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China After Tiananmen Square

The Jewish Humanist, August 1989

The massacre in Beijing will long remain in our memory. The shooting of thousands of unarmed and innocent civilians by a brutal army shattered our hopes for democracy in China. What initially seemed impossible happened.

The context of the killings only added to the despair. In other parts of the Communist world democracy was advancing. The new Supreme Soviet was meeting with free and open debate. The Communist Party had been defeated in Poland in a free election. The Hungarians were talking about a multi-party system. Until this repression it seemed as though the entire Communist world was moving inevitably to more and more freedom and democracy.

Visions of a world of universal detent and disarmament, induced by the Chinese reforms and the Gorbachev initiative, were clouded by the massacre. The fear arose that Communist conservatives would be emboldened by this success and would offer stronger resistance to reformers in other parts of the Marxist world. Holdout tyrannies, like East Germany and Czechoslovakia, might look at China and find support for their stand. Reluctant reformers in the Soviet Union would see the possibility of changing sides and winning. Rabid anti-Communists in the West would use the repression to revive their paranoia. The mood of optimism might be turned off by new, doubts and apprehensions.

How justified is this new pessimism?

There is no doubt about it. The conservatives, the octogenarians and their henchmen who have been opposed to the speed and sweep of the economic reformers, who have spent their lives in the midst of an authoritarian and Stalinist party structure, who are determined to maintain the supremacy of the Party at any cost – these men have won a victory. They have persuaded the commanders of the Army to serve their vested interests and to impose their minority will upon the people.

The forces of democracy are in danger and on the run. Deng Hsiao Ping, the senior leader who had sought to remove the octogenarians and the conservative bureaucrats from positions of power, has reaffirmed his Stalinist past by joining them. A new sinister Triumvirate of President Yang Shangkun, Prime Minister Li Peng and Securities Chief Qiao Shi have assumed power. And they may be perfectly willing to endure international rejection in order to maintain it.

The picture looks grim. Is there any hope to be extracted from the present situation?

I think there is.

This conservative regime no longer enjoys the support of the people. The deep hatred and anger that the shootings engendered will not quickly pass away. The sense of outrage has deprived the regime of the legitimacy that came so easily in the days of Mao. The “mandate of heaven” is gone. The people appear to be deeply alienated from the army and the “star” personalities of the regime. Sullen obedience is no key to the long-run future of any government. Without some form of active public cooperation no army and no police can ultimately prevail.

The massive demonstrations of students and workers for democratic reform indicate that the Chinese people are quite different from what they were ten years ago. The new freedom in the economic sphere has inevitably stimulated the demand for more freedom in the political sphere. The expectation level of both the educated elite and the urban masses has dramatically risen. What was once regarded as liberation from tyranny has now turned into tyranny. Lowering those expectations will not be easy.

The old Stalinist and behavioral assumption that people can be conditioned to endure any oppression has been -proven false by recent events in the Communist world. In both Eastern Europe and in China public resistance has revealed that human nature is not quite so malleable as social engineers would wish. As Erich Fromm has maintained, there is a limit to how much control people will endure. In the end the weakness of totalitarian regimes is that they bump up against the resentment of the unfulfilled masses. Democracy may indeed be an unstable form of government. But so is dictatorship.

It is quite clear that economic and political reform go together. Deng Hsiao Ping gave the Chinese some economic freedom without conceding any significant political liberties. He mocked Gorbachev, because Gorbachev attempted to use democracy and an open society to stimulate economic restructuring. But Deng’s contention that one can happen without the other is false. Market freedom spawns its own restless energy. The free exchange of goods leads eventually to the demand for the free exchange of ideas. And economic self-reliance strengthens the need for political self-reliance. Russia’s problem is that its economic gains will have no future without democratic reforms.

Progress is never a continuing set of forward steps. There are always many relapses. Quite often the onset of liberation is preceded by a last desperate attempt by diehard reactionaries to hold on to their power. The step-back ward is necessary to mobilize the people for the leap forward. The new repression in China will only serve to undermine what remaining credibility still adheres to the Communist Party. It may ultimately persuade even the reluctant to rebel. There is a hope yet that, sometime soon, the tanks in Tiananmen Square will be replaced by a new statue       of the Goddess of Democracy.

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Visiting East Asia

The Jewish Humanist, September 1996

I have just returned from five weeks in East Asia. I had been there three times before, the first time as a Jewish Chaplain in the American army in Korea. My memories of Korea were poverty and devastation. I was anxious to see what the economic revolution of Asian capitalism had done to the settings of my memories. China, Vietnam and Indonesia were added to my voyage. I had seen China and Indonesia a decade before. Vietnam was new to me and, because of the terrible war, the most intriguing of my destinations.

I was aware, from my reading, that great transformations had taken place. I knew that the most dynamic economies of the world had their home in the Far East. I knew that the old Communism had given up its ghost and had embraced the consumer culture. Only authoritarian regimes and empty Marxist slogans remained. But I was unprepared for the dramatic difference to the past. The new urban centers of skyscrapers, expressways, automobiles, high tech factories, shopping malls, banks and motorbikes startled me. American culture had crossed the Pacific and had made a comfortable marriage with the fresh ambition and talents of eager Asians. The “goodies” of the Western world are more fascinating to these once hungry people than they are to us, somewhat jaded from overexposure.

As a Jew, visiting East Asia is different from visiting Europe or the Middle East. In the Western and Middle Eastern worlds there is an old and significant Jewish presence. The stories of both Christianity and Islam cannot be told without the Jews. The cities of Germany, Russia, Turkey and a dozen other neighboring countries have profound Jewish memories, both pleasant and unpleasant. In fact, our Jewish ancestors helped to make them great.

But China, Korea and Vietnam have no long-run significant connection to Jewish history. We all know about the native Chinese Jews who had their origin in the arrival of adventurous Persian Jewish merchants in the days of the Sung emperors. We also know about the Russian and German Jews who found their way to Harbin and Shanghai in this century, the agents of an expanding Russia or refugees from Hitler. But they are gone, a brief but exotic chapter in the saga of the Jewish people. They left no imprint on Chinese culture or Chinese memory. Tourists can find a few relics of their past in old Kaifeng or in the fast-changing streets of the former international settlements in Shanghai.

Yet in some strange way, East Asia is very Jewish to me. The young people remind me of all those Asian students in the United States and Canada who are replacing Jewish students as the winners of the top honors in science and mathematics. They are ambitious for education and success, in the same way that the Jewish immigrant children I grew up with in the ghetto of Detroit were eager for academic and worldly achievement. Their faces and food were not familiar, but their values were.

Communism had not been able to destroy the Confucian values of family loyalty, family ambition and self-discipline. As a Jew, these values were familiar to me. They were at the foundation of Jewish success. Add to this the Confucian reverence for the written word and scholarly study, embellish it with lingering bourgeois skills in commerce and trade – and you have the perfect setting for winning in an education oriented capitalistic world. In many respects the Chinese in Southeast Asia are resented in the same way as the achieving Jews in the Western world.

My experience in East Asia stood in dramatic contrast to my experience in the countries of the Muslim world. In the Muslim places where there is no oil, deep poverty prevails. While there is reverence for the written word, the text of the Koran, most study and learning are directed to religious study. The secular sciences of Western society are viewed as dangerous and subversive of the faith. A powerful religious establishment hates Western culture and offers resistance to its ideological advances. Iran, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and many other nations live with this hostility and the civil war it creates.

What unites the Jews and the people of East Asia is an overwhelming embrace of secular education. It is the key to their mutual success. No powerful Buddhist or native clergy remains in the Far East to oppose the appeal of scientific thought. Old values have been wedded to new thinking, without the reactionary intervention of fundamentalist religion. The consequence is social discipline and worldly success.

Of course, modern urban industrial capitalist civilization has brought the problems of overcrowding, crime and rudeness. They are the unavoidable accompaniments of a dynamic economy. But the growing victory over poverty outweighs their annoying intrusion. East Asia is way ahead of Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. In a few decades its emerging affluent nations may become the economic and political center of our planet.

It is quite possible that, in the twenty first century, Jewish ambition and the energies of the Pacific Rim will come together in a new chapter of Jewish history. Shanghai will not be Minsk, but then neither was London, New York or Los Angeles. Maybe the Jewish love of Chinese food is a prophecy!