1989: The Year of Unfulfilled Hopes
By Margaret MacMillan (Wall Street Journal Saturday Essay)
Dec. 28, 2018 11:18 a.m. ET
Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the protests in Tiananmen Square, the promise of a world of growing democracy has given way to today’s turbulent, fragile international order
Thirty years ago, in 1989, we thought that a dark chapter had ended and that the road to a happier future lay clear ahead. The world was celebrating the end of the Cold War. By the year’s close, the Wicked Witch in the East was dead, its empire in Eastern Europe had melted peacefully away, and the Soviet Union itself was about to follow it into Trotsky’s dustbin of history. The Chinese communist leadership’s vicious crackdown on the pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in June seemed the last gasp of a sclerotic regime on the wrong side of history. At the time, commentators deplored the regime’s brutality and predicted that it could not maintain itself in power indefinitely by such means.
We were horrified by the tanks and the soldiers in Beijing, but we preferred to remember the exhilarating scenes of cheering Germans drinking champagne on top of the Berlin Wall. Governments had toppled like dusty dominoes in what had been risibly called “People’s Democracies,” and real democracy appeared to be taking over. Surely it would spread until all nations would enjoy its benefits and the world would be governed by a liberal international order. The great powers would no longer need huge, expensive arsenals, and there was much talk of all the boons that the “peace dividend” would make possible.
How innocent that time and those hopes seem now. How have we arrived at the turbulent and disturbing world of 2019?
We could not have realized it then, but the world stood at crossroads in 1989, with competing visions of how the future should unfold. In retrospect, there were warning signs. In February 1989, the Soviets finished their withdrawal from Afghanistan, helping to make a hero of an obscure jihadist named Osama bin Laden. That June, in a little-noticed event in the Balkans, the former communist apparatchik Slobodan Milosevic decided to use the forces of Serbian nationalism to stay in power by promising his support to the Serbs at the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo. The two men would go on to fuel the forces of religious fundamentalism and ethnic nationalism that were to pose such challenges to liberal societies.
In China, the Communist Party showed that it intended to hang on to power by whatever means necessary. The students and their supporters who had poured into Tiananmen Square and into public spaces across China had called for liberty and democracy. Instead they got tanks and guns.
‘Stability must take precedence over everything.’ —Deng Xiaoping, June 1989
China’s leader, Deng Xiaoping, concluded that he had no choice. “Stability must take precedence over everything,” he told his colleagues at the top-secret meeting in June 1989 when they decided on suppression. If China’s economy was to develop and its billion people were to be cared for, the country must have unity. Deng, as he always did, was taking the long view. He was fond of saying, “Hide your strength, bide your time.” China was weak and backward in 1989, but in time, it could build a modern economy and take its rightful place in the world.
To understand why Deng and his colleagues—and indeed many of the Chinese people—were prepared to accept the world’s opprobrium at the time of the crackdown, we must remember China’s history. In 1989, many in the West were so focused on the future that we forgot that. We can ignore history and often do, but it will not ignore us. The past shapes our societies, institutions, and ways of thinking and reacting—often in ways we do not fully grasp.
China’s history had left its elites, as well as its ordinary people, with a deep-seated fear of anarchy and social chaos—and with resentment at the way in which a once-great power had been degraded. The “century of humiliation” started in 1839 with the First Opium War and continued with China’s repeated defeats at the hands of outside powers, up to the massive invasion and occupation by Japan, starting in 1931 with the assault on Manchuria and ending in 1945. Internally, China suffered from the collapse of the Qing Dynasty and the huge Taiping Rebellion in the 19th century, which may have killed between 20 and 70 million Chinese, and then the unrest and civil wars in the 20th century, which ended only with the triumph of communism in 1949.
It was part of China’s tragedy that unity after 1949 did not bring a better world. Chairman Mao Zedong unleashed a series of campaigns, among them the disastrous Great Leap Forward, which may have resulted in the deaths of 45 million, and the Cultural Revolution. These excesses had touched all those who took the decision for repression in 1989, for they had been vilified and abused by Mao’s Red Guards. Deng’s own son was left a paraplegic by injuries he suffered during that dreadful period. So for the Chinese leadership, order was not a luxury but a necessity. They feared that democracy and liberty, which the Tiananmen protesters demanded, would open the road to disintegration again. “If all one billion of us undertake multiparty elections, we will certainly run into a full-scale civil war,” Deng told President George H.W. Bush in February 1989.
In the aftermath of Tiananmen, outside commentators wondered how the 85-year-old Deng and his similarly ancient colleagues could keep China under control and make the reforms necessary to build prosperity. A highly authoritarian regime that tried to introduce economic liberalism surely could not survive, for it would face demands for political liberalization as well. In 1989, it was taken as a given that a growing middle class, increasingly prosperous and literate, would inevitably long for free speech, the rule of law and representative government—and that authoritarian governments would have to give way to that pressure or be overthrown. That, after all, is how it had happened in the great Western democracies in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
As we now know, however, the Chinese Communist Party has managed very well indeed in combining economic liberalization with autocratic rule. In doing so, it has transformed Chinese society, raising millions out of poverty, and brought China renewed power in the world.
As far as we can tell, the Chinese people have so far been prepared to accept economic progress, along with some expanded personal freedoms, in return for a one-party state in which dissent is crushed rapidly and efficiently. President Xi Jinping certainly has no doubt that what he calls “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is the only path to modernizing a nation of more than a billion people. In March, his announcement that Beijing had perfected “a new type of party system growing from China’s soil” was picked up enthusiastically by the party-controlled press. Western political systems, commentators said, lead to social chaos, divisions and inefficient government.
China’s extraordinary economic success has made it a model for many of its neighbors and for countries around the world facing similar challenges of national unity and development. For the leaders of impoverished countries that have emerged out of colonialism, the combination of authoritarian rule and economic progress has proved enticing. China does its best to encourage that view. This September in Beijing, at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, the president of Ghana announced that he intended to follow the Chinese model of development. He is by no means alone.
Foreign experts are noticing that Chinese elites are increasingly willing to talk about how the West is finished and how China is the benevolent hegemon of the future. In Beijing, the Belt and Road Initiative to link China and the world through massive infrastructure investment is said to be all about friendship and cooperation. China has come a long way in only 30 years.
In 1989, we also underestimated the difficulties of building democracy in the former Soviet satellites—and in Russia itself. The long twilight struggle between the West and the East had been military and economic, of course, but the Cold War had also been about ideas and types of society. We thought that 1989 demonstrated the strength of Western values—of liberty, the rule of law and human rights, which had proven infinitely more attractive and more successful in providing progress and prosperity than corrupt and oligarchic Soviet-style communism. We assumed that building new sorts of regimes and societies would be quick, easy and peaceful—and that Mikhail Gorbachev, with his attempts at liberalization and democracy, was the new face of Russia. We were wrong.
Again, we ignored the past. We failed to take account of older patterns and tensions re-emerging from the deep freeze of the Cold War. In Yugoslavia, Milosevic and other nationalist leaders, such as Franjo Tudjman of Croatia, could play on the supposed memories of past wrongs and old suspicions to gather support and, in the end, to dismember their country.
We failed to take account of older patterns and tensions re-emerging from the deep freeze of the Cold War.
We also did not understand properly the damage that decades of Soviet rule had inflicted. Building democracy was not just a matter of writing constitutions and holding free elections; it was about building civil society and establishing the societal norms that underpin all successful democracies. It took Western nations centuries to do that. While some of the former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe had experienced brief periods of democratic government before and just after World War II—Czechoslovakia, for example—authoritarian governments had been far more common.
Many East Europeans who demanded change did so because they loathed Soviet rule, but they had not necessarily banked on the economic upheavals and uncertainties that came with the transition to a new form of economy and government. Often, the old communist elites hastily renamed themselves and hung onto the levers of power. Corruption, repression, electoral cheating, the sale of state assets to cronies, even the use of violence—all served to give democracy a bad name, not least in Russia itself. Since then, many post-Soviet electorates have switched off politics or voted for autocrats promising stability at the very least.
It is not clear that there is sufficient will around the globe to uphold an international order that has served us well.
We still have an international order 30 years later, but it is far more fragile than the one we envisaged in 1989. Western leaders took for granted back then that, as the winners of the Cold War, they could easily settle the long peace to come. They made mistakes—in treating post-Soviet Russia contemptuously, for example—which continue to be costly right up to the present. Vladimir Putin and the many Russians who support him resented the expansion of NATO and being told that Russia was a failure that needed to model itself on Western countries; they were humiliated that Russia was treated internationally as negligible. Mr. Putin has helped weaken international norms by his illegal seizure of Crimea and his destabilization of “near abroad” countries from Ukraine to Georgia. When he makes trouble where he can today—in Europe, the Middle East or inside the U.S.—it is a consequence of the aftermath of 1989.
It is not clear that there is sufficient will around the globe to uphold an international order that has served us well. China, the great rising power, talks about a rules-based world, but its actions—claiming the seas around its coasts, using its economic might to force alliances—speak otherwise. The European Union is under pressure from Mr. Putin but also from governments within, such as the illiberal rulers of Hungary or Poland, which ignore the union’s founding principles of liberty and democracy. We hear increasing talk about trade wars and protectionism. And, most important, the U.S.—which since 1945 has been prepared to guarantee a world order of free governments, citizens and trade—no longer seems willing to do so. It has withdrawn or threatened to withdraw from international agreements, notably on climate change, Iran and nuclear-arms control.
The shocking surprise since 1989 is that democratic values have come under threat even in the mature democracies. In the rush to globalization in the 1990s, many among the elites benefiting from a more interconnected world failed to notice the growing economic disparity in many societies, the squeeze on the middle classes and the increasing numbers of people who felt that they had been left out and left behind. That has helped to fuel populist parties on both the right and the left, some of which are profoundly antidemocratic and xenophobic. In France, Marine Le Pen of the National Front claims to speak for the “French nation,” which in her definition does not include immigrants. When the 5 Star Movement in Italy talks about representing the “real people,” they are excluding all those who disagree with them.
Thirty years after the events of 1989, we still live with those competing visions of the future laid out back then. Democracy and a liberal world order, or authoritarianism and international anarchy? Today we, especially in the West, are not as certain as we once were about which is likely to come to pass. The future seemed set in 1989; it is much more of a question mark today.
Ms. MacMillan is a professor of history at the University of Toronto and the former warden of St. Antony’s College, Oxford. Her books include “Paris 1919,” “Nixon and Mao” and, most recently, “The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914” (Random House).
Appeared in the December 29, 2018, print edition as 'The Year of Hopes Still Unfulfilled The Hopes of 1989, The Alarms of 2019.'
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