Essays

China’s True Legacy of 19896 min read

How the Tiananmen Square protests led to the new China Model – Klaus Mühlhahn

The Chinese leadership is nervous. With great apprehension over the last few weeks, it has been watching the approach of the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, which happened without great incident on Tuesday. The dramatic tightening of political control, and the harassment and detainment of government critics, undoubtedly has its origins in the fears surrounding the June Fourth anniversary.

The intoxicating months of spring 1989 on Tiananmen Square, and the abrupt, brutal crackdown by the Chinese military that followed, remain at the forefront of China’s collective memory, despite substantial attempts to censor and repress. The horrible loss of life and violent suppression of democracy will not soon be forgotten. More than a tragic, historic moment, though, the June Fourth massacre marked the decisive and fundamental shift towards the China we know today: a China that has been pushed towards the embrace of authoritarianism and state capitalism. Over the last 30 years, this model has proved much more successful and resilient that most observers had assumed.

The June Fourth massacre marked the decisive and fundamental shift towards the China we know today”

The 1989 Beijing demonstrations – started by students from universities across  Beijing – was the largest spontaneous protest movement for political change and democracy since the founding of the People’s Republic. The students demanded freedom and democracy, yet their protests were also a direct reaction to emerging social problems, such as high inflation, rampant official corruption, and the worsening economic prospects for academics.

Overall, the mood in the country in the late 1980s was restless and agitated. More and more voices called for democracy. Writers, scholars, and intellectuals argued that only political reform and democratic policy could stymie the abuse of power and corruption. Even within the Party, there was widespread acknowledgment that political reform was necessary and inevitable. At a news conference in October 1987, General Secretary Zhao Ziyang was asked what his top priority was. The answer: “political reform.”

Discontent began to fester on April 15, 1989, after the mysterious and sudden death of Hu Yaobang, a high-ranking PRC official. Cognizant of Hu’s tolerance of dissent and calls for democracy, students gathered in Tiananmen Square with flowers and letters of condolences. Shortly, after, People’s Daily published an editorial inspired by Deng Xiaoping’s denunciation and minimization of the student’s acts as “turmoil” manipulated by “a small handful of people with ulterior motives.” Quickly gaining the support of tens of thousands of citizens across the country, that “small handful” of people became a movement of a hundred thousand. On April 27, they took to the streets to protest the People’s Daily editorial; it was an unprecedented challenge to Deng and other leaders.

Deng Xiaoping and Premier Li Peng were horrified by the broad public revolt against state and Party power. They were convinced that this  defiance could not be accepted, or else the situation in Beijing and other cities would spiral out of control. On June 3, the army entered Beijing, where they were met with resistance. On clear orders from the government, they opened fire on protesting residents and students. In the early morning hours of June 4, the soldiers forced their way through Beijing toward the square, leaving several hundred dead and thousands wounded.

After the crackdown, the Chinese government swiftly stifled the legacy of the democracy movement, calling it counter-revolutionary political turmoil. But the Party’s order to open fire on unarmed students and workers caused widespread outrage both inside and outside China. Officially, China has sought to erase this event, but any thoughtful observer can feel its influence on present-day life. Chinese politics today have in large part been infused with the spirit of the movement and its aftermath.

China has sought to erase this event, but any thoughtful observer can feel its influence on present-day life”

Three consequences are palpable. First, the 1989 protests exposed the fundamental rift within the Party regarding political reform. General Secretary Zhao Ziyang opted for negotiation with the students, whom he declared to be “patriotic.” Yet after deciding to send in the army to crush the movement, the Party’s paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, pressed Zhao to support him. Zhao’s refusal to back down was considered a deliberate attempt to split the Chinese Communist Party, and a very serious transgression of one-party rule. Zhao was investigated, dismissed from all posts, and put under house arrest. The considerable liberal and pro-democratic forces within the CCP quickly lost ground, and a new generation of leaders was brought in who prioritized stability, nationalism and growth as answers to popular discontent. The intra-Party split disappeared, and political reform was no longer discussed or advocated.

Second, the government responded to the political crisis of 1989 with policies that made economic growth China’s  top priority. A rapidly growing economy, they figured, would soothe discontent, prevent further political crisis, and fortify the socialist system. Concrete measures to strengthen state control over the economy were implemented, including development of regulatory capacity, comprehensive support for strategic economic sectors, and shoring up state-owned enterprises. To prevent unrest in the future, urban reforms were also deepened with the intention to improve living standards. As a result, larger percentages of peasants migrated to  urban areas. This provided a huge, inexpensive labor pool to the industries that fueled China’s economic rise and development boom. China’s authoritarian state capitalism is therefore the direct outcome of policy changes adopted after 1989.

Amid the bloody chaos of Tiananmen Square and the global transformations of 1989, the China Model was born”

Third, the events in Tiananmen Square must be seen in the context of global developments. The 1989 democracy movement helped to galvanize protest movements in Eastern Europe, from the fall of the Berlin wall to the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia – and the crackdown of June Fourth coincided with the first free elections in Poland. The Chinese leaders’ violent reaction to the protests discredited communism in the eyes of demonstrators in Eastern Europe,  while also making them nervous that the “Chinese solution” might be applied to them as well.

Although our understanding of the global significance of 1989 tends to center on the fall of communist regimes in Europe, the case of China is a reminder that, in many other regions, different conclusions were drawn from that tumultuous year. The failures of markets, political institutions and cultural norms in Eastern Europe after 1989 caused new forms of opposition to Western order to mushroom. Political Islam was freed from its focus on the communist enemy and turned its fight against the liberal West. Latin American populism took on an increasingly anti-Western touch, while renewed forms of authoritarian rule emerged across the world, from Turkey to Russia. In this sense, although the end of the Cold War has been felt most strongly in Europe, trends in China and other parts of the world have been divergent and unanticipated.

China’s post-1989 core political strategy was encapsulated in the phrase “strong on two fronts” (liang shou ying 两手硬). The two fronts are economic reform and political stability, and the resolve was to remain steadfast on both. From 1989 on, economic reform accelerated in China, based on state centralization and the availability of inexpensive migrant labor. At the same time, stability, nationalism and security became overruling prerogatives in political, cultural and social life. The basic concerns raised by the 1989 protest movement – democracy, liberty and equal opportunity – were shunted aside. A new nationalist, authoritarian and increasingly self-confident China emerged. Amid the bloody chaos of Tiananmen Square and the global transformations of 1989, the China Model was born. ∎

Header: ‘Tank Man,’ public domain via Flickr.

Klaus Mühlhahn

Klaus Mühlhahn is Professor of Chinese History and Culture and Vice President at the Free University of Berlin. His Criminal Justice in China: A History won the John K. Fairbank Prize in East Asian History from the American Historical Association. Mühlhahn has published widely on modern Chinese history in English, German and Chinese and is a frequent commentator on China for the German media. His most recent book is Making China Modern. From the Great Qing to Xi Jinping published by Harvard Unviersity Press.