Politics 30 Years After Tiananmen


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Apr 2, 2017

China’s progress towards an open society ended when the People’s Liberation Army slaughtered at least hundreds, if not thousands, of peaceful demonstrators in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on 3-4 June 1989. The crackdown left a lasting stain on the ruling Chinese Communist Party, despite the regime’s unrelenting efforts to whitewash history and suppress collective memory.
Three decades later, the consequences of the CCP’s decision to crush the protest have become even harder to escape. Looking back, it’s clear that the tragedy altered the course of Chinese history decisively, foreclosing the possibility of a gradual and peaceful transition to a more liberal and democratic political order.
It’s worth remembering that the decade before the Tiananmen massacre was filled with a sense of possibility. China had a choice. It could revert to the more orthodox Stalinist—but not Maoist—model that had prevailed in the 1950s, a path favored by the regime’s conservatives. It could embrace gradual reforms to develop a market economy, the rule of law and a more open political process, as moderate liberals wanted. Or it could emulate Taiwan’s and South Korea’s neo-authoritarian model by modernising the economy under one-party rule, as Deng Xiaoping had long advocated.
These three factions—conservatives, reformers and neo-authoritarian modernisers—were in a stalemate before the PLA’s tanks and troops entered the square. The massacre, the fall of the Berlin Wall later that year (by sheer coincidence) and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 changed that: only the neo-authoritarian option remained. While the political purge following the Tiananmen crackdown had decimated the liberals, the conservatives —demoralised and panicking after the fall of communism—could offer no viable survival strategy.
And yet, while the stage had been cleared for the neo-authoritarians, by early 1992, when an 87-year-old Deng embarked on his historic tour of southern China in an effort to save the regime and redeem himself for the crackdown, the neo-authoritarians and the conservatives had merged. While no single label accurately describes the post-1989 order, its defining features were pragmatism, crony capitalism and strategic restraint.
Pragmatism, in particular, served the CCP well in the years after Tiananmen. At home, a flexible approach to policy allowed the regime to pursue pro-growth experiments, co-opt social elites and respond to challenges to its authority, while Deng’s dictum to keep a ‘low profile’ became the guiding principle of China’s foreign policy. The CCP continued to view the West as an existential ideological threat, which it countered by ceaselessly nurturing nationalist sentiment. But China’s leaders knew that they were free-riding on the liberal international order, and thus studiously avoided any real conflict with the United States.
Meanwhile, on the economic front, the CCP pursued aggressive market reforms and opened up the country even more than it had in the 1980s, but without loosening its grip on critical levers of the economy, such as finance and state-owned enterprises.
For about two decades, Deng’s survival strategy was wildly successful. The so-called Chinese economic miracle boosted the CCP’s legitimacy and soon made China the world’s second-largest economy. But that post-Tiananmen order suffered an abrupt and premature death in late 2012, when Xi Jinping became the CCP’s general secretary. By restoring strongman rule, reviving Leninism, re-imposing authoritarian social control and, above all, directly challenging the US, Xi has done away with the pragmatism, elite power-sharing and strategic restraint that defined the post-1989 era.
In fairness, though, Deng’s neo-authoritarian model always had fatal flaws that made its demise inevitable. Deng’s own aversion to political reform left the regime bereft of mechanisms to prevent the return of a Mao-like figure. In a way, the CCP simply got lucky with Deng’s two immediate successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, who were checked by strong rivals and couldn’t have revived personalistic rule even if they had wanted to. Because economic development had spawned a virulent form of crony capitalism, most elites presided over murky patronage networks within the regime, and were thus vulnerable to ‘anti-corruption’ purges.
Under Xi, the political gulf between China and the West has continued to widen, even as economic integration has deepened. The CCP’s method of stoking Chinese nationalism to burnish its own legitimacy proved spectacularly effective, and its bulging coffers underwrote the development of a vast repressive apparatus, including the infamous Great Firewall. If China had not acquired so much wealth and power, these other developments might not have mattered. But by reverting to hard authoritarianism, doubling down on state capitalism and giving free rein to its geopolitical ambitions, the CCP has finally turned the West against China.
In many ways, today’s China is starting to resemble that of the 1950s: the CCP is led by a strongman who openly calls on the party ‘not to forget its original commitment’ (buwang chuxin). Ideological indoctrination has returned with a vengeance; the US has again become the enemy, while Russia has re-emerged as a friend. After a 30-year detour, China is headed in the direction that those responsible for the Tiananmen Square crackdown would have wanted. The country is in the grip of a hardline Leninist regime that is fortified by a hybrid economy and bent on ruthless repression. That is the lasting tragedy of Tiananmen.

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Crowds gather around the Goddess of Democracy in Tiananmen Square sometime between 30 May and 3 June, 1989


A burning APC on 4 June 1989 near Tiananmen Square


Student hunger strikers in Tiananmen Square on 14 May 1989


Beijing residents gathering around the smoking remains of over 20 armoured personnel carriers burned by demonstrators during clashes with soldiers near Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.


Picture dated 22 April 1989 shows several hundred of 200,000 pro-democracy student protesters face to face with policemen outside the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square in Beijing as they take part in the funeral ceremony of former Chinese Communist Party leader and liberal reformer Hu Yaobang during an unauthorized demonstration to mourn his death. Hu Yaobang's death in April trigged an unprecedented wave of pro-democracy demonstrations.



A Beijing demonstrator blocks the path of a tank convoy along the Avenue of Eternal Peace near Tiananmen Square, Beijing, on June 05, 1989.


An officer talks with a crowd of pro-democracy demonstrators who are preventing his convoy of trucks filled with soldiers from entering Tiananmen Square, Beijing, June 01, 1989.


People look at buses and Chinese Army trucks and vehicles that were damaged or destroyed during the night of violence in and around Tiananmen Square, Beijing, June 04, 1989.


A student displays a banner with one of the slogans chanted by the crowd of some 200,000 pouring into Tiananmen Square, on April 22, 1989 in Beijing. They were attempting to participate in the funeral ceremony of former Chinese Communist Party leader and liberal reformer Hu Yaobang, during an unauthorized demonstration to mourn his death. His death in April triggered an unprecedented wave of pro-democracy demonstrations.


Thousands of students from local colleges and universities march to Tiananmen Square, Beijing, on May 4, 1989, to demonstrate for government reform.


A striking Beijing University student is given first aid by medics at a field hospital in Tiananmen Square, on May 17, 1989, the fourth day of their hunger strike for democracy.

A truck is almost buried in people as it makes its way through the crowd of thousands gathered in Tiananmen Square in a pro-democracy rally, on May 17, 1989.


Beijing police parade through Tiananmen Square carrying banners in support of striking University students, on May 19, 1989. The students were in the sixth day of their hunger strike for political reform.


A military helicopter drops leaflets above Tiananmen Square which state that the student protesters should leave the Square as soon as possible, on May 22, 1989.


A dissident student asks soldiers to go back home as crowds flooded into the central Beijing, on June 3, 1989.

A young woman is caught between civilians and Chinese soldiers, who were trying to remove her from an assembly near the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, on June 3, 1989.


Exhausted, humiliated soldiers are hustled away by protesters in central Beijing, on June 3, 1989.


People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers leap over a barrier on Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, during heavy clashes with people and dissident students. The PLA was reportedly under orders to clear the square by 6:00 am, with no exceptions.



A captured tank driver is helped to safety by students as the crowd beats him, on June 4, 1989, in Tiananmen Square.


A handcuffed man is led by Chinese soldiers on a street in Beijing, in June of 1989, as police and soldiers searched for people involved in the April-June pro-democracy protests.


Three unidentified men flee as a Chinese man, background left, stands alone to block a line of approaching tanks, in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, on June 5, 1989. The man in the background stood his ground and blocked the column of tanks when they came closer, an image captured on film by numerous other photographers and one that ultimately became a widely reproduced symbol of events there.


A couple on a bicycle take cover beneath an underpass as tanks deploy overhead in eastern Beijing, on June 5, 1989.


A Beijing resident on the west side of Tiananmen Square shows a slug from the automatic rifle fired by the army that went through his flat’s window in central Beijing.

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