Is China different 20 years after Tiananmen bloodshed?

And what if students were successful?


1. Did Tiananmen Square protests change China in some way? What ordinary people do know about the bloodshed after 20 years?

2. Imagine students would be at least partially successful with their demand. What kind of impact it could have on China?


Andrew Nathan, Professor of Political Science at Columbia University, Author of numerous books about China and East Asia, co-editor of The Tiananmen Papers

1. Information about the event is suppressed in China and few younger people know anything about. If they are aware that something happened on that day they don’t have much of an idea of what it was, and the few who have some concrete ideas often have wrong information which is based on the official government story, which is inaccurate.

Much change has happened in China. The change is not of the kind that the Tiananmen protestors wanted, and yet much of the change can be considered as a direct or indirect result of Tiananmen. The authorities were frightened by what Tiananmen showed, and so they have taken measures to be sure that it never happens again. This included resuming economic reform, pushing ahead with integration into the world economy – both of these in order to keep up economic growth – increasing repression, liberalizing social life so people had more private freedom, and improving the social welfare network. Also, the regime has made sure not to let the public see any internal disagreements or power struggles in the ruling group because they believe that if the public sees signs of such power struggles it encourages mass mobilization of the type that occurred in 1989.

2. If the leadership had agreed to enter into dialogue with the students at that time (as Zhao Ziyang wanted), that would have established a precedent that various groups could organize in society and could be respected by the government and could enter into dialogue with government. As a result, China today would have a more vibrant and free civil society and a more open political life and, in my judgment, might be more stable politically.

Harold Tanner, Associate Professor, Department of History, University of North Texas

1. In the very short term (say, 1989-1992), the Tiananmen Square protests changed China by slowing down the pace of economic reform and opening to the outside world. The protests gave strength to the conservative (“left”) wing of the Chinese Communist Party leadership, which had been deeply concerned already about the economic, social, cultural, and political effects of the policies of economic reform and opening to the outside world, especially as they had been put into practice under the leadership of Hu Yaobang and then Zhao Ziyang, both of whom had played key roles in formulating those policies and putting them into practice. China’s “paramount leader” at the time, Deng Xiaoping, was shared with the conservatives a deep concern that some aspects of the reform program would lead to an undermining of the Communist Party and its government. But he was also convinced that further economic growth was essential to the flourishing of the country and, ultimately, also to the survival of the Party. Therefore, Deng took action to pump new life into the economic reform program in 1992.

In the medium term (say, from 1989 through the present), the Tiananmen Square protests have changed China in a way that the student and worker protesters would not have intended at all. The Communist Party drew some valuable lessons from China’s experience in 1989 and from the downfall of the socialist ruling parties and governments in Eastern Europe and, ultimately, from the end of the Soviet Union itself. To summarize, the lesson learned was that China’s Communist Party should continue to pursue a model of development which combined economic reforms designed to foster strong, export-based economic growth and increases in living standards (particularly urban living standards) while at the same time continuing to exercise strict control over political expression and social organizations, following the tried and true Leninist model of single-party rule, effective control over the press and education, and extensive internal surveillance and policing. One of the results of this policy is that ordinary Chinese know very little about the events of 1989, and even those that do know something about those events are not necessarily strongly sympathetic to the student and worker protesters. Naturally, the degree of awareness of and sympathy with the 1989 protesters varies. For example, it would be much more likely for Beijing citizens aged thirty and over to have a deeper degree of awareness of the events, and to hold sympathetic or even supportive attitudes toward the student and worker protesters. By contrast, people under thirty and those who live far from Beijing will, of course, be much less likely to know about the events of June 1989. So far, the Communist Party has been very successful in its efforts to maintain political stability through a combination of increasingly rigorous “patriotic education,” economic growth, and appeal to nationalist sentiment. As a result, many Chinese, even those who know about the protests of 1989, are convinced that the Party ultimately was justified in suppressing the protests (even though they may acknowledge that the method used to suppress the protests was wrong). They regard the suppression of the protests as having made possible the subsequent years of economic growth. Of course, there are also Chinese (perhaps particularly those who participated in or witnessed the events in Beijing in 1989) who would argue strongly against this point of view. They might argue, for example, that to claim that in 1989, China faced either the possibility of collapse into student-led anarchy and economic and social chaos or a strong reassertion of the Party’s power and a period of rapid economic growth is a false dichotomy.

Finally, another way in which the events of June 1989 changed China has to do with the regime’s attitude toward the handling of public protest. Since 1989, the Public Security (i.e. police), the People’s Armed Police, and the People’s Liberation Army have adopted clearer guidelines and policies regarding the handling of mass incidents and the use of force and of lethal force in such incidents. The People’s Liberation Army, in particular, has been reluctant to be deployed to handle internal security matters since 1989: those responsibilities have for the most part been given to the police and the People’s Armed Police.

In the long term (sometime in the future) it is possible that a future generation of Chinese might come to attach more significance to the events of 1989 than Chinese do today in 2009. For example if economic stress leads to another, more broadly based popular movement of protest against the Chinese Communist Party and its government, leaders of such a protest movement might very well bring up the memory of Tiananmen 1989 and use it as a symbol for their movement. Or if a future generation of Chinese Communist Party leaders, hoping to bring about significant change from within, decides to re-evaluate the events of 1989, they could themselves change the way Chinese look at those events and generate a situation in which the 1989 protests are seen as a symbol of hopes and ideals now pursued by a new generation of leaders. In short, historical events do not necessarily have significance simply through their own power: people give historical events significance, and that significance can, therefore, change over time, both in meaning and in degree. While the events in Tiananmen in 1989 certainly did not lead to the kind of political change that the protesters intended, those events could, under other circumstances, be made into symbols in the hands of activists seeking political change in the future, and thus Tiananmen 1989 could take on a greater significance sometime in the future than it has at the present time.

2. A hypothetical situation in which the students had succeeded in achieving a part of their demands (let us say, a retraction of the government statement that their movement was counter-revolutionary and a loosening of restrictions on the press) would be dependent on another, unstated hypothetical situation: one in which those Communist Party leaders who were more sympathetic toward and willing to compromise with the student – such as Zhao Ziyang – had won the power struggle that was raging within the Party leadership at the same time as the students and workers were controlling the center of Beijing. In that case, China would have continued to move forward with economic reform at a faster pace, and, at least initially, the leadership would have opened the door for a somewhat greater degree of openness and freedom of political expression.

Would that have led (as Deng Xiaoping and the conservatives feared) to an irretrievable undermining of Communist Party legitimacy and power, and thus to some sort of regime change similar to those of Eastern Europe? Or would it have led to simply a degree of incremental reform but a continuation of one-party rule? Or would it have led to a short time of opening, and then to a crack-down or to a gradual re-tightening of controls a few months or a year later? No-one can say for sure.

Lawrence C. Reardon, Associate Professor of Political Science, Coordinator, Asian Studies Minor, University of New Hampshire

First, it’s important to understand the students, the government workers, party members, and factory workers who participated are now twenty years older. Those that have remained in China have realized that change can be brought about, but indirectly. So many of them have “jumped into the ocean,” and “moved with the tide.” These 6.4 participants now fully understand what happens to people in China who openly disagree with the party. This is not a new phenomenon: it has been learned by those who were critical of the party in the previous decades, and were targeted by the anti-Rightist movement of the 1950s, the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, the Democracy Wall movement of the 70s, and the 6.4 movement of the 80s, the Falungong of the 90s, and Tibetan activists last year. The party does not tolerate open dissent, as they see it as a direct attack on their legitimacy. As for knowledge of 6.4, the newer generations perhaps have a bit more access to information through the Internet. But they must wait for time to pass. It was only in the 1980s that people began to understand about the excesses of the anti-Rightist movement and the Cultural Revolution.

Of course, it is a bit different for those Chinese activists who escaped from China after 6.4, and those students/business people who live abroad. They have more freedom to see the pictures, and read the accounts of the turmoil. But the overseas dissidents are also disorganized, and internal conflict prevents them from become a force for change…such as those students such as Sun Yat-sen who left at the end of the Qing Dynasty to organize the nationalist rebellion in 1911.

2. The emphasis on 6.4 is overblown by western observers. The dramatic economic development of the past 20 years has given greater power to the individual. Thus, China of today is COMPARATIVELY more free than it was in 1989. Limited elections at the grass roots level have taken place; the National People’s Congress is a bit less of a rubber-stamp congress; localities have greater control over their own affairs.

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