Tiananmen Square: He Saw It Coming


By Edward A. Gargan

Doubleday -- 340pp -- $22.95

The photo on the back of the book tells a lot: Author Edward A. Gargan, smug-faced, arm akimbo, sporting a Yankees cap and dark glasses, stands cockily in front of a tank in Beijing the day after the Tiananmen Square massacre. You can almost hear him say, "I told you so."

As Beijing bureau chief for The New York Times from 1986 to 1988, Gargan emphasized the negative. He prided himself on his cynicism as he searched for the underside of Deng Xiaoping's reforms. Rather than exult in Chinese society's increasing tolerance of dissent, Gargan saw its decades-old oppressiveness. He tried hard to find the story everyone else was missing.

Unfortunately, he succeeded. In China's Fate, Gargan describes the depressing scenes he witnessed during his stay: young prostitutes in Fuzhou, slums in Shanghai, the army crackdown on independence-minded Tibetans, disillusioned young poets, management-school graduates whose skills were wasted. To him, it added up to "a China not exhilarated by change but instead wracked by . . . uncertainties and conflicts."

Gargan presses home a discouraging, but now popular, theme. In their enthusiasm for China's opening and economic reform, he says, most Americans missed or underestimated the symptoms gf mounting crisis. Instead of bringing progress, as much of the world believed, Deng's reforms unleashed economic and political forces that "inevitably" collided in Tiananmen Square.

When these conflicts began to crescendo in May, 1989, Gargan was in New York, already at work on this book. He jumped on a plane to Beijing. But unlike those who were excited by the huge demonstrations, Gargan sensed "looming disaster." He felt a "pessimism born of my belief that China's Communist Party is fundamentally incapable of change" as long as it is dominated by revolutionary veterans.

To his credit, Gargan mutes his "I told you so." He admits he was surprised by the brutality. "While many of us felt Deng Xiaoping was capable of great repression . . . no one, not the journalists in Beijing, and certainly not I, and, more important, none of the hundreds of Chinese I had spoken to in those weeks, believed he would slaughter his people on the streets of the capital."

Gargan aims his harshest salvos at the officials of the U. S. embassy in Beijing under Winston Lord. He says they were unwilling to contemplate the possibility that the reform program might be truncated or reversed. "Their uncritical acceptance of the Chinese leadership's declaration that all was well" prevented a realistic appraisal, Gargan writes.

This blindness was part of a U. S. policy Gargan sees as seriously flawed. Enslaved by the notion that friendship with China was necessary to combat the Soviet threat, Washington overlooked serious human-rights abuses. "Unsullied optimism" led the U. S. to misread signs of impending political upheaval and tacitly tolerate "abhorrent behavior."

Generally well-written despite an awkward beginning, China's Fate nonetheless leaves us hungry for more analysis and tells us nothing of where China is going. After his perceptive attack on American naivete, Gargan stumbles. He describes the growing irrelevance of China's Communist Party during the 1980s and documents the intellectual ferment over why China is so backward. He devotes a chapter to his pet peeve--the destruction of traditional culture--and even complains that he couldn't find good Chinese food in Beijing.

Then, he takes us along on several trips around China, providing a sort of travelog or journalist's notebook rather than building toward his theme. The book regains momentum with his heartfelt anger at the cultural devastation and violent repression of Tibet and peaks with his intense, you-are-there account of the army's assault on unarmed civilians in Beijing in June, 1989.

But Gargan's repeated use of "inevitably" and "inexorably" does little to explain the underlying tensions that erupted that year. And he fails to prove that the downfall of reformist party chief Zhao Ziyang and the Tiananmen massacre were inevitable. The events of that spring resulted from a remarkable coincidence of events. At many points, I believe, decisions could have been made by the protesters or the leaders to avoid bloodshed. Clearly, Zhao had a strong power base or it wouldn't have taken the old guard so long to oust him.

The 1980s were a phenomenal decade for China. Its closed society opened remarkably, and its centrally planned economy adopted many market measures. Rigid Marxism was discarded, at least for a time, and living standards improved fantastically. Gargan doesn't deny the improvements: He describes them in his chapter on life in a rural village. But instead of progress and reform, he speaks of "change" and "turmoil."

Gargan's pessimism, seemingly justified by the Tiananmen crackdown, leaves him only one conclusion about China's future: that it will be full of violence and chaos. He ends by quoting a student whispering: "In Chinese history, there has always been blood."

I, and many others, think he's too grim. Despite the setbacks of 1989, the current climate of repression cannot long outlast Deng and his aged colleagues. The people of China have seen too much, learned too much, and gained too much control over their livelihoods to be stifled forever. It's hard to believe that the "hundreds of Chinese" Gargan interviewed didn't convince him of that.

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