China’s progress toward an open society ended when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) slaughtered at least hundreds, if not thousands, of peaceful demonstrators in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 3-4, 1989. The crackdown left a lasting stain on the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC), despite the regime’s unrelenting efforts to whitewash history and suppress collective memory.
Three decades later, the consequences of the CPC’s decision to crush the protest have become even harder to escape. Looking back, it is clear that the tragedy altered the course of Chinese history decisively, foreclosing the possibility of a gradual and peaceful transition to a more liberal and democratic political order.
It is worth remembering that the decade before the Tiananmen massacre was filled with a sense of possibility. China had a choice. It could revert to the more orthodox Stalinist – but not Maoist – model that had prevailed in the 1950s, a path favored by the regime’s conservatives. It could embrace gradual reforms to develop a market economy, the rule of law, and a more open political process, as moderate liberals wanted. Or it could emulate Taiwan and South Korea’s neo-authoritarian model by modernizing the economy under one-party rule, as Deng Xiaoping had long advocated.
These three factions – conservatives, reformers, and neo-authoritarian modernisers – were in a stalemate before the PLA’s tanks and troops entered the square. The massacre, the fall of the Berlin Wall later that year (by sheer coincidence), and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 changed that: only the neo-authoritarian option remained. While the political purge following the Tiananmen crackdown had decimated the liberals, the conservatives – demoralized and panicking after the fall of communism – could offer no viable survival strategy.
And yet, while the stage had been cleared for the neo-authoritarians, by early 1992, when an 87-year-old Deng embarked on his historic tour of southern China in an effort to save the regime and redeem himself for the crackdown, the neo-authoritarians and the conservatives had merged. While no single label accurately describes the post-1989 order, its defining features were pragmatism, crony capitalism, and strategic restraint.
Pragmatism, in particular, served the CPC well in the years after Tiananmen. At home, a flexible approach to policy allowed the regime to pursue pro-growth experiments, co-opt social elites, and respond to challenges to its authority, while Deng’s dictum to keep a “low profile” became the guiding principle of China’s foreign policy. The CPC continued to view the West as an existential ideological threat, which it countered by ceaselessly nurturing nationalist sentiment. But China’s leaders knew that they were free-riding on the liberal international order, and thus studiously avoided any real conflict with the United States.
Meanwhile, on the economic front, the CPC pursued aggressive market reforms and opened up the country even more than it had in the 1980s, but without loosening its grip on critical levers of the economy, such as finance and state-owned enterprises.
For about two decades, Deng’s survival strategy was wildly successful. The so-called Chinese economic miracle boosted the CPC’s legitimacy and soon made China the world’s second-largest economy. But that post-Tiananmen order suffered an abrupt and premature death in late 2012, when Xi Jinping became the CPC’s general secretary. By restoring strongman rule, reviving Leninism, re-imposing authoritarian social control, and, above all, directly challenging the US, Xi has done away with the pragmatism, elite power-sharing, and strategic restraint that defined the post-1989 era.
In fairness, though, Deng’s neo-authoritarian model always had fatal flaws that made its demise inevitable. Deng’s own aversion to political reform left the regime bereft of mechanisms to prevent the return of a Mao Zedong-like figure.
In a way, the CPC simply got lucky with Deng’s two immediate successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, who were checked by strong rivals and couldn’t revive personalistic rule even if they had wanted to. Because economic development had spawned a virulent form of crony capitalism, most elites presided over murky patronage networks within the regime, and were thus vulnerable to “anti-corruption” purges.
Under Xi, the political gulf between China and the West has continued to widen, even as economic integration has deepened. The CPC’s method of stoking Chinese nationalism to burnish its own legitimacy proved spectacularly effective, and its bulging coffers underwrote the development of a vast repressive apparatus, including the infamous Great Firewall. If China had not acquired so much wealth and power, these other developments might not have mattered. But by reverting to hard authoritarianism, doubling down on state capitalism, and giving free rein to its geopolitical ambitions, the CPC has finally turned the West against China.
In many ways, today’s China is starting to resemble that of the 1950s: the CPC is led by a strongman who openly calls on the party “not to forget its original commitment” (buwang chuxin). Ideological indoctrination has returned with a vengeance; the US has again become the enemy, while Russia has re-emerged as a friend.
After a 30-year detour, China is headed in the direction that those responsible for the Tiananmen Square crackdown would have wanted. The country is in the grip of a hardline Leninist regime that is fortified by a hybrid economy and bent on ruthless repression.
That is the lasting tragedy of Tiananmen.