Tiananmen Square and Two Chinas

Tiananmen Square and Two Chinas

On the twentieth anniversary of China’s Tiananmen Square crackdown, six experts reflect on the country’s trajectory since then. Many note China’s breathtaking economic growth as well as mounting strains caused by a lack of political reforms.

June 1, 2009 2:07 pm (EST)

Expert Roundup
CFR fellows and outside experts weigh in to provide a variety of perspectives on a foreign policy topic in the news.

June 4, 1989 marks the anniversary of the Chinese government’s brutal crackdown on the largest protests for political reform since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Widely known as the Tiananmen Square massacre, the event remains a stain on Chinese history. But twenty years on, China has experienced two decades of 10 percent annual economic growth, lifting millions out of poverty and propelling it into the forefront of global economic power. Six experts--CFR’s Elizabeth C. Economy and Adam Segal, Perry Link, Cheng Li, Orville Schell, and Michael Anti--reflect on China’s evolution since the spring of 1989 and prospects for democratic reform.

Elizabeth C. Economy, C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Tiananmen and the China of today seem worlds apart. The images of Tiananmen are tragic and iconic--the thirty-three-foot tall Goddess of Democracy statue, the young students with their bullhorns proclaiming the need for political reform, and the lone man facing down the army tank on Beijing’s Chang’an Avenue. The China of today possesses its own set of indelible images--the glittering grandeur of the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, futuristic skyscrapers, and millions of new cars jostling for position on clogged city streets.

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Most of the time, today’s images crowd out the memories of two decades ago. But the reality is that the events of June 1989 and the spring before it remain firmly embedded in China’s political fabric. Though China has changed in many ways for the better, Tiananmen continues to haunt and inspire the country.

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"The failure of China’s leaders to embrace the ideals embodied by the Tiananmen demonstrations has had far-reaching and often devastating consequences."- CFR’s Elizabeth Economy

The failure of China’s leaders to embrace the ideals embodied by the Tiananmen demonstrations has had far-reaching and often devastating consequences. Without political reform, corruption has flourished and contributed to the melamine poisoning of tens of thousands of Chinese children, the collapse of shoddily built schools in the Sichuan earthquake, and more than one hundred thousand protests annually.

At the same time, the ideals of Tiananmen continue to inspire many in China today, whether or not they are aware of the events of 1989. Thousands of Chinese from every walk of life have signed the online petition Charter 08 that calls for democratic reform. The bold voices of AIDS and environmental activist Hu Jia, the artist Ai Weiwei, and the lawyer Wang Canfa, among many others, insist that China is ready for transparency, official accountability, and the rule of law.

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Before China can move on from Tiananmen, China’s leaders will have to provide a public accounting of this tragedy. The United States has certainly had its fair share of such tragedies, whether single events or ongoing abuses of power, from racism to McCarthyism to Abu Ghraib. Every case has required a public airing and debate for healing and reconciliation to begin and for lessons to be learned. China’s leaders thus far have denied this accounting to their people, and they pay the price in terms of their own legitimacy. As the country assumes a greater role on the international stage, its credibility as a world leader may also be questioned. The world will likely wonder, as my twelve-year-old son does, "If they’re so great, what are they so afraid of?"

Perry Link, Chancellorial Chair for Innovative Teaching, University of California, Riverside. Coeditor of "The Tiananmen Papers"

The 1989 demonstrations--which were nationwide, not only in Beijing--sprang not just from students at elite universities who were attracted to Western political ideals but from discontent that was deep and broad in Chinese society. The protests were fueled by revulsion at corruption and special privilege and by a desire to move out of the autocratic "work unit" system of state socialism. The goal was called "political reform."

The Beijing massacre was a watershed. Soon after it, [Chinese Communist] Party leaders offered the Chinese people a new bargain: You can make money, and we will also allow you more personal freedoms in your daily lives, but you may not challenge party power in public and may not form organizations--political, religious, or otherwise--that the party cannot control. In short: Money, yes; politics no.

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The Chinese people, recognizing that freedom in one sphere of life is better than freedom in no sphere, basically accepted this bargain. They have worked hard, and have greatly improved their material lives. Calorie intake, housing, and life expectancy are all, on average, better than twenty years ago.

But the "politics, no" part of the bargain has created problems that haunt the soul of the society. It is a deep assumption in Chinese culture that a society needs ethical values that are publicly shared, and in the mid-1990s Chinese intellectuals began to speak of a "values vacuum." Recent popular fiction and television reveal a strong attraction among the Chinese public for characters who--as if in contradiction to the surrounding society--are sincere, decent, and ready to do what is right, not just what is expedient. Religions have had revivals, but the project of letting religions lead the way to shared public values has been frustrated by government repression whenever a religious organization is seen to be wandering outside party control. Chinese people today feel far less secure, inside, than a bustling sidewalk in Shanghai might lead one to believe.

Adam Segal, Ira A. Lipman Chair in Emerging Technologies and National Security and Director of the Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program

Twenty years after the crackdown, it is remarkable how the Chinese Communist Party managed to rebound from the violence and build such a resilient model for governing the country. In the shadow of China’s Olympic success, we forget how isolated and fragile China seemed in the early 1990s. The model--rapid economic growth, nationalism, decentralization and depoliticization--seems obvious now, but at the time few suspected that China’s leaders would be able to reestablish such broad legitimacy. Social disturbances are widespread, but most of the anger is directed at local governments, not at Beijing.

China, in the words of Mao Zedong [Chinese Communist leader from 1943-1975], has "stood up," and is now expected to play a critical role in everything from solving the global financial crisis to rolling back North Korea’s nuclear program to battling pirates in the Gulf of Aden. While there has been little progress on political reforms and civil rights (see, for example, the recent threats to disbar human rights lawyers), daily life for average Chinese has improved dramatically-materially and in their control over their own personal lives. This is key; the vast majority of everyday Chinese think their government is doing a good job.

Of course, the question is--can this model last another twenty years? Already, with the explosion of the Internet in China, we can see a proliferation of ideas that, if not pushing the country toward liberal democracy, create real constraints for China’s leaders. As the country develops and the middle class expands, demands on the government are sure to increase. The old model may not completely disappear, but it will have to become more transparent and responsive.

Cheng Li, Director of Research and Senior Fellow, John L. Thornton China Center, Brookings Institution

Many in the West believe that since the 1989 Tiananmen incident China has made progress only in the realm of the economy. Their rationale is that despite (or because of) China’s ongoing economic transformation, the Communist regime has been able to resist genuine political change. This belief, however, overlooks several significant social and political developments that are building momentum for more political openness.

To a great extent, economic reform paves the way for political reform. A distinct socioeconomic middle class, for example, was virtually nonexistent in China fifteen to twenty years ago, but today there are a sizable number of Chinese citizens with private property units, cars, financial assets, and money to spend on travel. A recent report by McKinsey estimates that by 2025 China’s middle class will consist of about 520 million people. This growing and economically empowered group is now better equipped to seek greater political participation.

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"Chinese leaders have begun using the term ’inner-party democracy’ to describe the idea that the party should institutionalize checks and balances within its leadership."- Cheng Li, Brookings Institution

The commercialization of the media has also contributed to increasing pluralism in political discourse. As of 2007, there were over 2,000 newspapers, more than 9,000 magazines, 273 radio stations, and 352 TV stations in the country. Although still subject to a certain level of government interference, they do not all tell the same stories. Even official media outlets have begun to report negative news.

Another important trend in Chinese politics is the rise of civil society groups and lawyers. There are some 280,000 registered civil society groups in the country today, including some 6,000 foreign NGOs. Two decades ago, such figures would have been unimaginable. The number of registered lawyers and law school students has also increased dramatically. For example, the number of enrolled students at the Law School of Beijing University in 2004 equaled the total number of law students trained at the school for the past fifty years.

Finally, the ruling party is no longer led by one strongman, like Mao or Deng. Instead, the top leadership consists of factions and coalitions that compete against each other for power, influence, and policy initiatives. Chinese leaders have begun using the term "inner-party democracy" to describe the idea that the party should institutionalize checks and balances within its leadership.

Yes, the Chinese political system is still constrained by its one-party monopoly on power, the lack of an independent judiciary, and media censorship. Political participation through institutional means remains very limited. Yet, the factors listed above are all important contributors to democratic change in any given society. In all these aspects, China is making significant progress.

Orville H. Schell, Director, Center on U.S.-China Relations, Asia Society

Few of us who were in Beijing in 1989 to watch the events of that spring unfold could have imagined that twenty years later China would be where it is today.

[Chinese leader] Deng Xiaoping’s tragic flaw, evinced in declaring martial law and suppressing that spring’s demonstrations through the use of force, was quickly matched by an equal and opposite demonstration of acumen in understanding that, despite the disruptions of 1989, the only way forward for China was still through economic convergence with the outside world and the liberation of individual initiative--at least in the marketplace, if not also in the political arena. The correctness of Deng’s post-June 4th bold judgment and then his epic 1992 Nanxun trip [tour of south China] to reinvigorate China’s market economy was largely responsible for writing the script for the People’s Republic of China’s sensational next act. It also assured that the Chinese Communist Party’s one-party rule would gain a new base of legitimacy.

So, it was the next decade and a half of dynamic growth that made it possible for many Chinese to imagine that 1989 was really just "the past," an epiphenomenon, and hopefully an aberrant moment in contemporary Chinese history that should best be forgotten.

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"So, it was the next decade and a half of dynamic growth that made it possible for many Chinese to imagine that 1989 was really just ’the past,’ an epiphenomenon, and hopefully an aberrant moment in contemporary Chinese history that should best be forgotten." – Orville Schell, Asia Society

But, of course, history rarely forgets its past as readily as a single generation--especially one so preoccupied with reestablishing China’s fuqiang, its "wealth and power"--might hope. And as we have seen with the recent publication of former Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang’s recorded memoirs, new historical evaluations have a way of endlessly intruding on even the best-written and most successful scripts or counter-narratives.

While it may have been submerged beneath one of the most successful economic development stories of all time, the tragedy of 1989 has still not been completely erased from the hard disk of history. As the Germans and Japanese have amply learned, "the deeds that men do" are not so easily "interred with their bones," even by a decade of 10 percent growth and the deepest yearnings of leaders to forget.

Michael Anti (Zhao Jing), Freelance journalist and blogger in China

June 4, 1989 did not stop economic reforms in China and the country finally became a normalized international community member after she was welcomed into the World Trade Organization in 2001, rising as a new economic and political power in the world. In this process, the Chinese people gained enormous economic, personal, and social freedoms. However, they were also forced to regard this release of non-political rights as a quid pro quo for their deprived political rights such as freedom of speech and the pursuit for democracy.

The Internet has pushed the cost of this new social contract higher since 1998. Civil society emerged based on, but not limited to, online activities. It has become harder and harder for the government authorities to totally filter the information flow on the Internet. Citizen protests take place everywhere, every day, online or offline. Cyberspace has become the new Tiananmen Square. Text messages, blogs, and tweets have been transforming any local discontent into a nationwide concern.

The Internet has liberalized the Chinese people in the past decade and will continue this process; however any substantial political reform has yet to come. The political future of China depends on not only the maturity of civil society, but also whether the Chinese ruling party is willing to offer reconciliation to its own people, who still think the June 4, 1989 event was an unforgivable mistake made by the authorities. This wound of history has made politics in China immoral, and will prevent this nation and her people from achieving greatness.


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