Party to scrape away the scales of corruption with which it was encrusted to reveal the good Leninist metal below—only to discover that there was no good metal; corruption was the system, and scraping was weakening its key structural elements.” For these reasons Waldron concluded a reckoning is coming soon for China. Jasper Becker, meanwhile, says that there is been no such level of openness and so a glasnost is needed.
The Sichuan earthquake is not the first time the Western media thought that a glasnost was in the offing. In 1989, when “nothing was happening”, the New York Times asked “How, in the age of Gorbachev, can a Communist leadership committed to economic reform maintain legitimacy while it rebuffs popular demands for greater political openness?” Kristof wrote from Beijing that
Perhaps because of the lack of a Chinese Gorbachev, there seems to be a growing view here that China will not see ”glasnost” decreed from above, but must see it bubble up from below. The Chinese suddenly seem to have decided that democracy must come from themselves and that the Chinese Communist Party will be less willing than its Soviet counterpart to introduce competitive elections, so people must themselves claim their rights.
But 20 years later, many observers look back at 6/4 and argue that:
Chinese protesters’ ideological outlook was not identical to their counterparts in east-central Europe in 1989. In Beijing – in contrast to, say, Budapest or Bucharest – many people did not call for an end to communist rule but rather for party leaders to do a better job living up to their own professed ideals. It is misleading to think that China’s 1989 had everything to do with democracy and nothing to do with patriotism or nationalism. The western media of the time were fascinated with symbols such as the Statue of Liberty-like “Goddess of Democracy”; but in fact anger at nepotism and corruption was a more central theme in Chinese wall-posters and manifestos of the time than demands for elections, and criticism of these failings was framed in terms of official selfishness endangering the nation.
In 1998, James Miles of the BBC wondered if the live CCTV broadcast of President Clinton’s speech on human rights was the beginning of a Chinese glasnost. In 2003, Dexter Roberts mused in Business Week “are President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, China’s new leaders, secret reformers with a plan for a kind of Chinese glasnost?” because of the Chinese government’s public, if belated, response to the SARS crisis. In 2004, Melinda Liu wrote an article in Newsweek titled “China’s Glasnost” on loosening restrictions on arts and literature, quoting artist Huang Rui saying “Possibly, Hu Jintao will become China’s Gorbachev.” Time and again, there have been predictions that a glasnost is inevitable, a glasnost has begun, a glasnost is underway. And yet, and yet.
There may yet one day be a political revolution of some kind in China. But if we are to understand it when it happens, thinking of it in terms of Soviet analogies will undoubtedly mislead and confuse more than help. The constant refrain of glasnost locks our thinking into a narrow historical comparison, preventing us from seeing that there are in fact conditions where an authoritarian state can avoid major democratic reforms and maintain power, that democracy is our priority, our wish, while Chinese citizens have been more concerned with avoiding chaos (Kristof fails to reconcile his reports on this with his other reports that they are democratic idealists) and, quite simply, that we’ve been predicting something for 20 years and it seems no closer today.
It also distorts our view of what happened to the former Soviet Union. Glasnost and perestroika were not the main causes of the Soviet collapse – the economy was, particularly regarding grain and oil. It left Russia with “half a revolution” – a broken centralized economy, an ideological ruin, and no alternative ready. This vacuum was filled by Boris Yeltsin, a man lionized when he died by the Western press as a hero of Russian democracy, but in fact not really anything of the sort. He allowed the press a great deal of freedom, only to restrict it again after shelling parliament. Matt Taibbi was once co-editor of the Moscow English magazine eXile – he has some choice words about Mr. Yeltsin. Solzhenitsyn himself said Yeltsin “started a mass, multi-billion-dollar fire sale of the national patrimony”, leaving a “poor and demoralized people”. He also said “the West deluded itself — or maybe conveniently ignored the reality — by regarding Russia as a young democracy, whereas in fact there was no democracy at all.”
It’s not just the term glasnost, either. There’s a whole vocabulary for China-Soviet comparisons that’s been in use for years. When will we discuss China on its own terms, instead of trying to fit them into a Soviet mold?
- Chinese Solzhenitsyns: Yang Jisheng got this distinction this year for his book Tombstone, but there have been many. Ma Jian also got it for his book Beijing Coma (plus comparisons to East Bloc writers such as Kundera, a very popular writer in China in the 80s – and even he argues democracy in China should come incrementally), Liu Binyan is also one (to Sakharov too).
- Chinese Sakharovs: In the 1980s, dissident astrophysicist Fang Lizhi held the title of “China’s Sakharov” in the Western press. In the 1990s, the mantle was more often placed on Wei Jingsheng. Now Hu Jia has won the Sakharov Prize from the European Parliament – a prize created in the name of the dissident Soviet physicist in 1988. Sakharov first came to Western attention in 1968 for his 10,000 word essay on intellectual freedom. Wei Jingsheng still gets the name sometimes, but Fang seems to have lost it in the past decade.
- Chinese Iron Curtains: Another variant on this is U.S. policy on government information providers (or propaganda) by VOA, RFA and the like. Lokman Tsui has argued persuasively that U.S. policy regarding the “Great Firewall” uses much of the same language as in the Cold War against the Soviets.
- Chinese Gorbachevs: As mentioned above, Hu Jintao got pegged as it a couple of times. In 1990, Kristof said analysts thought there was one and that it could be Li Ruihuan, Zhu Rongji or Jiang Zemin. Zhu Rongji later said “I’m not China’s Gorbachev, I’m China’s Zhu Rongji”, squashing many dreams. Last year the infamous Will Hutton said either of two prospects for China’s next leader, Li Keqiang and Li Yuanchao, could be the One. Li Yuanchao didn’t make the cut, and now it seems Li Keqiang is on the way out. Hutton, though, is generally considered a witless hack. But China watchers will undoubtedly continue to look for a Chinese counterpart to this vision of Gorbachov: