Ballots and bullets: Poland and China, 27 years on


On June 4, 1989, two communist countries on opposite sides of the world chose different paths to the future.

In Poland, the first round of democratic parliamentary elections was held, the first since the 1920s and certainly since the imposition of the communist rule on the tips of Red Army bayonets in 1944-45. The election wasn’t quite free; the Polish United Workers’ Party insisted that while the vote for the upper house, the Senate, would be an open slather, 65 per cent of seats in the lower house, the Sejm, were to be reserved for the Party and their puppets. This was a compromise between the government and the recently legalised opposition, ironed out during the “Round Table” negotiations a few months earlier. The negotiations themselves were a desperate throw of a dice by General Jaruzelski, born out of the realisation that the Polish economy was close to complete collapse and the Party has run out of options and ideas – not to mention Westerners willing to lend another few billion dollars.

On June 4, the reborn Solidarity won 99 out of 100 Senate seats and 160 of the 161 seats up for grabs in the Sejm. The communists formed the first post-election government on the basis of their quarantined majority, before Solidarity, a few weeks later, persuaded two puppet parties to switch sides. On 24 August, Poland had her first non-communist leader and a Solidarity government.

In China, the Communist Party sent in the tanks and troops to clear the Tiananmen Square. Protesters, mostly students, have been occupying the square for weeks, following the death in April of a reformist former Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang. Throughout May, hundreds of thousands of young Chinese, inspired by the reforms in Easter Europe and the Soviet Union, kept asking their rulers for greater freedom and democracy.

On June 4, tens of thousands of the People’s “Liberation” Army soldiers swept through Beijing, eventually reaching the Tiananmen Square by midday. Tens of thousands of protesters throughout the capital were chased away, thousands arrested, and several hundred (at least) killed by the troops. No protests on a similar scale have occurred in China since then. The Communist Party is still in power today.

It would be satisfying to say that the Chinese Communist Party has paid the price for suppressing pro-democracy movement. There was international outrage, to be sure; economic sanctions too, however short-lived. The Party remains unrepentant and as entrenched as ever, in some ways more so, having delivered unparalleled economic growth and the rise in the standard of living. In 1989, the Chinese GDP per capita stood at $888; since then it has increased 1500 per cent (in the same time-frame, Poland’s GDP per capita increased “only” four-fold, from just over $6,000 to $25,000). Market mechanisms can clearly work in the context of democracy as well as that of a dictatorship. But bread – and circuses – however good in and of themselves, are not everything. Standard of living being equal, would you rather live in a free society or in an autocracy?

It was my sixth month of a new life in Australia, as I was watching the events unfold in Poland and China. When my family left Poland in the middle of 1987, we had no idea that the Soviet communism was on its last legs; it seemed as unstably stable – or stably unstable – as it has ever been. For all we knew it had another 10 or 50 years in it. That’s why what happened in Poland in June 1989 was so unexpected – and what happened in China so predictable. Twenty-seven years later, Poland is a normal country, and China is still waiting for its democratic revolution.