Kill the Chicken to Scare the Monkey: What China Got Right and Syria is Getting Wrong

Authored by:  Daniel T. Murphy


The Chinese proverb “Kill the chicken to scare the monkey” (translated as either kill a few to scare the many, or kill the weak to scare the strong) has been attributed to both Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, and is often used to describe Deng’s intention to terrify the Chinese population in the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.  Deng’s strategy did effectively scare the monkey, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has remained in power for the last twenty-five years.

Last year began the Arab Spring.  Protests in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria are causing dominos to fall or wobble across the Middle East –Muammar Khadafi in Libya, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and now Bashar al-Assad in Syria.  Tyrants who have been scaring the chicken for decades are suddenly dead, near death, or very vulnerable.  It has been a particularly violent week in Syria.  Yet, as the al-Assad regime kills more chickens, the monkeys are becoming more committed.  Why are Homs and Haffeh not working out for Bashar al-Assad the way Tiananmen worked out for Deng Xiaoping?

In the late 1970s, Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping began to transition China from a tightly state-controlled economy to a more market-based economy.  Deng opened the country to foreign investment and the global market and began to allow limited private enterprise.  In the long-term, Deng’s reforms have resulted in tremendous growth in gross domestic product, and in significant improvements to Chinese living standards.  However, the short-term effects of Deng’s economic reforms were painful.  China experienced inflation, rising unemployment, and increased corruption.  As a result, when the Chinese people saw communist governments being dismantled around the world, they were anxious to have their voices heard.

The April 15, 1989 death of liberal reformer and Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang triggered student-led protests by more than a half-million people in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.  The protests were about inflation, nepotism, and freedom of the press.  The government initially engaged in a dialogue.  But the protests continued to grow, and Beijing declared martial law on May 20.  People’s Liberation Army (PLA) vehicles pushed through blockades, entered Tiananmen Square on the evening of June 4, used live fire against the protesters, and killed an unknown number of civilians (estimated in the hundreds or thousands).  On June 9, Deng Xiaoping spoke to the PLA and law enforcement agencies in Beijing.[1]  The speech tells us that Tiananmen was about more than chickens and monkeys.


Deng talked about the inevitability of the Tiananmen event.  Communist governments around the world were falling apart, and China was suffering significant political and economic growing pains.  He mentioned multiple times in the speech that the “storm was bound to come sooner or later,” and China was lucky that it happened while there were still enough “veteran comrades” alive who had experienced similar storms.  He assured the group that the Central Committee knew best.  It was a message to the oldest generations who had lived through the years of warlordism and civil conflict where millions had been killed and displaced.  The message was – The Central Committee knows best, and if you look back to our not-so-distant history, you know we’re right.


Throughout the speech, Deng emphasized that the revolt was the work of a “handful of bad people mixed with so many young students and onlookers.”  The purpose in Deng’s language here was likely two-fold.  First, he was taking charge of the narrative – Tiananmen was not a populist event.  It was just a handful of bad people who incited the crowd.  Secondly, he was likely sending a message that the resulting purge would be a relatively small one (compared with historical precedents).  The CCP’s response would not be Stalinist.  Only the “rebellious clique and a large number of the dregs” would be held responsible.  Not quite Lincolnesque, but certainly an olive branch to the vast majority of the protesters who were not in the rebellious core.  In contrast, Homs and Haffeh have been nothing like Tiananmen.  The Assad regime has killed many more chickens than the CCP, and there seems to be no end in sight.


While it is unclear how many PLA and public safety officers lost their lives in Tiananmen Square, Deng declared that they were the “great wall of iron and steel of the party.”  When he said the PLA had “passed muster” and passed a “severe political test,” he was explicitly saying that they chose correctly to use violence to save the party, and they chose correctly to act with restraint by not killing thousands more (as had happened historically in China).  Implicitly, Deng was saying to the PLA – ‘You have shed the people’s blood to preserve the party. You are with us now.’  In Syria, al-Assad has done the same by making the Syrian military complicit in the violence against the civilian population.  If al-Assad is smart, he has already had his ‘You are with us now’ conversation with the military.


When Deng said the Tiananmen event “prompts us cool-headedly to consider the past and the future,” he may have been talking to the international community.  He said, “Perhaps this bad thing will enable us to go ahead with reform and the open policy at a steadier and better — even a faster — pace, more speedily correct our mistakes, and better develop our strong points.”  Along with speaking to internal critics, the statement may have been intended to head off demands for reform by the international community – Yes, we will accelerate reforms!  Didn’t you just hear me declare that we will accelerate reforms?  While Deng used his Tiananmen speech to take charge of the go-forward narrative, it is probably too late for al-Assad to have a similar take charge of the narrative moment.  Syria’s train has left the station.


Most importantly, Deng used the speech to emphasize that China would continue forward with economic reform.  He assured the populace and the world that the Tiananmen event would not move China backwards.  The national strategy was working.  China had doubled the GNP, the people’s standard of living had improved, and the open door would continue to open further.  Deng said, “We must continue to persist in integrating a planned economy with a market economy. In practical work we can place more emphasis on planning in the adjustment period. At other times, there can be a little more market regulation, so as to allow more flexibility.”  He emphatically said, “What is important is that we should never change China into a closed country.”  In contrast, Syria has not demonstrated any significant political or economic reforms.  Thus, there is no good behavior that they can promise to continue.


Deng’s speech shows us that Tiananmen was not only about scaring the monkey.  Deng used violence to move multiple levers that he believed would preserve the CCP.  The violence was limited in scope and the duration was short.  Twenty-three years later, China continues on a prosperous path, and the CCP remains in power.  The al-Assad regime could have learned from Deng’s success.  Instead, Syria’s Tiananmen moment endures.

Copyright Daniel T. Murphy, 2012.

[1] Deng Xiaoping, Speech to Officers at the Corps Level and Above from the Martial Law Enforcement Troops in Beijing, 1989.