Tiananmen at Twenty

Tiananmen at Twenty

China has changed enormously since the 1989 massacre, but the Communist Party continues to deny what happened. Americans, too, continue to misremember a complex event.


AP ImagesA Chinese protestor blocks a line of tanks heading east on Beijing’s Cangan Blvd. June 5, 1989 in front of the Beijing Hotel.

In April and May of 1989, people around the world were inspired by the protests in Tiananmen Square, then horrified when the June 4 massacre turned Beijing streets into urban killing fields. China has changed enormously in the twenty years since then, but the Communist Party’s attitude toward 1989 has remained constant. It insists there were no peaceful protests and no “massacre,” just “counterrevolutionary riots” that were pacified by soldiers who showed great restraint. It refuses to acknowledge the losses to relatives of the hundreds of victims, tries to keep young Chinese ignorant of what happened and encourages specialists in the West to stop dwelling on 1989.

This approach is part of a larger effort to change the image of the party, so that mention of its name does not bring to mind visions of the Red Guard of the 1960s, anti-Confucian rallies of the ’70s or the iconic picture of the lone man confronting a line of tanks. Instead, party leaders would like it to be associated with skyscrapers, sleek department stores and refurbished Confucian temples. These pictures fit in better with the party’s view of itself as a pragmatic organization that has moved China forward while honoring traditions, transformed cities into showplaces of modernity and raised the nation’s international status and living standards. The 2008 Olympics, seen in this light, was the most expensive rebranding campaign in world history.

The regime’s approach to 1989 is open to criticism on moral grounds. It is wrong to claim that the only martyrs of June 4 were a handful of soldiers attacked by crowds. And it is cruel to keep parents of victims from publicly mourning.

The party’s version of post-1989 history can also be challenged. Consider, for example, how Perry Link, a leading China specialist, ends his May 17 Washington Post review of Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Zhao Ziyang, the newly released posthumous memoir of the former party leader who was placed under house arrest for opposing the use of force in 1989. China’s rulers “claim they have lifted millions from poverty,” Link writes, “but in truth the millions have lifted themselves, through hard work and long hours, and in the process have catapulted the elite to unprecedented levels of opulence and economic power.” Rejecting the notion that today’s leaders are popular and firmly in control, he closes with this metaphor: “The seal continues to straddle the ball–insecure as ever, but still definitely on top.”

These sentences are beautifully wrought. And though I think Link’s circus analogy is misleading, I agree with his oft-stated insistence that China specialists need to resist the temptation to put 1989 behind us.

One reason to keep dwelling on 1989 is that common misunderstandings about that year persist, in China and in the West. For example, many Americans still think protesting students were the main victims of the massacre, even though the majority of the dead were workers who had turned out to support the educated youths. Many Americans also misremember those students as people who wanted to bring Western-style democracy to China. The reality was much more complex.

The students did celebrate the virtues of minzhu (democracy), but they spent even more energy denouncing corruption. And while their outlook was cosmopolitan, they were intensely patriotic. They presented themselves as carrying forward a longstanding Chinese tradition: that of intellectuals speaking out against selfish officials whose actions were harming the nation. In addition, the students’ grievances were not all purely political. They complained about the party’s interferences in their private lives and about its failure to make good on economic promises (Wuer Kaixi, a leader of the student movement, noted that a desire to be able to buy Nike shoes and other consumer goods was among the things that inspired members of his generation to act).

China specialists have another reason to revisit 1989: to stay humble. We pride ourselves on our deep understanding of China, but each of us was surprised by what happened twenty years ago–if not by the fact that a massacre occurred then by how long it took for the tanks to roll; if not by how many people risked their lives to fight for change then by the role rock music played in the protests.

It’s also humbling to realize how often post-Tiananmen events have defied our predictions. More than a few observers assumed two decades ago that the Chinese Communist Party would soon go the way of its counterpart in Poland, where Solidarity won a major election on the very day of the massacre. Later, some of us were sure that to survive, the party would either pull back from engaging with the world or reverse the verdict on 1989.

China’s rulers have instead combined rigidity about Tiananmen with startling flexibility on other fronts. To minimize the likelihood of a recurrence of 1989 and avoid succumbing to what some Chinese leaders call the “Polish disease” (a Solidarity-like movement), the party has encouraged consumerism (many youths can now buy those Nikes), pulled back from micromanaging campus life (today’s students have much more personal freedom than their predecessors) and tried to leap ahead and steer new outbursts of nationalism. It has also treated different kinds of protests in varying ways, using draconian measures to stop any struggle that seems highly organized or that could link people of different classes but showing leniency toward some single-class, single-locale actions. And while dissidents have found exciting uses for new technologies like the Internet and text-messaging, the regime has also proved adept at using these media to discourage protests, disseminate its own interpretations of events and get supporters onto the streets.

How long can the regime keep expressions of discontent from snowballing again into something that threatens its power? This remains an open question, especially in light of the global economic downturn, which has not hit China as hard as it has many other countries but has led to a staggering number of factory closings and prompted an urban-to-rural migration of many workers who are not happy to be heading home. This is a phenomenon to watch, since economic frustrations were a crucial spur to action in 1989 and are likely to figure centrally in the next big challenge the leadership faces from below.

For now, though, the long series of high-growth years provides the regime with a buffer, allowing many who are struggling to think they could do well in the future. The party’s real difficulties will come when the memory of the recent upward surge has receded and a broad cross-section of people who have been left behind start to lose hope of prosperous times ahead. This is bound to happen eventually, but not yet. And we should not underestimate the ability of this regime, which has been so effective at defying the odds, to further delay its long-predicted demise.

This is why I think that Perry Link has not quite hit the mark with his image of a seal balancing on a ball. This suggests a performance involving just one trick, whereas China’s leaders are continually improvising. The circus act they bring to mind is not a seal but a juggler–the sort who somehow manages to keep a dizzying number of balls in the air, even when new objects are tossed into the rotation.

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