C&B Notes

30 Years since Tiananmen Square

In the thirty years since the Communist Party’s brutal crackdown in Tiananmen Square, China has experienced an economic miracle that has made the country a global superpower.  Despite a somewhat freer society, the democratic ideals that the protesters pushed for remain unresolved, and progress has reversed with the rise of Xi Jinping and the implementation of his policies.  The tension between prosperity/ stability and freedom endures.

China was indeed experiencing a springtime.  At last, its halting tradition of democratic activism and cosmopolitan aspiration seemed on the verge of triumphing over the rival traditions of imperial rule and Leninism.  Here was definitive proof that ideas of freedom were not just a foreign import or imposition.  For the first time since 1949, one could suddenly imagine a China that was both more democratic and more fully integrated into the outside world.

But the moment didn’t last, as we know in marking this week’s melancholy 30th anniversary. Whatever the power of China’s long-suppressed democratic hopes, they could not withstand the ideological determination and brutal might of the Chinese Communist Party.  The crushing of the Tiananmen protest movement was a shock not just to all those intoxicated, idealistic Chinese demonstrators but also to Westerners like myself who believed that, with our help, China was starting to find its way to being a more modern and open society…

The Tiananmen demonstrations were hardly the first chapter in China’s striving for greater political openness.  A reform movement at the end of the last imperial dynasty had segued into Sun Yat-sen’s short-lived constitutional republic in 1912.  There had been the May 4th Movement of 1919, when mass protests erupted across the country in opposition to great-power imperialism and in support of “science and democracy.”  And in the 1930s, Chiang Kai-shek had presided over a seemingly promising “Golden Era” of stability and reform, brought to an end by Japanese occupation and World War II.  With the victory of Mao’s communist revolution in 1949, China’s democratic tradition was stifled.  It didn’t revive again until the late 1970s and ’80s, when Deng Xiaoping’s bold new agenda of “reform and opening up” brought not only radical market reforms in the state-controlled economy but a relaxation of political controls as well.

As protesters poured into Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989, the long-suppressed democratic hopes of the Chinese people were welling up again like a great lava vent.  The square, the party’s sanctum sanctorum, had been turned into a liberated zone, creating a heady, if naive, sense of invincibility among protesters.  I watched as one father sat beside his hunger-striking daughter, daubing her brow with a cool cloth.  “My generation never dared speak out, much less to act out what we believed,” he sobbed.  “Now my daughter’s doing it for me.”  A Peking University student told me, “There’s no way the party will ever get things back into the old bottle! Just look around us.  History’s sweeping them away!”  When a grim-faced Premier Li Peng appeared on television on May 19 to declare martial law, it was clear that a moment of reckoning was approaching.  “An extremely small handful of people who want to achieve their political goal…are undermining the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party,” he intoned.  The government had decided to “take decisive and firm measures to put a swift end to the turmoil.”  To everyone’s surprise, however, as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) entered the city, hundreds of thousands of protesters flooded the streets to peacefully block their march to the square.  As this putative “people’s army” was stopped by the people themselves, protesters rejoiced by playing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”

But even as they celebrated, a humiliated Deng was planning a second, more unyielding assault. On June 3, the loudspeakers around Tiananmen Square crackled to life, and an ominous voice thundered:  “For many days now, the Liberation Army has exercised restraint, but now it must resolutely counteract the rebellion.”  This time, with fresh columns of PLA troops brandishing automatic weapons and led by armored vehicles, not even the thousands of angry citizens who again rallied in the streets to throw up barricades could stop them.  When dawn broke over the smoking wreckage on the morning of June 4, untold numbers had been killed and wounded.  The seven-week-long protest movement had been crushed and, with it, the dream of a more democratic China.

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The limits of such wishful thinking have become more obvious since 2012, when Xi Jinping began his ascent to the top of the Chinese leadership.  With his new Big Leader cult, disdain for democracy, authoritarian zeal and repudiation of political reform, Mr. Xi has prompted a far-reaching reconsideration among U.S. foreign policy elites, including second thoughts about the wisdom of the policy of engagement itself. Indeed, his policies — expanded party control over the economy, heightened state censorship, persecution of minorities (especially the Uighurs and the Tibetans) and a more assertive military posture in “core interest” areas of the South and East China Seas and the Taiwan Straits — leave no doubt that the U.S. and China have widely divergent interests and aims for the global order.

For the roots of today’s impasse and increasing hostility, we must look back to the crackdown of 1989 and its aftermath.  Both the uprising in Tiananmen Square and the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union led Deng and other hard-line Chinese leaders to conclude that democratization and even some forms of economic reform were direct threats to one-party rule.  As both sorts of reform have lagged in China, it has become harder for any American to make the case that China and the U.S. are still coming together, even slowly.  And without some kind of convergence, “engagement” as a policy becomes futile.

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