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Jun

June 4th will mark the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square movement which shook China in the spring of 1989. Although there is no doubt that its relevance has been exaggerated outside of China, it is the largest protest which has occurred against the Communist Party of China during its reform period starting in the 1970s. This anniversary allows us to reflect upon this often misinterpreted event, while looking more broadly at some of the political changes in China which have followed.

What happened in 1989?

Between mid-April and the beginning of June in 1989, China experienced protests in cities all across the country as a result of government reforms which were being implemented. The epicenter of this movement took place in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, where protestors, mostly students, had been camped out for weeks in protest of corruption, decreasing quality of life, and prohibition of freedom of speech.

Outside of China, this movement tends to be represented as an effort to establish democracy in China. The Chinese government, on the other hand, condemned this movement as antirevolutionary, declaring it to have come mainly from outside the country. As a result, any form of discussion or commemoration is prohibited. However the reality is far more complex and diverse than these two contradictory views.

It wasn’t so much a planned uprising as a spontaneous revolution; heterogeneous and disorganized designed to reform the system of government not to replace it. Against a backdrop of economic slowdown, high inflation, and dismantling of public services and rampant corruption, Chinese students looked eagerly at the changes occurring in the Soviet Union and asked “Where is the Chinese Gorbachov?”

During the first weeks of the protest, the constructive attitude of the protestors clashed with the stubbornness of the authorities. This was highlighted in an editorial in the People´s Daily on April 26th and further through the martial law imposed on May 20th. This radicalized the student protestors. One of the most influential student protestors commented a few days before the violent suppression of the protestors that the student´s objective should be to provoke a massacre by the Chinese authorities, only then could they create the necessary support to overthrow the current regime.

The massacre finally occurred during the night of June 3rd and 4th when the leadership of the regime ordered the military to stop the revolution in Beijing. In the following days and weeks, arrests, trials and executions followed. And despite the predictions of many, there were no elements of a subsequent national uprising.

What actual impact did the movement from 1989 have?

In retrospect, it seemed to be described as a romantic or voluntary movement, perhaps too emotional, irrational and irresponsible. Chinese dissidents have established somewhat of a tragic interpretation to the events, which is especially relevant in the interpretation of Han Dongfang, one of the most active unionists during the time of the protests. Han described the movement as a fruit that was not yet mature:

“The people were so hungry that when they discovered the fruit, they stormed upon it and swallowed it whole. This produced a sharp pain in the stomach and a bitter taste in the mouth. Should they have eaten the fruit? You could say no, but they were so hungry….you can also say yes, however to eat something that was so green, was not wise.”

This is not to preclude that they should continue criticizing the brutal repression suffered, or to use the 1989 movement as a symbol in favor of the liberalization of Chinese politics. Ignorance and indifference are the most frequent reactions amongst the Chinese population when confronted with the task of recognizing the events from 25 years ago. One of the most startling observations is the apparent disconnect between modern university students in China and those who took up the protest 25 years ago. Throughout the 20th century, Chinese students have taken to the streets on numerous occasions to speak their voice. On the contrary, modern day Chinese students seem to be shockingly apolitical, and in regards to social unrest, seem to largely be of the opinion that their country does not need saving.

However, from an outside perspective, the bloody crackdown on the protests continues to be a lasting stain on China´s international image harming relations with other countries. Could it be safe to say that the actual influence of this tragedy is much greater at the international level than at the internal one within China?

 

 

What are the perspectives for political change in China?

One of the principle lessons that the Chinese authorities took away from the Tiananmen movement was that economic development was not sufficient to keep power. During the second half of the 1980s, Chinese leaders discovered through their own experience that no government has the recipe to guarantee a quick and uninterrupted economic growth. This made it that much more pertinent to seek out legitimate alternative sources from which they could consolidate their economic power. Nationalism has been one of their principle means of doing so.

In other words, it was not probable that there would be important political reforms in the short term, as there was not a significant demand neither inside nor outside of the regime. Even though they were quite critical of the regime, the majority of the Chinese population didn’t consider replacing them for another. As a result, we can say that the democratization of China is a theme much more thought about outside then inside their own borders.

What are the most probable scenarios?

Looking at the current situation it seems that only a profound economic or international crisis could provoke a short term end to the monopoly which the Communist Party of China holds over the political state. However if the Communist Party of China wishes to maintain an acceptable level of economic development as well as the territorial integrity of China, the safest bet is towards a process of progressive political liberalization. The Chinese authorities are well aware that society is dynamic and if you wish to remain in power, you should adapt to said changes. Another option which has been done in other Confucian societies such as Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, is that they implement a democratic regime in China. Along these lines, it is possible that within a few decades, a Chinese Nationalist Party could arrive to directly compete with the Communist Party of China within a unified China.

However, since we don’t have a crystal ball which allows us to see the future of China, we can only wait and see what future awaits the Chinese. In order for a more liberal and free China to emerge, two things will need to happen: on one hand Chinese authorities will have to accept the possibility that their society demands a regime change which does not guarantee the perpetuation of power of the Communist Party of China. On the other hand, the West may have to accept the reality that the Chinese society will want a system of governance different than our own.

Will we all be okay with that idea?

Mario Esteban is head researcher on the Asia-Pacific for the Real Institute Elcano and professor of East Asian studies at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid | @wizma9. He also teaches  a class on China in the IE Master in International Relations.

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