One day, two revolutions and uncertain destinies; June 4 1989 brought deeply contrasting events to Poland and China, writes Timothy Garton Ash

June 2, 2014 6:39 pm

One day, two revolutions and uncertain destinies

By Timothy Garton Ash

June 4 1989 brought deeply contrasting events to Poland and China, writes Timothy Garton Ash

Twenty-five years ago the world changed course. On June 4 1989 semi-free elections in Poland kick-started the end of communism across the whole Soviet bloc – and the Tiananmen Square massacre launched China on an entirely different trajectory. The consequences are still being played out, from Ukraine to the South China Sea.

I will never forget coming back to a newspaper office in Warsaw that afternoon, with elated Polish friends, and noticing on a television screen the first grainy footage of the bodies of Chinese protesters being carried on makeshift stretchers down the streets of Beijing.

From that day forward the ghost of Tiananmen stalked eastern Europe. “Remember Tiananmen!” people whispered, from East Berlin to Sofia. “If we go too far, that might happen here.” In this sense, China’s tragedy was Europe’s boon. The negative example of Tiananmen helped Europeans cleave to the path of non-violence, negotiation and compromise.

Subsequently, influence flowed the other way. China’s communist leaders learnt from the fall of communism in Europe. As one of them put it in 2004: “We can gain profound enlightenment from the painful lesson of the loss of power by the communist parties of the Soviet Union and eastern Europe.”

So: deliver economic growth; do not lose touch with what the masses are thinking; introduce a regular rotation of the top leadership; recruit to your party the brightest students, irrespective of class background. And crack down on any efforts at social self-organisation and collective action – for that is what brought the European comrades down. President Xi Jinping has publicly recalled the Soviet collapse.

Both paths have produced successes over the past quarter-century. China has experienced stellar economic growth and a significant increase in individual freedoms. State television there likes to contrast this with images of bloodshed and chaos in Ukraine. It less often shows pictures of a free, prosperous, democratic Poland.

What Poland did on June 4 1989 was stunningly original: it pioneered a new model of peaceful regime change. What it has done since 1989 has been remarkable, but not original. The political, economic and legal system of today’s Poland is a kind of mix-and-match of well-tried west European models.

China’s June 4 1989 was deeply unoriginal. Deng Xiaoping just did what communist leaders always used to do when faced with men and women rising up spontaneously for freedom: shoot them. By contrast, what China has done since 1989 has been extremely original, combining the dynamism of a market economy with continued one-party rule. Leninist capitalism! That is why China today is, for a student of comparative politics, the most interesting place on earth. For here is something very rare in politics: a genuinely new experiment, its future wholly uncertain.

I am fairly confident that Poland in 10 years will be a western, European liberal democracy, in the same boat as France and Germany – despite the efforts of President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

But China? Will it muddle through on its journey without maps, “crossing the river by feeling the stones”, as Deng put it? Or will the contradictions between its political and economic system, and the growing tensions afflicting its society, lead to another crisis?

If so, will that crisis catalyse political reform or diversionary nationalism – manifested, for example, through military adventurism in the South China Sea? Or the latter leading to the former? Or to something much nastier?

It is still possible that, as the poet James Fenton rhymed in anger, “They’ll come again/To Tiananmen”. The victims would then be celebrated as martyrs on that same square of Heavenly Peace. If you had suggested in 1979 that 10 years later the leaders of the 1956 Hungarian revolution would be ceremonially reburied, with a grand-operatic ceremony on Heroes Square in Budapest, no one would have believed you. Yet that is what happened, days after Poland’s historic election.

History is full of surprises, and a Chinese equivalent cannot be ruled out. But at the moment China seems more likely to develop along its very different post-1989 path.

Here we come to a last contrast. In Warsaw this week the Poles are proudly celebrating their June 4, in the company of President Barack Obama. In Beijing, everything about China’s June 4 – the basic facts, the photographs, the names, even the mourning rituals of bereaved mothers – will be suppressed. Somebody still fears Banquo’s ghost.

I pray that China will find its own peaceful way forward, building on its great achievements and repairing the equally obvious failings. But one thing I know: we will only be able to say with confidence that China has developed a stable system, along a quite different trajectory from post-communist Europe, when it can publicly face up to its difficult past.

The writer is the author of ‘The Magic Lantern’, a personal account of the velvet revolutions of 1989


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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