Glasnost? Well, it's certainly similar to Moscow in 1987

PRESIDENT CLINTON'S question and answer session at Peking University and the landmark press conference at which he and President Jiang jousted "forbidden" topics like the Tiananmen Square killings and the Dalai Lama before a live television audience were vintage moments of early Chinese glasnost. No one knew in advance that either session would be broadcast, not even - apparently - President Clinton.

Before the press conference, he did not know whether he would be addressing 500 journalists or half of China, said one aide. It was the sort of surprise that drivers pulled off the road for and which neighbour related to neighbour.

But they were examples of early glasnost because no one knew to tune in, because subsequent reports omitted the most sensitive sections, and because they were novel enough to arouse controversy. They place China in terms of glasnost roughly where the former Soviet Union was in 1987, when Margaret Thatcher ran rings around three premier state television interviewers and told them that the world saw Soviet missiles as a threat. That interview was broadcast, late at night and unannounced, but it became a legend. So, too, did Ronald Reagan's epic exchange with Moscow University students a year later - and precisely 10 years before Mr Clinton's visit to China, where he quoted from banned writers, castigated obstructive bureaucrats everywhere, and preached individual freedom.

Some in Washington have criticised Mr Clinton for being mealy-mouthed, especially in his condemnation of Tiananmen Square - for "saying as little as he could get away with about the tragic loss of life more accurately called a massacre", in the words of William Safire. Others have compared his relatively low-key and at times even pedestrian manner in Peking unfavourably with the messianic spirit of President Reagan in Moscow - which a re-reading of the Reagan transcripts shows to be a fair criticism.

Yet there are parallels. The televised statements of foreign leaders can have an effect. Some of what Mr Clinton said will be remembered down the years in China, just as the words of Mrs Thatcher and Mr Reagan are remembered in Russia. They offered a different view, and they defended it.

One of the basic questions posed by the opening up of Russia and China is whether change is more successfully accomplished when political change precedes economic change, as in Russia, or when economic change precedes political change as in China. So far, analysts have seemed to favour the Chinese model, citing the chaotic post-Soviet economy, the supposed transfer of media control from the state to corrupt business interests, and the immaturity of party politics.

It can be argued, however, that while China's private sector is infinitely more developed than Russia's was before the fall of the Communist regime, China now faces a transition to political freedoms that must advance if economic progress is to continue. Certainly, many of the political phenomena that could be observed in the Soviet Union of the late Eighties are now surfacing in China.

The media in late Soviet Russia were almost as free to discuss local controversies and economic corruption as they are now in China. And when a new generation of journalists and students is emboldened to ask the sort of searching questions that Russian reporters and students were starting to ask about their system, and their Chinese counterparts are prepared to air in public forums today, the days of information dictatorship are numbered.

There are then only two questions to ask: whether the regime can change fast enough to accommodate that change, and if not, what then?

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Office / Sales Manager

£22000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Established and expanding South...

Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Order Fulfilment

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones