How Tiananmen Changed China -- And Still Could
The Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4, 1989 — 20 years ago today — was a decisive turning point in the history of modern China. The incident profoundly altered China's political, economic, and social evolution. To understand China's trajectory over the next 20 years, it's worth considering how developments two decades ago put China on its current course.
We should start from the premise that the crackdown, and China's subsequent rise as an authoritarian rather than a democratic superpower, was not inevitable. We know from both The Tiananmen Papers and Zhao Ziyang's memoirs that the Communist Party leadership was split on whether to use force against the protestors. There is little question that China's regime was under threat — mass protests had erupted not only in Beijing but in more than 180 cities across China, endangering the regime's survival. We also know that popular uprisings in the 1980s and 1990s, in some cases of a smaller relative scale than those across China in 1989, led to democratic transitions from authoritarian rule in Sinic and other societies across Asia -- including in the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Mongolia, and Indonesia.
Moreover, China itself had a history of democratic thought and practice. Sun Yat-sen founded the first Chinese republic in 1912. The student- and intelligentsia-led May 4th movement of 1919 featured protestors, angry at the terms of the Versailles settlement in Asia, who maintained that China, to protect its integrity and interests against stronger powers in the West and Japan, needed to embrace a "new culture" grounded in Western notions of democracy and equality. The Democracy Wall movement of 1979 called for China to pursue a "Fifth Modernization": political freedom. In the liberal political climate of the 1980s, Chinese intellectuals and civic activists openly discussed agendas for democracy and reform, leading many Westerners — and many Chinese — to presume that China would be part of the global wave of democratization that accompanied the end of the Cold War.
The Tiananmen crackdown changed the Chinese Communist Party, the Chinese economy, and Chinese foreign policy. As Minxin Pei argues, liberals like Zhao Ziyang were purged from the Party's leadership, transforming it from a broader coalition that included liberals, conservatives, and technocrats to a narrower and more cohesive one led by a conservative/technocratic elite. Not only did the Party change, but so did its relationship with society, as it pursued an aggressive new policy of coopting China's rising middle class into its ranks (which, in an inversion of Marxist class-consciousness, became a ticket to material success for the country's Party-card-carrying bourgeoisie).
Tiananmen also gave renewed impetus to economic reform in China, forcing the government to accelerate economic growth through liberalization as a substitute source of the legitimacy otherwise derived from political accountability. Twenty years after the Tiananmen uprising, one of its leading student organizers, Wu'er Kaixi, puts it this way:
In part, the change we hoped for has happened.... In 1989, when I went into exile, I said the reason for the protests initially was that China's youth wanted Nikes and wanted to be able to go to a bar with their girlfriends. Such things were not possible in the China I grew up in. They are possible today, largely because China's university students rose up in 1989 and the workers' unions and the common people joined them. The government realized it had no choice but to liberalize the economy if it was going to keep popular discontent at bay. In short, 20 years on, I believe the protests in 1989 were a kind of tragic success. China got its Nikes and discos.
The Tiananmen crackdown also changed the terms of China's relationship with its neighbors. In the 1990s, a post-Deng Xiaoping generation led by Jiang Zemin, no longer endowed with the political legitimacy enjoyed by the Long March veterans who founded the People's Republic, settled on Chinese nationalism as a means of mobilizing the Chinese public in an effort to channel popular anger at China's external adversaries rather than the leadership in Beijing. Recent scholarship (and still more recent scholarship) has shown how China's historical grievances against Japan, stemming from the legacy of World War II and subordinated during the Mao and Deng years, were consciously resuscitated in official textbooks and commentary during the 1990s — including in an infamous trip by President Jiang Zemin to Tokyo, where he lectured pacifist Japan's startled leaders on the need to atone for their past "crimes" against the Chinese people. Chinese leaders also consciously inflamed anti-American nationalism -- for example, busing in the protestors who stoned the U.S. embassy in Beijing following the mistaken American bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999.
So what can the 20 years since June 4, 1989 tell us about China's next 20 years?
First, China will change from a producer-based to a consumer-based society. This has considerable economic implications, including for rebalancing of the world economy. But it also has political implications: a rapidly growing class of hundreds of millions of middle-income consumers will be economically empowered to demand individual political rights in a way low-cost factory workers and rural peasants have not been. An economic model that has hinged on the relationship between governing elites and producers of manufactured goods will need to adapt as consumers rather than producers become the country's dominant economic force, as in other developed countries. These consumers may not immediately demand the right to vote, but their demands for health care, pensions, and other government services will require a degree of political accountability and representation that an autocracy will be hard-pressed to provide.
Second, for China to move up the value chain from low-cost manufacturing as it becomes a developed country and faces competition from lower-wage producers in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, the Chinese government will increasingly need to tolerate the free flow of information. Continued increases in Chinese productivity will require not greater raw material and labor inputs, as in the past, but the kind of innovation that is stifled by controls on information and communications of the kind that China's government censors excel at (which is why this post will not be read in China).
Third, scholars of democratic transitions have shown that they have a high likelihood of taking place when average per capita incomes enter the range of $5-$6,000 U.S. dollars - a zone China is fast approaching. In other words, it is simply premature to judge that the relationship between economic growth and political liberalization that has held in the West, Latin America, parts of Africa and the Middle East, and across Asia will not hold in China.
Finally, the outside world may not be as tolerant of China over the coming generation as it has been since 1989. Since then, China has enjoyed an accommodating international environment that has been extraordinarily conducive to both its internal political dispensation and its external security. This will change — as Washington prepares for a systemic challenge from what is now clearly its leading peer competitor; as the developed world rejects Chinese claims to be the poor, developing nation it once was and refuses to tolerate continued Chinese free riding on global governance issues like climate change; as China's trade partners grow increasingly queasy about the political and security implications of economic dependency on China and consider policies to counteract it, with potentially significant implications for China's mercantilist economic model; and as other big Asian powers like Japan and India hedge against China's growing military power by bolstering their own.
Asked to render his verdict on the French Revolution, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai famously responded that it was "Too soon to tell." It remains too soon to judge Tiananmen's final legacy. One day, China's citizens surely will know as much about the uprising, and its suppression, as those of us in the outside world, and it will be judged an interlude in the extraordinary story of modern China, one with a different ending than the verdict of the gunfire on June 4, 1989.