PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 June, 2014, 7:17pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 June, 2014, 2:42am

Post June 4, the party has thrived, but so has corruption

Frank Ching laments the Communist Party's failure to rein in corruption, 25 years after a show of public anger against it was brutally crushed


Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s bureau in Beijing in 1979 when the U.S. and China established diplomatic relations. Before that, he was with The New York Times in New York for 10 years. After Beijing, he wrote the book Ancestors and later joined the Far Eastern Economic Review.

Twenty-five years ago, the world was shocked. Tanks rumbled through the streets of Beijing and shots were fired at students and other civilians who had gathered to protest against inflation and corruption. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, were killed.

Across the world, communism was in retreat. Six months previously, the Soviet Union pledged to withdraw troops from Eastern Europe. In Hungary, the communist party proposed a multiparty political system. In Poland, the newly legalised Solidarity trade union was holding talks with the government, which would lead to elections and a non-communist government. Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia declared themselves independent of the Soviet Union.

The writing was on the wall.

But in China, Communist Party elders led by Deng Xiaoping decided they would not go passively. Deng saw a link between events in China and abroad and decided to suppress what he called a "counter-revolutionary uprising", regardless of the cost in human lives.

A quarter of a century later, Deng's successors feel vindicated. "Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate?" Xi Jinping asked while pondering the collapse of the Soviet party. He concluded: "In the end nobody was a real man, nobody came out to resist" and so "a great party was gone".

Xi, like Deng 25 years ago, is obsessed with the survival of the party and is doing everything possible to ensure that it remains in power indefinitely.

In the 1980s, the party offered a bargain to the people: wealth but not political reform. And the party has delivered. While in 1989 per capita gross domestic product was only US$400 a year, by last year it had increased nearly 17-fold, to US$6,800.

As a result, the Pew Research Centre found, 86 per cent of Chinese in 2008 were satisfied with their country's direction.

The party has also stoked nationalism in the form of a "Chinese dream" of national grandeur. Love of country is being equated to love of the party.

But while the party is undoubtedly pleased with the achievements of the past 25 years, it must find shameful what it did on June 4, 1989. Why else will it not allow those historic events to even be mentioned in public?

What fanned the flames of opposition in 1989 was not so much the desire for democracy as outrage at official corruption. On this score, the party has not done so well. In recent months, many calling for the disclosure of officials' assets have been arrested.

The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has reported that more than 18,000 officials fled between 1995 and 2008, taking with them US$145 billion in assets. When even officials don't have confidence in the country's future, what will the common people think?

And why is it that the vast majority of high rollers in casinos around the world come from China? And whose money are they gambling with?

Unless the party can rule justly, it will be difficult for it to argue that it should rule at all.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1