A Chinese version of the book Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) and the Transformation of China by Harvard professor Ezra Vogel, an authority in the field of East Asian studies, has recently become available in Taiwan.
Vogel presents many opinions about Deng’s place in history. Vogel has long been engaged in penetrating research about China, so he naturally has some unique ideas. However, some of his views are absurdly wrong, and they clearly reflect some long-held misconceptions among China specialists in the West.
Among Vogel’s views, the least acceptable is that concerning Deng’s decision to suppress the 1989 democracy movement by means of gunfire.
Vogel is full of sympathy and understanding for Deng. In his opinion, if one approaches the question from Deng’s point of view and from the standpoint of China’s unity and preserving the foundation of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) rule, then there was no better way of handling the problem at the time. It now seems, he says, that Deng may have been right to make this judgement, especially for China as it was then.
However, this conclusion runs contrary to the basic facts, and it is a judgement based on one-sided consideration in favor of the CCP.
In 1989, several thousand university students held a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square in Beijing that stirred up a nationwide democracy movement.
Did the ruling authorities of the time really have no other solution than to suppress the movement with gunfire? Of course not!
The students’ calls to fight cronyism and root out corruption were legitimate and reasonable demands. The students who went on hunger strike and occupied the square had just two demands: First, they wanted a dialog with the government, and second, they wanted the April 26 editorial published in the People’s Daily to be retracted. These were hardly things that the government could not do.
If the authorities had announced that they accepted the students’ two conditions, then the students would no longer have had any reason to continue their hunger strike, and the situation would have calmed down. Was that not one option for resolving the issue?
Would it not have been a better way of handling the problem? Perhaps Vogel thinks that the CCP could not make concessions, and so that could not realistically have been an option.
The fact is Zhao Ziyang (趙紫陽), who was general secretary of the CCP at the time, was already preparing to take a moderate approach by partially accepting the students’ demands. This shows that the option of conciliation was by no means out of the question. Only when Deng and then-premier Li Peng (李鵬) launched a coup and forced Zhao to step down did that possibility evaporate.
Evidently, Vogel’s idea that there was no better way of handling the problem at the time does not fit with the facts. In reality, it was the refusal of those in power to accept a better way that led to the final tragedy, and the one who rejected the better way was none other than Deng, the man for whom Vogel has such great respect. Vogel’s opinion is one that turns reality on its head.
Vogel’s assessment of Deng reflects a longstanding misconception among some China specialists in the West. They do not approach things from the standpoint of right and wrong or take universal values as the ideological basis for their judgements. On the contrary, in their hearts they take the standpoint of the rulers in a one-party autocracy, and that is where their concern lies.