Opinion – Jaime Spitzcovsky: Meeting of Deng and Gorbachev highlighted trends that shaped the 21st century


The 21st century finds its roots, from the point of view of some of the main trends shaping it, in the historic Sino-Soviet meeting in Beijing, between May 15 and 18, 1989. At that moment, with the political flexibility of glasnost, Mikhail Gorbachev , who died last Tuesday, was approaching the inevitable Soviet dismantling, while Deng Xiaoping outlined the paths for the violent repression of the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square.

It was a meeting between titans: the largest country in the world by territory, the USSR, and the one with the largest population, China. Both ruled at the time by communist parties, metamorphosed from allies in the 1950s to enemies in the following decade, a division caused by competition for the leadership of the so-called international anti-imperialist movement and also driven by an extensive trajectory of territorial disputes.

Proposed to be a moment of reconciliation, following the logic of the meltdown of the Cold War, the Sino-Soviet summit carved in history decisive moments for perceptions of the Kremlin and Zhongnanhai, seat of the Chinese government.

Contrasting visions of Gorbachev and Deng (1904-1997) led, in 1991, to the disintegration of the USSR, in the midst of its biggest economic crisis since the Second World War, and to the take-off of China, rising to the status of the second largest GDP on the planet. in 2010.

The Chinese CP launched economic opening in 1978 and, 11 years later, its secretary general, Zhao Ziyang, advocated flexibility in the political sphere as well. Prime Minister Li Peng, on the other hand, led the wing that resisted such changes, pointing to the rapid collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe.

Deng Xiaoping, patriarch of reforms, hovered over the opposite poles. As the palace struggle unfolded, protesters began, in April 1989, to take over Tiananmen Square, with anti-corruption and democratizing demands.

Gorbachev landed in a tense Beijing. His arrival electrified the protests, drawing tens of thousands of people to Tiananmen. The official welcoming ceremony in the square, home of the Great Palace of the People, the cavernous reception hall of the Chinese government, was canceled.

On May 16, 1989, the leaders met. In the dialogue, the host, according to historical records, noted: “I can therefore formulate the following conclusion: our two countries consider it necessary to take into account their own concrete conditions in the task of building socialism. There is no ready-made model of any kind.”

Gorbachev replied, “On this we can affirm our complete agreement.” Diplomatic exchanges opened up the different approaches. The Soviet leader, the first to visit Beijing in 30 years, also met with Zhao Ziyang and Li Peng before returning to Moscow.

Weeks later, bloody military repression descended on Tiananmen Square. Deng abandoned hesitation, bowed to the demands of the hardliners, and sent in the military machine. Zhao Ziyang, an advocate for dialogue with students, found himself under house arrest. His rival, Li Peng, remained in power structures until his retirement in 2002.

The antithesis of the Chinese option, Gorbachev emphasized democracy and underestimated the economy. The current Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, points to the path of the father of perestroika as a major threat to the maintenance of the regime in Beijing. But at some point, demands for policy easing will also echo stronger in China.

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