Wednesday January 29, 2020

Reflections on the 30th Anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Incident

June 3, 2019

Mao Zedong's portrait in Tiananmen Square. Photo by Kirill Sharkovski.

Mao Zedong’s portrait in Tiananmen Square. Photo by Kirill Sharkovski.

Thirty years ago, a group of Chinese students marched into Tiananmen Square. As many students had done before, they demanded change, reform, progress, democracy. Their demands were rejected in the most violent way possible – Deng Xiaoping declared martial law and the students and their supporters were slaughtered, beaten, imprisoned, and exiled. China bled that day, and if you look closely at the changes that have taken place in Chinese society, you will see that a scar remains.


Discourse surrounding Tiananmen often focuses on the sheer brutality of the events and the suppression of information that has been the norm ever since. At the end of this article, several links to current articles on this topic are included. However, censorship is only part of the story. In the aftermath of Tiananmen Square, the Chinese Communist Party enacted sweeping reforms of China’s economy and policy that are still affecting China today, both domestically and internationally. It’s important to acknowledge and make note of these changes and analyze what they mean for China’s future.




In order to understand the CCP’s actions in the wake of the incident, it’s important to understand what exactly prompted and influenced the Tiananmen protests of 1989. Student protests were a time-honored tradition in the 20th century. One of the most iconic social movements of all Chinese history, the May 4th Movement of 1919, began with student protests that influenced significant policy and personnel changes at the government level. After that movement, the youth in China were central to the country’s development. The youth figured prominently in all revolution and reformation, for example, as Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution.


Following Mao’s death, however, the CCP began to move away from its ideology of revolution. It was clear from the disaster of the Cultural Revolution that societal stability was crucial for economic development and progress. Deng Xiaoping, China’s new leader, abandoned ideological purity and sought instead to reform China’s economy into something more prosperous. While Deng achieved great success economically, corruption in the CCP also became endemic. The CCP’s choice to abandon socialism in all but name also called into question the ruling party’s legitimacy.


The CCP itself was experiencing internal tension between conservatives and reformers, the most notable of which was Hu Yaobang. Hu was eventually expelled from the party as general secretary following a group of student protests in 1986 – Deng believed Hu was too soft on the students. Hu’s eventual death in 1989 sparked the Tiananmen Square protests. Students first gathered to mourn, and their mourning quickly turned into calls for democracy and the resignation of corrupt officials.


The protests lasted several weeks. Peking University students initially marched on Tiananmen on April 17, 1989. Over time, the students participated in hunger strikes, demanded to meet with CCP officials, and occupied the square. Other members of society, such as blue-collar workers, also supported the protests. CCP officials sympathetic to the students met with them and begged them to end the protests, but the students would not be swayed. During this time, the CCP debated internally how best to respond to the protests. In many ways, this was reminiscent of the May 4th Movement, where the students continued to protest until the corrupt officials responsible for the Treaty of Versailles were removed from office.


Perhaps it was due to these similarities that Deng Xiaoping chose to take extreme measures to end the protests. On the evening of June 3, the CCP enacted martial law, and by the end of the day on June 4, the protests had been quelled. There have been no comparable student protests in China since.


The Chinese Diaspora


The decisions the CCP made in the aftermath of the massacre have shaped China’s civil society and official policy in significant ways. One area of particular interest is the Chinese diaspora. In the wake of the Tiananmen Square incident, the CCP exiled many of its intellectuals and leaders who had participated in the protests. As a result, a significant portion of the Chinese diaspora held anti-CCP views and beliefs. As the Chinese diaspora moved beyond East Asia and became more globally dispersed, this issue came back to haunt the CCP. Anti-CCP movements worldwide have garnered significant attention. For example, Falun Gong practitioners often demonstrate in the U.S., which creates negative publicity for the CCP.


To solve this problem, the CCP has increased the policies and practices of the United Front Work Department, which “manages relations with various important and influential elite individuals and organizations inside and outside China.” The UFWD targets the Chinese diaspora. For many years, the aim has been to silence overseas Chinese dissidents and activists. Recently, however, the UFWD’s mission has expanded. Now, it focuses on convincing Western elites of the CCP’s legitimacy and right to rule. Rory Medcalf, head of the national security college at Australian National University, summed up the situation as such: “The Chinese Communist party is seeking to suppress dissent among its diaspora in countries around the world. It uses a tapestry of methods to achieve its goals: political donations, control of Chinese language media, mobilizing community and student groups; and engaging in coercive activities that involve CCP proxies and even consular officials.” These overseas activities have caused significant tension in Western countries that resent the CCP’s interference.




The CCP has not focused solely on the Chinese diaspora. Domestically, the CCP has focused on strengthening nationalism, especially among the Chinese youth. In the wake of the incident, the CCP launched the Patriotic Education Campaign, which emphasized the necessity of authoritarian governance and exacerbated anti-foreign sentiment. The Campaign appears to be successful. More Chinese students are returning home from studying abroad than ever before. Additionally, Chinese students are refusing to join organizations like the Independent Federation of Chinese Students and Scholars, on the grounds that members of such organizations are “traitors.”


The CCP also made significant changes to its ideological stance. In the wake of the protests, many people were disenchanted with socialism. To combat this issue, Deng put forth a more pragmatic theory: that it doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white so long as it catches mice. He was able to gain unanimous support from the government to develop a market economy while reinforcing China’s authoritarian regime. As a result, a consensus emerged and, since 1992, there have been no internal struggles in the government regarding political projects.


Internal Shifts


The party made another crucial shift: from reform to conservation. The CCP decided that it had to remain intact at all costs. Essentially, stability was more important than any other consideration. This stance was in direct contrast to Mao’s glorification of reform and revolution.


The CCP’s choices in the wake of the protests have widespread implications. China’s focus on soft power and attempts to control the Chinese diaspora have stoked controversy in Western countries that feel that China is overstepping. China’s patriotic education programs have created a generation of hyper-nationalistic individuals and have contributed to growing anti-foreign sentiment in China. Furthermore, China’s current economic configuration can be traced back to Deng’s pairing of the market economy with strict government controls, which has created tension in China’s trade partnerships.


As we reflect on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square incident this year, we must remember that the incident did not end on June 4. It continues to impact Chinese policy, society, and economic practices. A recent article in the Global Times stated that “dropping the incident thereafter has been aimed at helping the country leave the shadow behind, avoid disputes, and help all Chinese people face the future.” But China – and the CCP in particular – haven’t left the incident behind. Its memory is embedded in every pro-nationalist, pro-authoritarian, anti-foreign policy the CCP enacts. At this point, it is unclear if China will ever truly leave this incident in the past, or if it is doomed to bleed until it hemorrhages.


By Rona Vaselaar


Read More:

Timeline: From reform hopes to brutal crackdown – China’s Tiananmen protests (Reuters)

National Humiliation, History Education, and the Politics of Historical Memory: Patriotic Education Campaign in China (International Studies Quarterly)

Tiananmen Square Massacre: How Beijing turned on its own people (CNN)

China 30 years after Tiananmen Square: Xi is latest autocratic leader to block dissent (USA Today)

30 Years After Tiananmen, a Chinese Military Insider Warns: Never Forget (New York Times)

Now AI easily erases the Tiananmen Square massacre from online memory (Fast Company)

China’s censors crank up ahead of 30th anniversary of 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre (Japan Times)