The Soviet Union’s crackdown in Lithuania in many ways resembles China’s resort to tanks to repress the 1989 democracy movement at Tian An Men Square. Both demonstrate that no matter how hard a dynamic leader may foster reform within a communist system, those changes must stay confined within limits imposed by the army and security forces.
At the beginning of January, China’s top government spokesman, Yuan Mu, offered Soviet authorities a bit of unsolicited advice. “We believe the Soviet Communist Party and the Soviet people will certainly not be content for long with the present unstable situation,” Yuan said in an interview with the Soviet trade newspaper Trud. Hard-line leaders in Beijing had an intuitive grasp of where things stood in the Soviet Union, because it reminded them in some ways of what they confronted in China two years ago.
The situations in the two countries are not identical, of course. The reforms in China were essentially economic, while in the Soviet Union, they were political.
The social forces that the Soviet and Chinese armies have tried to repress are also quite different. At Tian An Men Square, Chinese tanks crushed a movement for democracy that sought little more than the political freedoms President Mikhail S. Gorbachev has granted in the Soviet Union. In Lithuania, the Soviet tanks have moved against nationalist independence forces far stronger than any in China, at least outside Tibet. China’s economy at the time of Tian An Men, while unstable, was able to feed the Chinese people; by the time of the Lithuanian crackdown, the Soviet economy was desperate.
Yet in some fundamental ways, the crises in the Soviet Union and China are comparable. In both cases, the army and security forces have intervened to try to preserve the established order. They did so with the endorsement of two political leaders of international stature, Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping, both of whom were willing to risk or, indeed, sacrifice their reputations to prevent changes in their country from going further than they wanted or expected. And in both instances, the United States managed to be persuaded that the changes in the world’s two communist superpowers had gone further than they actually had.
Looking back at the Tian An Men crisis and its aftermath, it is possible to hazard some predictions about the effects and ramifications of the Soviet move into Lithuania.
Foremost, the Tian An Men experience shows that although the tanks seem to be aimed at repressing a popular social movement, the resort to force should also be viewed as one part of an effort to swing the outcome of an intense, high-level struggle for political power. In China, the ultimate target of the hard-liners was not the unarmed protesters, but then-Communist Party Secretary Zhao Ziyang. Himself no democrat, Zhao had belatedly come to the support of the masses gathered in Tian An Men Square; when the army was called in, Zhao’s hard-line opponents backing Premier Li Peng triumphed and the Chinese Communist Party’s nominal leader fell from power.
In the Soviet Union, the ultimate target of the hard-liners may well prove to be Boris Yeltsin, the president of the Russian Republic. Following the turmoil in Lithuania, Yeltsin suggested he might seek to form his own Russian army or encourage Russian soldiers to leave the Soviet army. On Tuesday, Gorbachev countered by accusing Yeltsin of “a gross violation of the Soviet Constitution.” For how much longer can these two leaders coexist?
Second, if China’s experience is any guide, the resort to military force in Lithuania will be followed by many additional efforts to slow down, if not halt, the processes of internal reform in the Soviet Union. Symbolically, last Wednesday, only three days after the crackdown in Vilnius, Gorbachev called for a temporary suspension of the new press law whose passage had guaranteed unprecedented openness for the Soviet media.
This does not necessarily mean there will be a wholesale reversal of the reforms. The Chinese experience of the past two years shows that some reforms are irreversible, while others prove to be so popular that even the hard-liners eventually find it expedient to embrace them. Yet the resort to force radically changes the political landscape. In China after Tian An Men, the focus of debate changed from how far the reforms should go forward to how much they would be rolled back.
Third, the aftermath of Tian An Men demonstrates that no matter how hard the Bush Administration may try to preserve the relationship it has forged with Gorbachev and his allies, a certain distancing will be inevitable. For nearly eight months after Tian An Men Square, President Bush sought to restore the previous close U.S. relationship with the Chinese leadership. He discovered that the political climate, both in this country and in Beijing, simply didn’t allow it.
In the Soviet case, it is possible Bush may not make such an effort. It is noteworthy that Gorbachev was not among the world leaders the President called last Wednesday with notification of Operation Desert Storm. And after the Lithuanian crackdown, Secretary of State James A. Baker III pointed out that the U.S.-Soviet relationship was based on “shared values"--an observation the Bush Administration declined to make about China two years ago.
Finally, the Chinese experience shows that although the use of force to repress a social movement may be successful in the short term, it also produces the terribly debilitating side-effects of anger, despair, underground movements and exile. The resort to tanks in Beijing succeeded in getting people out of the streets, but it also alienated the Chinese leadership from the sectors of society it most needs--those who work in the science labs, run the computers, do research or study at universities.
It was exactly such people, the educated elite, whom Deng and Gorbachev sought in different ways to engage in the supposedly dynamic process of reforming a communist system. Once their enthusiasm is lost, it takes many years to regain. Chinese intellectuals had begun to be disillusioned before Tian An Men, and their Soviet counterparts were similarly disillusioned before Lithuania. But the old-style resort to tanks marks the last straw.
Now, in what may be an indicator of what lies ahead in the Soviet Union, China is busy putting on trial some of the idealistic young students and intellectual advocates for change whom the regime once, in the heady days of reform, encouraged to speak out. Some student leaders have already been sentenced to from two to four years in prison for crimes that involve nothing more than speaking out or taking part in protest demonstrations. Others, such as Tian An Men student leader Wang Dan, are expected to be tried soon.
Washington, of course, is too wrapped up with the Persian Gulf to pay much attention to these Chinese trials. There was a stunning demonstration a few days ago of the extent to which this country has either lost interest or given up hope in the idealism once manifested by the Chinese students. On Jan. 11, two of the best-known student leaders from Tian An Men Square, Chai Ling and Li Lu--both now exiled in this country--began a two-day hunger strike outside the Chinese Embassy in Washington to show support for their compatriots in the democracy movement inside China.
Less than two years ago, these Chinese student leaders were the subject of American TV network specials. Last weekend, they sat alone, isolated and largely ignored in a small tent on the streets of Washington. If Gorbachev has his way, the Lithuanian leaders in Vilnius will eventually suffer the same fate.