The Tiananmen Square peg

The Shock Doctrine: Naomi Klein has got the wrong end of the stick as to who did what in China in 1989, their motivations, and what followed.

One is tempted to say, with regard to The Shock Doctrine and China, so what else is new? The country's rulers have always used force and shock to try to push through their agenda. The first emperor was on the job two millennia before Milton Friedman was born.

The trouble is that, in the case she chooses, Naomi Klein firmly grasps the wrong end of the stick as to who did what in 1989, their motivations, and what followed.

"In China in 1989, it was the shock of the Tiananmen Square massacre and the subsequent arrest of tens of thousands that freed the hand of the Communist party to convert much of the country into a sprawling export zone, staffed with workers too terrified to demand their rights," she writes. Later, she explains that "in the three years immediately following the bloodbath, China was cracked open for foreign investment, with special export zones constructed throughout the country".

But China's economic revolution long pre-dated the Beijing massacre, starting in 1978. Special economic zones (SEZs) began in 1979, followed by economically opened coastal areas and cities being established. In 1984, Guangdong was declared a comprehensive reform experiment zone. Shanghai was allowed to attract foreign investment; and the vitally important town and village enterprises system was launched to raise the pace of development outside the big cities.

Imagine, for a moment, that Klein was right in seeing the massacre as an application of Shock Doctrine in the face of discontent bred by inflation, corruption and lack of democracy. Who, exactly, put the shock strategy into practice? What she tells us is that, while some reformers appeared ready to gamble on democracy, "more powerful elements in the party were not willing to take the risk. The verdict came down: the state would protect its economic 'reform' programme by crushing the demonstrators."

The decision to send in the troops was not taken by the Politburo, as Klein writes. According to the record in the Tiananmen Papers, its standing committee was split equally. The verdict came from gatherings of party elders (plus Prime Minister Li Peng).

What they wanted was to end the demonstrations (which spread well beyond Beijing) and protect Communist party power. Pursuit of the economic change Klein cites does not enter their discussions. Indeed, the majority were conservatives opposed to reform - some refused to visit SEZs as a matter of principle. To paint them as men (and one woman) using extremes of shock to advance policies they opposed is akin to depicting Klein as a Bushite.

Far from bringing an immediate unfurling of market measures, as Klein states, the massacre was followed by the ascent of economic conservatives. Li Peng insisted that "reform and opening up" should not be taken as the guiding principle. Always a weathervane, the new party chief, Jiang Zemin, set the tone in depicting the massacre as a victory over forces seeking to "subvert the socialist system, and turn China into a bourgeois republic and into an appendage of big western capitalist powers". One reformer was elected to the standing committee, but he was balanced by a conservative.

It was not until 1992 (ie three years on from the massacre) that Deng staged his comeback, using economic policy to reassert his political primacy on a tour of southern China during which he spoke out for renewed moves to the market. That was when inward investment surged and China was cracked open for foreign investment. This was not the result of the massacre three years earlier, but the outcome of a long-running battle at the top of the power structure, in which economic policy became the proxy for personal struggles.

In her pursuit of Friedmanism, Klein does not take account of the powerful nationalist element in Deng's decision to opt for the market, or the party-state relationship that underpins everything. The only Chinese source she cites is the new leftist Wang Hui, who is interesting, but has a particular line to strike - rather like writing about America and quoting only Michael Moore.

Klein invokes the four cardinal principles proclaimed by Deng at the time; but these provided for China to "keep to the socialist road and to uphold the people's democratic dictatorship, leadership by the Communist party, and Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought". Not very Friedmanesque.

Deng had Shock form well before the Beijing massacre - the mass persecution after the Hundred Days of 1956 and the suppression of the Democracy Wall movement in 1979, for instance. Shocking as it was, the Beijing massacre fits into a pattern of political violence endemic in 20th century China.

Mentioning only Tiananmen, Klein ignores the far bigger massacre of non-students in the suburbs of the capital on June 3-4 - which actually provides better evidence for her "terrified" workers line. She writes that, after June 1989, workers were "too terrified to demand their rights". Had they done so previously? One may postulate that the main reason for the mass obedience of workers in China in the 1990s lies rather in the search for material advancement.

The Beijing massacre was a major tragedy, shot through with misunderstanding and miscalculations. It simply does not fit the Klein thesis.

All this week, we will be debating The Shock Doctrine on Comment is free. Read all the blogs in our series and exclusive extracts from the book here. Visit the Guardian Unlimited microsite here.


Jonathan Fenby

The GuardianTramp

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