The headlines and news crawls daily suggest a steadily deteriorating situation in East Asia: “Tensions Rise as Fishing Vessel Sinks,” “Vietnam Says China Attacked 4 Ships in Disputed Waters,” “China Fighters in “Dangerous’ Brush with Japanese Planes.”
As China seems to be antagonizing many of its neighbors simultaneously, analysts and observers increasingly express concern about the unpredictability of the Chinese leadership and lament the lack of transparency of Chinese decision-making.
But neither the lack of transparency nor the unpredictability should come as a surprise. Indeed, as reflected in the Tiananmen massacre a quarter-century ago, the ability to predict Chinese actions, much less understand the inner workings of the Chinese leadership, has been an illusory goal.
Up until the events in Tiananmen, there was a belief that China was understandable, because it was following a well-worn trail. As Deng Xiaoping’s policy of Reform and Opening bore fruit, economic activity expanded, and an unprecedented uplifting of populations out of poverty ensued. The expectation was that not only would China become richer; it would inevitably therefore also pursue political reform, much as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan were moving toward greater democracy. The great events in Eastern Europe appeared to presage a global move toward democracy.
The events of June 4, 1989, showed that was not to be the case. Instead, the top Chinese leadership authorized the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to clear Tiananmen Square by force. The PLA, belying its name and historical ties to the population, demonstrated its loyalty as a Party army and obeyed its orders. Similar scenes were repeated throughout China, as simultaneous crackdowns occurred against other demonstrators. Future political leader Hu Jintao arguably cemented his position by promptly endorsing the crackdown (which may have been modeled after his own, earlier suppression of Tibetan protestors in 1989).
In the subsequent two-and-a-half decades, China’s economy grew substantially, becoming now the second largest in the world. China is the foremost trading state, passing even the United States, and may well become the largest economy in the world within a few more years. The PLA, charged with preserving the continued rule of the Communist Party as part of its “new historic missions,” has seen its budget double and redouble as its weapons are modernized and its personnel enjoy better pay and benefits. The internal security apparatus (including the People’s Armed Police) have similarly benefited from central government largesse—in part to deal with growing internal unrest.
This latter aspect is arguably in part due to the lack of political reform, which shows little sign of reviving under Xi Jinping. Indeed, in speeches soon after assuming the role of Party General Secretary, Xi made clear that the Party must remain paramount (and the military must remain the armed wing of the Party). Amidst the unpredictability that afflicts our understanding of China, this appears to be the sole certainty.