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How democracy in China looks today

Chinese security watch over Tiananmen Square outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: Early on the morning of June 4th, 1989, Chinese soldiers moved into Tiananmen Square. The crackdown in Beijing put an end to months of pro-democracy protests there. Some estimates say thousands of people were killed. But in some ways, the events of that night got China started on the chaotic economic ride it has been on since then. Marketplace's Scott Tong is on the line from Shanghai. Hi Scott.

SCOTT TONG: Hello Kai.

Ryssdal: The conversation it seems, Scott, about China is always about this enormous pace of change. How quickly things are happening over there. But I wonder if you could give us some idea of how different it is, really, from 20 years ago.

TONG: Well, Kai I spoke to some students who were on the square and demonstrating at various campuses across China back in 1989. And one of them told me, you know, 20 years ago I was a very hungry student. I went to university, and I got a voucher of one meal with meat per day. And that's all they got. Fast forward to today, and he and I live in the same apartment complex, and just down the street you have Cold Stone Creamery, the bastion of Western civilization, right? And you go in there, and they ask if you want the frequent customer discount card. You can call it materialism, call it getting ahead, call it economic development, but life is undoubtedly better by those metrics than 20 years ago. And that's where China is at.

Ryssdal: And yet 20 years ago it was all politics. How did it change so dramatically?

TONG: Scholars who analyze the Communist Party say back in 1989 that was the low point for the party. And if you think about it, after the crackdown, you had the Berlin Wall falling. It was a tumultuous time for authoritarian states around the world. So the leader of China, Deng Xiaoping, and the elites in the party, they went back to the economic playbook. And they said we're going to establish our political legitimacy by making people's lives better. The business of China is business. And basically the deal was the same deal that Ronald Reagan trotted out when he was running for president. Is your life better than it was four years ago, better than it was 20 years. And for the vast majority of people in China the answer is, duh, of course it's better.

Ryssdal: Is there, obviously not around the anniversary itself, but is there any dissent over there from these viewpoints?

TONG: Well, the dissidents are quietly in China, or they're loudly outside of China. And what they say is if you think about this China economic model, it's not a sustainable model because it is rotten at its core. What they argue is corruption is a central hallmark of what's happening in China. And here's a way for you and I to think about it. Imagine every member of Congress, of 535 important people in the U.S. and the whole Cabinet, they get a special half-price on cars, or food, or consumer products, or whatever. So they get that special price, and then they turn around and sell it to you or me for full price, and then they pocket the difference personally. That's the kind of corruption that brought a lot of the students out in the first place. And the same kind of corruption is all over China today. And eventually something is going to give.

Ryssdal: Well, if there's one group that says it's not sustainable, but a larger group that says you know what, I want what I want, when I want it, and I can get it in China today. What are you and I going to be talking about in 20 years?

TONG: The smart money says China is going to rival the U.S. as the world's biggest economy. And that the Communist Party is still going to be on top. Over the years, it's adapted to the new wealth that has come to China. And most people think it'll keep adjusting and stay in power that way.

Ryssdal: You know, Deng Xiaoping lived long enough to see a lot of the changes that he set in motion. He died, what, 10 or 12 years ago. Would he recognize China today if he were still around?

TONG: Well, there are couple phrases that many people think Deng Xiaoping said when he was in power. And one of them was, it doesn't matter if it's a black cat or a white cat, so long as it catches mice. And that is our ideology is pragmatism, whatever works is what we're going to do. And so in a way, he knew that the China of '97 was going to be different from the China of 2007, 2017, etc.

Ryssdal: Scott Tong at the bureau in Shanghai. Thanks, Scott.

TONG: Thanks, Kai.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

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