Home / Articles / Fifteen Years After Tiananmen: Persistence, Memory and Change in China
On the eve of June 4, 1989, a statue dubbed the “Goddess of Democracy” stood opposite Mao’s giant portrait at Tiananmen Square, until the forces of the People’s Liberation Army brought it crashing down during an infamous night of brutality and bloodshed in the Chinese capital. Although the fifteenth anniversary of those events has been uneventful, the Goddess of Democracy still haunts the Chinese leadership that lives and works in a compound just down the main avenue from where the participants in the student-led Democracy Movement had erected the statue and exposed reform-era China’s potential for producing severe popular discontent and organized, regime-shaking opposition. At the same time, the issues and passions that energized the popular movement symbolized by the statue seem a distant and faded memory in a city where the streets leading to the square are jammed with foreign-brand cars and ablaze with neon signs hawking a cornucopia of consumer goods and services. These are garish testaments to China’s seeming ability to make breathtaking market-based economic growth and resilient authoritarian politics coexist smoothly and, perhaps, symbiotically. A decade and a half after the Tiananmen Incident, the paradox of Tiananmen’s seemingly long shadow and apparent irrelevance characterizes China in almost every major area of politics and policy.
International Standing: A Thorough Rehabilitation?
China’s international standing has escaped from the pariah status endured by the “Butchers of Beijing” after June Fourth. Neither very deep nor universal, the post-Tiananmen international ostracism began to wane almost immediately. A decade and a half later, almost all nations’ diplomacy toward the People’s Republic gives little attention to the Chinese regime’s suppression of the popular movement in 1989-and the unappealing features of the political system it reflected. Resolutions criticizing Beijing’s human rights record gain little traction in Geneva. Even the pretense of human rights conditionality for PRC access to U.S. markets has disappeared, de facto after the Clinton administration ignored and then abandoned its initial attempt at tight “linkage,” and de jure as part of the process allowing the PRC to join the WTO. In many East and Southeast Asian capitals, everyone is, figuratively at least, learning Chinese. There is a pervasive sense that good relations with China are necessary and possible, with human rights concerns posing no significant impediment, even for the governments of the region’s many democracies. Indeed, in much of Asia, China is seen as a less difficult partner than the post-9-11 terrorism-obsessed United States.
Two events nicely symbolize the PRC’s seemingly thorough post-Tiananmen international rehabilitation: China’s accession to the WTO in 2001 after many years of postponement for reasons that included influential American constituencies’ criticisms of the PRC’s human rights record; and George W. Bush’s late 2003 warning to Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian at Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s behest not to disturb the cross-Strait status quo by means of referenda that Chen sought in the name of human rights and democracy in Taiwan.
This international ascension of China during the 1990s and 2000s, from the setbacks of 1989, had little to do with progress on human rights or otherwise redressing the policies and practices that much of the world criticized after Tiananmen. Far more relevant and far more extensive were changes in China’s economic and strategic stature. A decade and a half of rapid growth, and even more greatly expanded and deepened integration with the international economy, simply had made China too economically important not to include fully in the institutions and processes of international economic relations. This economic development and the military modernization that it made possible similarly made clear that China had become a regional power and a rising great power that participants in international security regimes could ill afford not to engage comprehensively.
On the other hand, some of the causes that motivated the Tiananmen Movement and that arose from its suppression continue to dog China’s quest for acceptance as a normal and fully responsible actor in world affairs. “Values issues”— including democracy and human rights— continue to play a role in the foreign policies of the U.S. and other major powers, and indeed have received renewed rhetorical focus amid the U.S.’s war on terrorism. In this context, China’s poor record on human rights and democracy continues to be at least a modest disability, the focus of sustained or recurrent critiques by diverse and numerous sources such as the U.S. State Department’s annual human rights report, a vast array of human rights NGO’s, China’s remnant or exiled political dissidents, and activists for Tibet, Falun Gong, or underground house churches in the PRC.
More concretely, at the fifteenth anniversary of the crackdown on the Democracy Movement at Tiananmen Square, the Chinese regime’s recalcitrance and hostility toward democracy in peripheral China have resurfaced as problems for the PRC’s foreign relations, especially with the United States. As U.S. rebukes and foreign commentators’ criticisms have suggested, there are diplomatic costs and irritants in the PRC’s stifling of democratic development in Hong Kong and in China’s renewed assaults on Taiwan’s perceived strategy of separatism-through-democracy.
Economic Transformation: Eclipsing the Politics of 1989?
Economic issues played little direct role in the dramatic events of 1989. True, the students who comprised much of the movement had complaints about their material conditions and anxiety about their employment prospects, and the workers who sought to establish autonomous trade unions or who more diffusely supported the movement also had their economic complaints. But, in a movement focused on politics, the principal economic issue was the impact of economics on politics. Measured against the baseline of the era of Mao Zedong, China in 1989 had transformed rapidly during a decade of market-oriented economic reform and economic opening to the outside world, and had prospered greatly as a result. The Tiananmen protests seemed to show that rising wealth was not enough to forestall demands for democratic-or at least liberalizing-political reform and, indeed, that such growth may help to generate such pressures for political change. (Indeed, many see the regime as having taken the fateful steps that consigned it to the ash heap of history long before Tiananmen, when reform policies reached a point of irreversible-or impossibly costly to reverse-commitment to market economics and international economic integration.)
Fifteen years after Tiananmen, the overwhelmingly dominant story in China is, and has long been, economics, not politics. And that economic story is, of course, one of astoundingly rapid and transformative (though unevenly distributed) change. In the dozen years since preeminent leader Deng Xiaoping’s famous “southern tour” relaunched the economic reform agenda after its post-Tiananmen lull, the city where the Tiananmen Incident occurred and, even more so, other metropolises farther south along China’s coast and, in aggregate statistics at least, China as whole, have reached levels of prosperity, urbanization, industrialization, post-industrialization and linkage to the outside world that far exceed anything seen or, perhaps, even much imagined in 1989. As a result, a sizable and increasingly cosmopolitan and property-owning middle class— and a narrower stratum of truly rich— have emerged.
The question raised, at least obliquely, by the Democracy Movement of 1989—the relationship between economic development and political democracy in reform-era China— remains unanswered in 2004. For the time being, the reform- era leadership’s long-standing strategy appears to be holding: Rising prosperity, especially in the cities (whence challenges to the existing order typically have arisen in almost everywhere in the world except, ironically, China), does seem to be buying off or diverting potential pressures for democratic political change. Market-based economic prosperity and the absence of political democracy cohabitate more comfortably in China circa June 4, 2004 than they did circa June 4, 1989.
Still, there are reasons to doubt the long-term stability of this arrangement a decade and half after the Tiananmen demonstrations seemed to imperil it. First, although opinion is divided, many reputable analyses of China’s economy foresee the possibility that the economic ingredient in the formula for prosperity and stability could prove very hard to sustain in the relatively near future. Even by 1989, some of the easy sources of growth (such as decollectivization of agriculture, dismantling of the inefficient state planning system, and freeing of product and, to a lesser degree, factor markets) had already been tapped. By 2004, this was all the more the case. While China’s burgeoning non-state and foreign-invested sectors, and its WTO-secured access to foreign markets, have emerged as powerful engines of growth, the economy now faces daunting burdens. These include: the continuing inefficiencies of numerous state-owned industrial enterprises; the sea of red ink drowning the banks that lend money to keep those enterprises afloat; the dismal prospect for Chinese firms of having to compete with world-class foreign companies in a domestic economy newly opened by the WTO; the vast sums of public money that will be required to fund the social safety net or clean up the environment or recapitalize banks; and the severe economic inequalities produced by a quarter-century of reforms that have emphasized markets and links to the outside world over balanced growth and equity at home.
Second, at a macro-level, the global correlation between market-based prosperous economies and human rights- protecting democratic polities (especially in countries of substantial size, and at least where markets have been in place for some time) remains strikingly strong. Similarly, the venerable assertion that a large middle class increases pressure for broadened participation in politics and governance seems to have a good deal of validity. These social science generalizations now, more even than in 1989, appear to extend to much of East Asia, where claims of an “East Asian Model” or “Asian values” once had looked like powerful counterarguments.
Finally, and more concretely, the evidence from contemporary politics in the PRC itself, while ambiguous, creates some doubt about whether ruthless repression (or the threat thereof) can live with rapid economic reform and opening to the outside world.
Political Resilience: the Endurance of Authoritarian Rule?
Perhaps the clearest meaning of the events of June 4, 1989 was that the Chinese Communist Party leadership was, in the end, deeply determined to preserve authoritarian rule (and the order it maintained), even if that required paying dearly in citizens’ lives, regime legitimacy and (it seemed plausible at the time) economic growth. Fifteen years later, the agenda of the 1989 Democracy Movement has made little headway, and many aspects of the authoritarian politics of the 1980s appear to remain remarkably intact despite the many changes that have swept China. But this political pattern has been sustained only with considerable effort and cost by a regime that remains wary and worried that the popular political forces on display at Tiananmen a decade and a half ago could resurface. There may be some truth to the arguments from critics (or optimists) at home and abroad that the events around June 4, 1989 struck a devastating and still potentially fatal blow to the regime.
Many signs point to the lack of political change. The type of democracy that the students on the square and their intellectual patrons and sources of inspiration advocated has not developed. Village elections, with roots predating Tiananmen, have been slow to grow, generally extend only to very basic-level units, and fall far short of the levels of contestation, autonomous participation and openness contemplated by relatively robust definitions of democracy, including those proffered by China’s democratic reformers such as Cao Siyuan. Although in many ways political discussion has become much freer in China since 1989, the heady “democracy salons” of the pre-Tiananmen years have not returned. Jiang Zemin-who rose to become Deng’s heir in part because he kept the potentially disruptive democracy movement in Shanghai under control in 1989-lingers as a powerful political figure. Despite his nominal retirement, the most prominent beneficiary of the Tiananmen crackdown remains as head of the commission overseeing the military. His proteges pack the current Politburo and constrain China’s new top two leaders, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao. Inner-party democracy, although much touted in recent years, is an old idea with pre-Tiananmen origins. And it is still a far cry from political democracy in the ordinary sense.
The regime’s apparent success in securing the basic political status quo does not, however, seem secure, confident or effortless. The now-aged and politically neutralized former Premier Zhao Ziyang-who fell in the aftermath of June Fourth, charged with being too soft on the student protesters and reformist politics more generally-remains under house arrest. And the prospect of his death surely inspires fear among the leadership of a return to the cycle that last started with the spontaneous public rallies following the passing of another deposed Party leader and hero of liberal reformers, Hu Yaobang, and that ended with June 4, 1989. A would-be Democracy Party and other forms of organized political dissent have been routinely and thoroughly suppressed. So too was Falun Gong, once the regime recognized its organizational prowess and its growing (if reactive or defensive) political tinge. On the eve of the fifteenth anniversary of the Tiananmen Incident, the authorities predictably detained the usual suspects, including prominent non-exiled dissidents, and also the PLA doctor whose exposure of the SARS problem in Beijing had only a year earlier made him a folk hero for the new openness and a prominent voice advocating political reforms.
The pervasive corruption that was among the complaints of students and ordinary citizens in 1989 persists (albeit in an evolved form) and remains a source of popular discontent and regime delegitimation, prompting a seemingly endless and only modestly successful series of anti-corruption drives mandated by the highest levels of the Party and state.
On the other hand, persisting authoritarianism has not meant political stasis. In Beijing and in other cities in 2004, there are indications aplenty of political change and possible harbingers of a more fundamental political transformation. Ordinary citizens’ freedom and willingness to think and say unorthodox and highly critical things have become assumed and accepted, no longer having the risky novelty that they did in the later 1980s. The regime’s and leadership’s tolerance for (and interest in) ideas for significant political reforms arguably have become more well-established than they were when Zhao Ziyang and Deng Xiaoping invited and patronized such discussions in the 1980s. The Hu Jintao / Wen Jiabao leadership has placed new and unprecedented emphasis on government openness and accountability, particularly in the aftermath of officials’ disastrous attempts to cover up SARS.
Official ideology has altered to embrace groups that do not share old communist orthodoxies and that are, on many Western theories at least, a constituency for long-term democratic change. The Jiang-era (and nominally post-Jiang era) theory of the “Three Represents” (which holds that the Party should represent, among others, new business elites) differs markedly from the “unification of thought” in line with the “thought of Deng Xiaoping” that followed June 4, 1989. The entrepreneur who is the newly lionized ideal Party recruit stands in stark contrast to the despised private business figures whom Party leaders accused of bankrolling the student movement at Tiananmen. Access to foreign ideas, including democratic ideals and critiques of the PRC regime, is now pervasive and far less effectively controlled or controllable than it was in 1989. The Tiananmen era slogan “fax saves lives” sought to mobilize volunteers at home and abroad to distribute news of the protests and crackdown through China’s relatively few and predominantly office-based facsimile machines. Today, China is saturated with too many Internet access points (and too many able and determined techies) for the official watchers and censors to monitor and block. China now is awash in a staggering number of cell phones, complete with text messaging capacity, which tellingly doomed local authorities’ efforts to keep quiet the initial outbreak of SARS. Moreover, vastly more urban Chinese now have been educated, lived or travel regularly abroad than had been the case fifteen years ago.
Possible sprouts of civil society can be found in many places, including within a few miles of Tiananmen Square. Among the many examples are: NGO’s and citizens’ groups focusing on environmental issues; organized protests and sustained movements by about-to-be-displaced residents seeking to slow or prevent urban redevelopment; and middle and upper class homeowners’ associations determined to hold real estate developers and city officials to their promises concerning open space and other amenities.
Most of these current signs of political change and the social and economic underpinnings for them are primarily phenomena of the relatively elite and affluent urban sector, much as the Democracy Movement of 1989 had been. Then, as now, major and lasting political change in China will have to involve other, larger segments of the populace as well.
Neglecting the Masses: Tiananmen and Today
One striking feature of the “mass movement” that centered on Tiananmen Square fifteen years ago is that it consisted largely of urban-based, relatively cosmopolitan, educated elites (that is, college students). But China is a country where the “masses” are overwhelmingly rural, parochial and have limited schooling. Even the urban masses (primarily industrial workers) lack the demonstrators’ education, economic prospects, or ability to comprehend the placards (Chinese or English) setting forth the students’ political platforms and demands.
The student-led movement in 1989 did relatively little to cultivate ties with the broader population (though they did benefit from significant spontaneous support). Indeed, many of the student groups and leaders were relatively indifferent— and some were contemptuous— toward the masses. Among some university-based leaders’ pronouncements, there was sometimes more than a hint of the traditional Chinese intellectual— not calling for popular sovereignty but, rather, remonstrating with the emperor to govern better, or seeking to replace the existing elite with a more virtuous successor. The student-led movement never created anything more than a marginal role for the workers who sought to organize autonomous trade unions and press the “vanguard of the proletariat” to address proletarian demands. China’s peasants entered the drama only in the role of PLA soldiers who brutally implemented the regime’s orders to suppress the movement. The peripheral role of mass constituencies was indisputably among the fatal weaknesses of the 1989 protests. Tellingly, the regime reacted with special alarm and severity toward the workers element within the broader movement.
Fifteen years later, “neglecting the masses” persists and remains a significant political problem, but of a different sort. Today, many outside observers, Chinese commentators, and Party leaders alike recognize that the greatest threat to stability and regime continuity in China stems from the hundreds of millions of Chinese who have been left behind in the country’s reform-era rush to riches. Where once economic development (which often meant little more than high GDP growth rates) was the unquestioned preeminent goal, relatively mainstream sources now speak of the need to attend equally to the needs of “social development.” Discontent at deprivation— both relative and absolute— percolates among the residents of the inland areas where foreign investment lags and linkages to the global economy are few. The farmers face declining social services, heavy and arbitrary tax burdens, eroding terms of trade (all the more so with the WTO’s mandate to open Chinese markets to food imports), and disproportionately little access to the wealth associated with the rise of industrial and service sectors. Workers in China’s rust-belt state industries whose factories are closing or shedding workers amid painful restructuring are unable to compete with newer collective, private and foreign firms. Finally, a vast and growing underclass of rural to urban migrants fill the cities’ insecure and low-paying factory, domestic, construction and day-labor jobs.
Whether China’s current leaders will do much to address and engage the interests and needs of these ordinary Chinese remains uncertain. The Hu Jintao / Wen Jiabao leadership has pledged to do so. They have proclaimed early and often their commitment to focus on those whom the reforms have not made much better off. They have the legacy of Jiang Zemin’s “Go West” policy (encouraging— with little effect— investment in China’s underdeveloped inland hinterland) to build upon. They have expressed openness to new ideas about how to handle China’s social ills. They have called for greater accountability in government and have undertaken public and highly publicized efforts to listen to the concerns and answer the questions of ordinary Chinese, most notably amid the panic over SARS.
Yet, such moves have not yet wrought a significant transformation. And they have coexisted with many signs of politics as usual, including, for example, the reaffirmation of the regime’s commitment to Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents” (with its recasting of the Party as, in significant part, a representative of the interests of the rich, entrepreneurial caste), and the resort to harsh criminal penalties and what some saw as factional purges to deal with SARS and the mishandling of SARS.
For now at least, keeping the long-neglected masses quiescent seems to depend relatively little on strategies of active cooptation, or substantial near-term amelioration of their condition, or incorporation of their preferences through proto-democratic processes. Instead, it depends on old familiar methods. It depends on satisfying the continued popular desire for rising prosperity and the high degree of order that the Party has been able to provide and that many Chinese today see the 1989 protesters as having recklessly endangered. It also depends on the Party’s and state’s continuing effective monopoly over organized politics— a monopoly that was badly rattled at Tiananmen fifteen years ago and that the leadership has striven relentlessly to rebuild and maintain ever since.