10. Tiananmen and its Aftermath, 1989–1999


The dramatic events of the final years of the twentieth century, both within and beyond China’s borders, left deep marks on Chinese politics and profoundly altered the country’s place in the global order. When 1989 began, the Soviet Union was still intact. Communist parties were in control of more than a dozen other nations, including many that were allied with Moscow and located in Eastern and Central Europe. By the mid-1990s, however, after events such as Solidarity’s rise, the Velvet Revolution, and the Soviet Union’s implosion, China’s Communist Party was left as one of the only Marxist-Leninist organizations still in control and the only one helming a major world power. This global shift came in the wake of widespread unrest in China in 1989: protests rocked Tibet in the far west in March and then demonstrations focusing on corruption and political reform brought crowds ranging from tens of thousands to a million into the streets of scores of cities between mid-April and early June. Its near death experience and the demise of many kindred organizations around the world encouraged the CCP to retrench. In almost every aspect of Chinese life, conservative tendencies dominated in the immediate wake of the protests, during which martial law had been imposed in Tibet and then later, much more surprisingly, in China’s capital, and Zhao Ziyang had been placed under house arrest for being too ready to consider compromising with the demonstrators. Replacing Zhao as Deng’s heir apparent was Jiang Zemin (1926–), a less liberally minded figure who had served as Shanghai’s mayor and as Party Secretary of that metropolis. China at the close of the twentieth century was a rare outlier in the Communist bloc’s widespread shift from Leninist one-party rule and tight control of daily life, joined only in its apparent failure to change by a handful of other, much smaller countries. But any sense of the 1990s as simply a time of stasis was illusory.

In important ways, the country was transformed, and not just in minor ways, during each part of the decade that followed the 1989 upheavals so often associated in the West with the term “Tiananmen” (in honor of the Beijing site of the biggest rallies) and in Chinese with the term liusi (literally 6/4, standing for the date in June when hundreds of protesters and bystanders were killed in the capital). Economically, Deng recommitted himself in 1992 to continuing with his experiments in combining market forces and state control. In a series of speeches that year, described as part of his “Southern Tour” since he made the most important ones in the Pearl River Delta region, he also doubled down on promises he made early in the Reform era to work to open China to the outside world. His key allies in these moves included Jiang, who would break precedent by remaining Deng’s successor throughout the rest of that Long March veteran’s lifetime. Jiang joined with his aged patron on these calls and also worked with him in allowing personal freedoms to expand in many realms; the state pulled back from trying to micromanage such things as the jobs assigned to college graduates and even the people those students could date and music they could listen to.

The country’s very borders even shifted during the post-1989 decade. On July 1, 1997, a date eagerly anticipated by Deng, though he died just before it arrived, Hong Kong changed from being a British Crown Colony to a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the PRC. The pomp and circumstance associated with this handover of power, in which Prince Charles took part as Britain’s representative, was watched by television viewers around the world. The date’s arrival was a cause for considerable anxiety in Hong Kong itself, in spite of Beijing’s claim that under a policy called “One Country, Two Systems,” the territory would be allowed to be governed in a distinctive way for half-a-century, its residents able to enjoy greater freedom of speech and of the press and more democracy than those in mainland cities. The handover was celebrated, though, by crowds in Beijing who gathered during the months leading up to July 1 to see the time until it arrived ticked off on a giant countdown clock that the government had erected in Tiananmen Square. Two years later, in December 1999, Macau, a former Portuguese colony, was also incorporated into the PRC as an SAR, albeit with somewhat less attention. That Pearl River Delta city then began its curious transition, despite now being within a Communist Party-run country, into a city associated more than anything else with gambling, which soon earned it the nickname of “Las Vegas of the East,” in honor of the Nevada city whose take from casinos it would first rival and then, early in the twenty-first century, surpass.

The 1990s also saw important transitions that were unrelated to official policies. One of these was a search for something to believe in among those who felt a spiritual or emotional void. Disenchantment with the state, frustration with the way protest surges were crushed, and other factors led to rising interest in Christianity, a religion to which a number of former 1989 activists converted, and homegrown syncretic sects, including Falun Gong, which was led by Li Hongzhi, a charismatic figure who some followers believed could accomplish miracles.

The period lasting from 1989 to 1999 was, as this brief survey suggests, an eventful decade, and there is much more worth knowing about it beyond the fact that dramatic protests and brutal acts of repression took place in its opening year. To understand what did and did not change, though, it is crucial above all to make sense of the drama of 1989. This is not just because the Chinese events of that year are fascinating and consequential for their own sake. It is also because examining them is a crucial first step in explaining the domestic policies and cultural shifts of the final years of the last century—as well as the things that were not altered in the 1990s, such as the government’s limitation on the creation of any form of formal opposition group that could threaten its monopoly on power.

The wave of protests and the violent methods that ended them—which included not just the killings in Beijing very late at night on June 3 and early on June 4 but also a second massacre in Chengdu soon after the Beijing one, as well as mass arrests of protesters across the country—laid the groundwork for a government–society détente on big questions about how political and economic reform should be linked. These questions, which had been raised by the 1989 demonstrations, and before that by the 1986–7 protests and the speeches and writings by figures such as Fang Lizhi, as the previous chapter shows, were taken off the table, as Deng and those who shared power with him until 1997 and then succeeded him made the following case to the Chinese people: We will foster policies that help more of you share in the spoils of economic development, if you will desist from pushing for further political rights. This “deal,” widely understood if never articulated in such bald terms, meant immense government investments in the economy, kick starting it after the stalls of the late 1980s. Foreign investment was courted, including from Taiwan, and Deng pushed for China to gain entrance in the World Trade Organization (this was granted in 2001). Beijing launched large-scale infrastructural projects, from the rapid transformation of sleepy Shenzhen into a major metropolis to the remaking of the Shanghai skyline. This started to give Pudong (East Shanghai) its current futuristic feel and was seen by some as a sign of the increased influence in Beijing of Jiang and other figures with ties to that city, such as Zhu Rongji (1928–), another former Shanghai mayor elevated to a top central post after the 1989 protests.

These policies laid the basis for the incredible economic boom of the early twenty-first century. Not surprisingly, this growth had ugly downsides: pollution, the depopulation of the countryside, a staggering gap between rich and poor, and a state that staked its legitimacy on maintaining high levels of economic growth rather than being responsive to the people. By the end of the 1990s, the problems associated with rapid development and continuing if shifting forms of authoritarian rule were clear, if not as widespread in scope and as impossible to ignore as they are today. Yet growth also meant many more opportunities for many more people, not just economically but also culturally. Foreign TV and movies were widely viewed, growing numbers of Chinese had access to the young Internet, restrictions were eased on topics for discussion that did not directly link up with calls for change within China, and increasing numbers of Chinese had the chance to study or travel abroad.

Even as China was opening up, the legacies of the government’s concerns over the protests shaped political culture. Most notably, the state encouraged a resurgence of patriotic education in China’s schools that fueled a renewed nationalism that emphasized moments in the past when Western countries and Japan had infringed on Chinese sovereignty or harmed Chinese people. This nationalism focused on moments of “national humiliation,” an increasingly common term in historical works of the time, though one whose lineage goes back many decades, and was bolstered by the international reaction to the 1989 protests. The response to the June 4th Massacre included many harshly worded editorials and opinion pieces in major world newspapers, some strong condemnation by world leaders, and seven countries joining together to impose economic sanctions on Beijing. This last action inspired a revealing comment by Deng. In April 1990, during a visit to Thailand, while speaking to Dhanin Chearavanont, a Thai businessman of partially Chinese descent, Deng said, in a statement that would appear in his selected works under the title “We Are Working to Revitalize the Chinese Nation,” that as a “Chinese” person who knew his country’s history, when he heard of many nations banding together against his country, “my immediate association was to 1900, when the allied forces of eight powers invaded China.”

The period’s resurgent nationalism, expressed in many forms—including a 1996 book, China Can Say No, that was briefly banned for staking out too extreme a line, but sold well and inspired a series of knock-offs with similar titles that played on the country’s ability to stand up assertively to countries that had previously pushed it around—sat alongside a dramatic growth by the end of the decade in the number of foreigners living in China. It also coexisted with an expanding sense of China’s place in the global community. This sensitive and nascent consciousness of China’s power led to occasional outbursts over real or perceived international slights, which the authorities either sought to tamp down or at least steer into more manageable channels, due to fears that protesting crowds expressing anger at foreign actions might bring up domestic issues as well. The decade ended with examples of both sorts of responses. In 1998, when anti-Chinese riots took place in Indonesia, angry editorials ran in the state-run media, but students who sought to take to the streets to express their outrage were kept from doing so. In 1999, by contrast, when during NATO actions in Yugoslavia the United States dropped five bombs on the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese, the result was different. The United States insisted that the bombing had been an accident, the result of using out-of-date maps. The perception in China—one that steadfastly remains today—was that the Chinese embassy had been intentionally targeted. Passionate protests erupted in several Chinese cities, as well as among students studying abroad in some communities outside of China.

The most dramatic moment came when angry crowds gathered outside the US and British embassies in Beijing and several consulates in other cities. It was an inauspicious end to the decade, but reflected the growing pains of a China re-emerging after the isolation and fear that followed the events of 1989. It also revealed how divergent ideas about China’s past can be. When the American ambassador was pinned inside his Beijing residence, USA Today likened the actions by angry youths armed with paint balls to those of the Boxers, asking why China had learned so little in the last century. One Chinese magazine, however, saw a different parallel to 1900, more in step with the comments by Deng quoted above: Western powers were still often meddling in the affairs of other countries and Chinese lives were sometimes lost due to this. Another contrast relating to history was that the Western press often emphasized how different the 1999 protests were from those of 1989, during which some demonstrators had quoted Americans ranging from Patrick Henry to Martin Luther King, Jr, with approval; Chinese commentators, by contrast, tended to avoid all mention of things that had happened a decade previously and tried to place the demonstrators in a lineage of patriotic youth exemplified above all by the May Fourth Movement of 1919.

The 1989 protests

The events of 1989 deserve detailed attention for many reasons, including because they are a relatively rare case of a major watershed moment in Chinese history about which many general readers in the West have a good deal of knowledge. Or, rather, think they do. In fact, what many know is a version of events that misleadingly reduces a complex social movement to a simple drama: students stood off against soldiers in Beijing in order to champion democratizing reforms; the international media watched helplessly on June 4 as massive numbers of people were slaughtered in Tiananmen Square; and an iconic photograph of a student standing in front of a tank captured the bravery as well as ultimate failure of those who fought for change. This narrative gets some key details wrong: for example, it is likely that very few people, perhaps none at all, died right in Tiananmen Square itself in early June. The main killing fields were on nearby streets, where hundreds died, rather than on the vast plaza itself, and automatic weapon fire rather than tanks claimed the most victims. Moreover, the young man who stood before the tanks was almost certainly a worker rather than a student. In addition, the conventional version of the story is often accompanied by not quite accurate bits of information. Democracy was not, for example, the central demand of the protestors. Instead, they were motivated by anger over growing corruption, by the increasing economic volatility that resulted from the 1980s economic reforms, and by the government’s insistence that the protestors were ruffians and troublemakers rather than concerned citizens. In general, this simplified Western narrative diminishes the complexity of the protest, while admittedly remaining much closer to the truth than the “Big Lie” promoted by the Chinese government, which wrongly insists that there were no innocent victims of a massacre (just some “thugs” and “counter-revolutionary” rioters restrained by soldiers who showed great reserve).

Placing 1989’s events into a more complex framework than either the standard Western or “Big Lie” narratives allow is critical for making sense of what would follow. For throughout the 1990s, many actions that the government took were designed in part to minimize the likelihood of a recurrence of the protests that rocked China’s cities in 1989, and also to help guard against a Chinese variant of the even more obviously consequential struggles that swept through Eastern and Central Europe between that year, when Communist Party rule ended peacefully in places such as Poland and with violence in Romania, and 1991, when the Soviet Union imploded. The upheaval of 1989, even though it was crushed before effecting any institutional political change, has had lasting repercussions, affecting everything from the kinds of public relations and propaganda campaigns the government has launched to the calculus used to determine which kinds of dissenting opinions and actions are treated lightly and which responded to with brutal measures.

One crucial point about the Tiananmen Uprising that is often overlooked in the West is that it did not come out of nowhere. It was a sequel of sorts to the earlier wave of campus protests discussed in Chapter 9 and was rooted in a complex mix of frustrations and desires that had been building up for years. The youths involved in the 1989 protests, like those who had marched in 1986–7, wanted more personal freedom and were frustrated with various aspects of university life, from compulsory calisthenics to the low quality of cafeteria food. They also wanted campus leaders to be chosen via open elections rather than being handpicked by the Party, a desire evinced as far back as 1980, during a still earlier wave of protests that some who were professors in 1989 had participated in during their own student days.

There were some scattered protests in 1988, which kept alive the new patterns of action of 1986–7. In addition, in 1988 and early 1989, reform-minded students and professors on various campuses banded together to hold small-scale gatherings focused on discussing progressive ideas, sometimes known as “salons.” But the resurgence of a true movement did not come until mid-April of 1989. There were plans in the works for a demonstration on May 4 of that year, when the seventieth anniversary of China’s greatest student movement arrived, but a fluke event jump-started the struggle ahead of time. This was the April 15, 1989, death of Hu Yaobang, who had become a hero to the students when he was criticized and demoted for taking a soft line on the 1986–7 protests. Hu’s death opened a window of opportunity for the students, since when he died he was still an official, just not one with a top position, so the state could hardly prevent people from gathering to mourn his passing. The students turned the occasion into an act of protest when, alongside expressions of sadness, they began saying things like what a shame it was when good men died, while bad ones lived on and stayed in control.

It was in Beijing that students first began to memorialize Hu. Students from Peking University organized students from campuses around the capital to hold a demonstration on April 17—a demonstration that grew into successive days of protest marches and then into the famous student hunger strike. While students should remain at the center of any account of 1989, in fact educated youths were quickly encompassed by a much broader group of supportive citizens drawn from workers’ unions across Beijing. Workers and other Beijing residents marched with the students, provided the necessary medical, logistical, and sanitary support for the crowds in Tiananmen Square, and kept military forces at bay, blocking roads when convoys eventually attempted to enter the city.

We know the most about the Beijing protests because they were the largest and, most importantly, because the international media, in town to cover talks between Deng and Mikhail Gorbachev, was on hand to beam images to the world of the events that took place in China’s capital. But demonstrations took place in cities around the country, from Guangzhou in the south to Shenyang in the northeast and Chengdu in the west, and, as the weeks of protest went by, demonstrators from the provinces trickled into Beijing, reinforcing the lagging crowds of hunger strikers and their supporters. Given the cross-class make-up of the crowds at the biggest marches, the majority of the hundreds of people killed in early June were not educated youths. Some students died, to be sure. Yet the majority of those slain, both in Beijing and in Chengdu, were laboring men and women and other ordinary city-dwellers.

Another important step toward clarifying the story of what occurred in 1989 involves looking closely at the messages protestors carried into the streets. In popular Western accounts of the movement, it is sometimes simply said that protesting students called for “democracy,” pure and simple, and many foreign observers at the time speculated that a “revolution” was under way in China. In reality there was much more emphasis on the streets on the evils of corruption in general and the selfishness and nepotistic tendencies of particular leaders in particular than on a desire for elections. Anger over government malfeasance and an economy where the fruits of development were not being shared fairly was the driving force behind the protests, and protestors wanted change on these matters and framed their struggle as one to save the nation, a time-honored theme in student-led struggles from early in the twentieth century. Student leaders, some of them privileged children of high-ranking Party members, did not want to overthrow the government and reiterated this in their publications, as they knew they had to in order to maintain the movement’s legitimacy and to minimize the chances of harsh reprisals, a reaction that this strategy did not avert but may well have delayed.

Students and intellectuals, while stopping well short of calling for revolution, did express support for Hu Yaobang’s calls for “democratization and reform of the political system” and demanded a political system that would live up to international ideals as well as the rights enshrined in the Chinese constitution. In the words of one handbill from professors at Beijing Normal University, “the citizens’ basic civil rights . . . must be protected. . . . Efforts opposing political democratization under the pretext of ‘not being suitable to China’s conditions’ enjoy no popular support and are extremely harmful.” But document after document from 1989 reinforced that protestors were calling on the government to change, not demanding its removal, making it in some ways much more like the Prague Spring of 1968, which ended with tanks being sent from Moscow to quell unrest, than Prague 1989, which culminated in the Velvet Revolution that brought former dissident Vaclav Havel to power.

By mid-May 1989, the protests had garnered a broad base of support not just from other students, but also workers, journalists, and members of the military. People of all backgrounds marched in the streets. That support peaked after students staged a hunger strike, an act that had special potency since lavish banquets had become a symbol of the selfish behavior of officials. Tapping into a long-standing Chinese tradition of educated youths laying their bodies on the line to protect the nation, the hunger strikers were seen by many as having proved that they were far more deeply committed to the good of the country than were Deng Xiaoping and other Party oligarchs.

The mid-May swing of popular sentiment to the students was obvious in a shocking shift in domestic press coverage. Usually tightly controlled by the government and generally hewing to a government line, journalists were broadly supportive of the student movement, marching with their work units throughout April and May 1989. During three days of so-called “press freedom” from May 17 to May 19 negative coverage of the government surged. This coverage signaled to society that the government’s controls were briefly loosened. And it was during this period, we now know, that serious discussions were taking place among the upper tiers of CCP leadership as they tried to figure out how to proceed. The government’s delicate position was reinforced by an awkward meeting on May 18 between the imperious Premier Li Peng (1928–) and the leaders of the fasting students in the Great Hall of the People, a meeting broadcast on national television. The student representatives included several of the main faces of the student movement, including the bookish history major from Peking University, Wang Dan, who had been active in democracy “salons” early in the year, and the charismatic and outspoken Wu’er Kaixi, who attended the meeting in pajamas (he claimed to have come directly from being treated at the hospital) and interrupted Li’s initial statement to harangue the Premier.

This mid-May moment of openness and failed dialogue was a critical turning point for the movement, and part of what made it nationally resonant. Broad support for the students among workers, the Party’s traditional powerbase, was key in further mainstreaming student demands, and also marked a challenge to government rule. Workers were particularly numerous in marches, drawn to the cause in part by the fact that, though students made democracy one of their watchwords, they spent as much energy attacking the leadership for growing corrupt and failing to spread the fruits of economic development broadly enough. This was a message that echoed powerfully throughout Chinese society at a time when inflation was rampant and it often seemed that the only people growing rich were the children of top leaders and those with high-level official connections. It was very probably this broad cross-class coalition taking up the students’ demands that made those within the Party leadership realize that this protest was unlike that of 1986/87, though an appropriate response seemed yet unclear.

On the morning of May 20, martial law was declared in Beijing. The previous evening, in advance of the declaration, troops from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) attempted to enter the outskirts of the city, with plans to march toward the demonstrations at the city center. Ordinary Beijingers flooded the streets, surrounding the transport vehicles and blocking their advance. They kept the troops stuck in place, bringing them food and drink and lecturing them about citizens’ rights and the meaning of the demonstrations, for the next four days. Finally, on May 23, the troops were withdrawn, to firecrackers and jubilant celebrations. Also on the evening of May 19, Zhao Ziyang visited Tiananmen, pleading with the students to end their hunger strike (which they did). He began his address to them, “Students, we came too late.” His words foreshadowed the violence to come.

After withdrawing the troops, the government planned its next move. On June 3, the troops were ordered back in. Having learned a lesson from the failed advance, their superiors ordered some of them to dress in civilian clothes and go clandestinely, on foot, bus, or subway, to the center of the city. They were followed, later in the evening, by tanks and troops armed with AK-47s and other combat weaponry who wended their way toward Tiananmen along the main thoroughfares of the city. The mood of the city had changed. Beijingers attempted to block the path of advance, dragging roadblocks and even buses into major thoroughfares. Some soldiers were dragged from their buses and beaten or burned to death inside armored vehicles and tanks that were torched. In the months and years to come, the Chinese government would focus on these attacks, using them to bolster a narrative of an out-of-control group of hooligans, but indisputably, the majority of those who died were civilians. Troops raked protesting crowds and the buildings behind them with gunfire. Some people died standing peaceably on the sidewalks; some people died in their own kitchens. Hospitals throughout Beijing were overwhelmed with the dead and wounded.

By the morning of June 4, however, Tiananmen Square was empty. The small core of protestors who had remained there had voted, on the evening of June 3, to depart peacefully from the square. It remains a matter of debate, even among those harshly critical of the government, whether any protesters were killed in the square itself in early June. But the last protestors to leave were quickly, once again, government quarry. Public arrests and trials followed. Some went into hiding, sometimes for months, and eventually escaped from China. This was the case, for example, with Wu’er Kaixi, who as a Uighur was the only protest leader not of the Han ethnicity, and Chai Ling, the best known female activist. Others, such as Wang Dan and leading labor organizer Han Dongfang, spent years in jail.

The Chinese government, meanwhile, began to spin an alternate story of the protests, insisting that there was no massacre at all—a view of the events of 1989 that has been labeled, quite appropriately, the “Big Lie.” The government maintains that the event was simply an effort by soldiers—who showed great restraint when dealing with crowds and sometimes lost their lives in the process—to put an end to a “counter-revolutionary riot” that had disrupted life in China’s capital, threatened the stability of the nation, and if left unchecked could have sent the country spiraling back into the kind of disorder that had characterized the Cultural Revolution era. This papers over the reality of the protests. The “Big Lie” narrative proved useful, however, as the government reshaped the story of the protests and attempted to put in place an architecture that would prevent another 1989 from ever happening again.

The domestic legacies of 1989

Economic prosperity and slow political reform were the government’s peace offering to angry and discontented Chinese in the years following 1989. In the wake of the crackdown, the government insisted that a strong state was critical for China. Consider, for example, how well events of the 1990s fit in with the regime’s assertion that China’s national interest was best served by a strong state and its emphasis on stability as something to be valued. For Beijing propagandists trying to argue for this point of view, the Yugoslavian descent into chaos was a godsend. The collapse of order in that part of Southeastern Europe allowed the CCP to suggest, if never in overt terms, that no matter how dissatisfied someone might be to live in a Communist land, there was a less appealing alternative out there: living in a post-Communist one like the unstable and war-torn region that Tito had once governed. Furthermore, after NATO forces intervened to protect Kosovo from Slobodan Milosevic’s brand of authoritarian ethnic nationalism, the CCP was able to claim that a post-Communist era involved not just economic collapse and widespread violence, but a loss of independence—an especially sore point in a nation that had long suffered from imperialist encroachments.

The year 1989 presented a major challenge to the CCP that many thought it only barely managed to withstand. The Party survived, but only, as we have seen, after Deng Xiaoping and the other oligarchs of his generation took a series of drastic steps. They ordered the June 4th Massacre; they carried out a campaign of mass arrests; and they demoted Zhao Ziyang and placed him under house arrest. The other key event of 1989 was the rise to power of Jiang Zemin, the Shanghai leader who proved his skills to the oligarchs by taking a firm stand against the protests and restoring order in his city with a limited use of force.

The government worked hard throughout the 1990s to address the two primary drivers of the 1989 protests, if sometimes in a limited way and with occasional backsliding. First, the government recognized that economic conditions exacerbated popular unrest, and implemented an ambitious project of economic growth. Second, the government slowly took steps toward increased local self-governance. The efforts stopped far short of popular rule and they are not rights universally enjoyed in China. Some analysts felt these efforts were just window dressing. While there was optimism that these localized changes might have broader implications for civil rights in China, such hopes faded in the 2010s as the government turned to increasingly authoritarian means of imposing local order. Even so, it is important to acknowledge the power of the 1989 protestors’ demands, resonating through the decades as the government formulates policies to maintain its control.

The government investment in economic growth in the 1990s was an acknowledgment that economic instability had been the underlying driver for the broad-based coalition that mobilized in 1989. The late 1980s marked the end of a decade of economic reform, but for many people—and particularly for young people—the greatest impact of the reforms had been greater insecurity, as the government closed government-run businesses, phased out guaranteed jobs for college graduates, and began to curtail the basic social security and social services that had sustained families during the Mao years. By 1989, some of the inequities of China’s marketization were also increasingly apparent. For instance, although many cities had adopted new regulations in the mid-1980s to expand migrant legal status in the cities, nevertheless migrant access to social services remained limited. And while in the late 1980s growing urban–rural divides had in fact been reversed and many rural residents were doing better economically than poor urban dwellers, all the same a yawning gap opened between rural and urban access to social services like education and healthcare. Moreover, as sociologist Deborah Davis wrote in 1989, “the Chinese education system was more fragmented, less egalitarian and more stratified than it had been since the late 1950s.” For Chinese of all backgrounds, the late 1980s were thus a moment of increasing insecurity as the economic system and social safety nets were renegotiated and reshaped.

During this period of late 1980s upheaval, while many Chinese had yet to feel the impacts of the economic changes happening in major coastal cities and the handful of special economic zones, they were getting increasing glimpses of the world beyond China and coming face-to-face with the material and cultural discrepancies between China and more developed countries. Student leader Wu’er Kaixi reflected later that students wanted Nike shoes—and that this desire to participate in the increasingly global material youth culture was a strong motivator for students. And, in fact, the student movement itself became a consolidator of a new Chinese youth culture, highlighting for youth across the country, for instance, the music of singer Cui Jian, whose ballad “Nothing to my Name” became the unofficial theme song of the movement.

The government met these tensions head-on with an unofficial “deal”: economic growth, increasing cultural openness, but continued limitations on speech. The economic reforms that Deng Xiaoping committed to in 1992 sought to create a “socialist market economy.” Throughout the 1990s the government built a new financial structure to undergird the growing economy, which had recovered quickly from the brief dip it had suffered in the wake of 1989. Stock markets were established in Shanghai and Shenzhen in 1990, the number of shareholding companies was increased, price controls were reduced, and a new tax system was implemented. The government significantly downsized the state enterprise sector in the late 1990s, with an eye to efficiency and profitability. The result of these shifts was a massive increase in state budgetary revenues. Though most of the effects of the cash that this has sloshed into government coffers have been felt since the turn of the millennium, even in the late 1990s there was a growing amount of money available to local official bodies to reinvest in development projects. Above all, the new economy reflected the same approach that government elites took in the political realm (discussed in greater detail below), one strongly informed by the experiences of 1989: that greater centralization was a good thing. However, they did so now with a sharp eye to the way that economic instability could lead to political instability. Above all, economic growth was seen as a way to ensure political stability and the replication and continued control of the CCP.

Many people profited from the new money circulating in the Chinese economy, taking advantage of new investments and new opportunities. A middle class began to emerge in China’s cities, demanding new educational opportunities for their children, more secure property rights, and other changes. The children who were making their way toward high school and college in the 1990s—those growing up as part of the so-called “post-1980s generation” (balinghou)—had no memory of a pre-economic reform China, were almost entirely (at least in urban areas) only children, and were widely observed to be politically and spiritually disconnected, focused entirely on performative success. In contrast, their parents’ generation—the once sent-down youth who had sustained the Cultural Revolution—experienced nostalgia for the nicer aspects of the tumultuous period of their youth. A few “Cultural Revolution”-themed restaurants were even opened, to the horror of those who remembered the period as one of widespread and indiscriminate violence and a paranoid search for internal “enemies.”

Yet the economic growth left out a lot of people. In particular, the government found one of the 1989 protestors’ main objections—official corruption—a more intractable problem than economic growth or cultural openness, and one that contributed to both real and perceived inequalities. As increasing amounts of money poured into the Chinese economy, Beijing found it harder and harder to monitor local level corruption. In the new millennium, majorities of Chinese would, when polled, consistently identify official corruption as one of the biggest problems facing China. Those issues were rooted in the corruption of the 1990s, when Internet muckraking was not yet available to make corruption widely known.

The reading public was shocked in 2003 when a husband-and-wife team of investigative journalists named Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao published an exposé of local-level official corruption in rural Anhui, one of the poorest provinces in the country. The reported incidents took place in the 1990s and laid bare the brutality and pettiness of village- and county-level corruption as directed at its poorest and least connected citizens, where local officials piled on taxes and surcharges and anyone who dared to protest was set upon by hired thugs. Will the Boat Sink the Water (in Chinese, titled simply Zhongguo nongmin diaocha or An Investigation of the Chinese Peasant) was banned but circulated widely, stunning an urban reading audience with the incredible disparities between their growing wealth and opportunity and the profound limitations faced by rural Chinese. When one of the authors of this chapter taught the book in class in the United States a few years ago, several middle class students who hailed from metropolises in Anhui province were moved to tears during class discussions—their reaction, like so many Chinese at the time of the study’s publication, a mix of horror and humiliation at the growing inequality built into the system.

All of the elements of inequality just described would worsen in the new century, but no problem of wealth and growth would be quite as apparent as environmental pollution. For foreigners, Chinese pollution has mainly been a concern of the post-2000 period, but the roots of those problems were laid in the unregulated growth of the 1990s. When President Bill Clinton visited China in 1998, one Philadelphia Inquirer article opined that his trip would reinforce the idea that “China’s environmental problems are so enormous that they are not only degrading the quality of life in China, but are threatening the rest of the world.”

At the time, air pollution in China’s cities was beginning to garner attention (the terrible air quality in China’s cities has drawn even wider attention more recently, with discussion in 2013 and 2014 of Beijing’s “airpocalypse”). Reports were beginning to filter out of the incredible pollution in the waterways, with stories of “dead” rivers, and increases in cancers, and acid-rain falling across China. Though there was small-scale organizing around environmental issues in the 1990s, most Chinese saw the pollution as an unfortunate but necessary component of economic development and industrialization. There would be an upsurge in protests relating to polluted air and water in the coming decades, but in the 1990s, it was different sorts of issues that triggered the most significant forms of collective action.

Protest and control since 1989

More social and cultural freedoms and greater economic security did not mean that the Chinese people did not question the country’s direction or policies. Different groups registered discontent in different ways, from ethnic uprisings in the West to a growing number of small-scale protests against local policies. Chinese citizens continued, albeit with great caution, to test the speech limits the government imposed. The government, meanwhile, polished methods of dealing with discontent and protest with the goal of never facing another broad-based social challenge like 1989 again. These efforts would be increasingly important by the end of the decade, as Internet access exploded in China and the government had to think increasingly creatively to keep the lid on speech and political organizing. For most of the 1990s, however, they were dealing with a media environment much like what they had faced in 1989.

China’s image abroad in the 1990s was often that of a thuggish state readily willing to take harsh measures to silence those who disagreed with it—an image for which a key reference remained June 4th but that was reinforced powerfully by several later events, especially the campaign against Falun Gong that began in 1999 and periodic crackdowns in Tibet and Xinjiang. The pattern that began to take shape in the 1990s has never, however, been one of unrelenting and uninterrupted stifling of all forms of dissent, nor complete repression of protest. It has rather been something more multifaceted. Periods of relative loosening and tightening of control have tended to follow one another, with the authorities using harsh measures to suppress some kinds of unrest, especially when protests involve sophisticated levels of organization (the case with Falun Gong) or border regions (the case with Tibet and Xinjiang)—albeit, they have gone to extraordinary lengths to limit awareness of these actions. On the other hand, the authorities have taken a less draconian stance toward others sorts of resistance, including strikes at individual plants and factories. The central government has even at times punished local officials who have been criticized by protesters. So the mix of factors that determines how exactly the government responds to a particular protest is far from straightforward. And in the post-1989 period, the state’s toolbox of suppression techniques has broadened considerably, particularly its deployment of soft power methods that prevent the necessity of force.

The calculus that tips the official response toward or away from outright repression is complex. Equally complicated is the decision about whether there will be a complete, or merely partial effort to block information about what has occurred. Memories of the cross-class coalition of 1989 are obviously critical here. Because of what happened during the Tiananmen Uprising and an awareness of the importance of cross-class protests in places like Poland in the 1980s, movements involving members of more than one occupational or economic group are seen as particularly dangerous. While the spread of protests from city to city in 1989 was clearly worrying, it appears that the leadership felt particularly threatened—and the tone of government rhetoric toward and official tolerance of the protests correspondingly changed in response—as the make-up of the crowds shifted in mid-May 1989 from primarily students and other intellectuals to a broader coalition of workers, urban residents, and young activists. Not only did this mark 1989’s events as distinct from the protests of 1986/87 but it signaled to the Party the social spread of the students’ circumscribed demands to a wider expression of dissatisfaction with the Party’s leadership on economic and social matters.

Another key factor is how geographically dispersed dissenters are: tightly localized events—ranging from small-scale tax strikes to neighborhood discussions of new chemical plants—tend to be treated more leniently. A third factor that influences the severity of the regime’s response, both toward protesters and the ability of domestic and foreign journalists to cover events, is how well organized the participants in an outburst seem to be. The less evident careful coordination is, the more likely the response will be to mollify crowds, rather than strike terror into them—and the more likely that reporters will be able to cover the event.

Two additional things are worth noting here. First, geography helps determine whether a hard or soft line will be taken. Force tends to be used much more swiftly when unrest occurs in frontier zones, where large percentages of the population do not belong to the majority “Han” group, and where economic grievances and anger associated with ethnic and religious divides make for a particularly volatile combination. Recent protests in these regions, such as the Tibetan uprisings in February and March 2008 as well as on-going self-immolations and corresponding protests since 2009 and the Urumqi riots of July 2009, drew swift, harsh responses.

Second, the regime’s relatively lenient treatment of some protests could be interpreted as a sign of self-confidence. Political scientist Kevin O’Brien has made a persuasive case that it is a mistake to treat reports that many protests occur as indicators of weakness. It may in fact be a sign of regime strength that the government is ready, not just to admit that protests are occurring, but sometimes even to allow people to let off steam without responding harshly.

One of the regime’s campaigns of repression that has most baffled foreign observers is the quick moves it took to crush the Falun Gong sect in April 1999, and the resoluteness of its policy toward the group ever since. When the crackdown began, the group in question had never engaged in a violent protest, and seemed—to outsiders at least—to be simply a spiritual movement. Led by a man named Li Hongzhi, whose admittedly unusual ideas include claims to powers that many Westerners would consider akin to magical and a version of “scientific facts” many would dub superstitions, it nonetheless did not have a political agenda. A self-described “Buddhist” sect adopted by adherents seeking inner peace and spiritual enlightenment, Falun Gong prescribes physical and breathing exercises, techniques typical of the traditional Chinese art of qigong, which is meant to help the practitioner cultivate morality and virtue by “aligning” body, breath, and mind. This might all sound relatively harmless. But it is easy to understand why the Chinese government might view Falun Gong as a threat if we use the rubric outlined above. Its adherents come from all walks of life (even some CCP officials had joined it); they are spread out throughout the country (cells formed in many cities); and they have shown a definite capability for coordinated action (evidenced by 10,000 protesters appearing, seemingly out of nowhere, to hold the 1999 sit-in demanding an end to official criticism of the group).

Other reasons have also been suggested for the ruthless campaign against Falun Gong. For example, a leading scholar of the subject, historian David Ownby, stresses the ideological challenge that Falun Gong posed to the CCP even before it began to present the Party as an evil organization (something that took place after the crackdown against its members began). Ownby convincingly argues that the CCP was threatened by Li Hongzhi’s novel fusion of Chinese traditions and modern “science,” for the Party claims a monopoly on bringing together what it means to be both Chinese and modern, via the “scientific” socialism of Marx.

The CCP response to Falun Gong needs to be seen as a special case for other reasons as well. For example, during imperial times, Chinese regimes were sometimes weakened or overthrown by millenarian religious movements, including some that began as quiescent self-help sects. And the Party is especially concerned about protests that have ties with charismatic figures, a term that fits Li Hongzhi well. That said, the CCP response still illustrates the general pattern described above of struggles being treated as most serious when they are multi-class, multi-locale, and well organized. And as we have already seen, this corresponds very much to the Party’s reaction to the situation in Beijing in 1989, where events in multiple locales and, particularly, that included a broad range of participants, ultimately provided the catalyst for the government’s violent response.

Falun Gong is important as the most widespread and major case of government suppression of a movement since the 1989 crackdown. It illustrates the lessons learned by the government from the Tiananmen struggle. Since the suppression of Falun Gong, however, the government’s most commonly used tactics have shifted once again, mutating in response to changing technologies and their impact on the ease of communication and organization. David Bandurski of China Media Project, for instance, has identified in recent years a shift in Chinese government communication policies towards shaping rather than just responding to (or attempting to suppress) media narratives. Bandurski refers to this shift as “Control 2.0,” a kind of Big Brother public relations campaign that seeks to channel and direct public opinion through the media. While “Control 2.0” plays out in the media, a gentler obstructionist secret police force works to obfuscate coverage of 1989 by foreign media. For instance, reporters wishing to use Tiananmen Square as the backdrop for their reports on 1989’s twentieth anniversary in 2009 found their cameras blocked at every turn not by heavy-handed thugs but by the slapstick version of the secret police: strolling undercover police who, on a bright sunny day, purposefully wandered in front of cameras with umbrellas, effectively blocking the shots (though not the audio). The goal seemed to be not to prevent reporting on the event completely but simply to annoy, an indication of a state so confident in its message that it no longer needed to suppress the story of 1989 (at least for a foreign audience) but instead could simply mock its efforts at reportage.

Detailed discussion of events of the 2010s appear in a later chapter, but it is worth mentioning here how they fit in with the pattern just described. Overall, events of that decade would offer many reminders that the government remains wary of the same set of factors that has concerned it since the time of Tiananmen. Cross-class coalitions, such as those that manifested themselves in Hong Kong's 2014 and 2019 movements to protect the city's rights from premature encroachment by Beijing, as well as harsh repressive moves in Tibet and Xinjiang justified in part by a sense of grievances against the center that could unite broad segments of the population over a large area, continued to cause official consternation. This was accompanied by repeated and sustained police and state actions, from extensive tear gassing of protesting crowds and large-scale arrests in Hong Kong to the extrajudicial incarcerations of over a million Uyghurs and some members of other ethnic groups in detention camps in Xinjiang. While these human rights abuses drew international condemnation, they were often broadly popular in China. When coupled with actions in the core—such as a 2016 crackdown on foreign-affiliated NGOs (often undertaking human rights work) and efforts to undermine feminist activism in that same year—by the end of that third decade after Tiananmen, it is fair to say that the space for citizen participation had been severely curtailed across the nation.

It is not only the government that has learned to navigate the management of dissent in the post-1989 period more smoothly; active citizens, too, have a carefully honed sense of which activities will draw official attention and which will not. The result in recent years has been a continued tension between, on the one hand, a measured growth of citizen activism and speech that falls largely within limitations set by the government, and, on the other hand, the government’s moves to prevent the open discussion of certain topics and events. Informed Chinese citizens are well aware that 1989 remains one of those topics and this explains why calls for truth-finding and reconciliation remain marginal. Chinese citizens have for the time being largely refrained from open discussion of 1989 and other similar events in favor of wider economic and intellectual horizons and a very slow expansion of rights for the majority of people.

China and the world

The iconic images from Tiananmen, for instance of the Goddess of Democracy statue, which resembled the Statue of Liberty, or of the Beijing citizen standing in front of a line of tanks, inspired action and response worldwide. In Eastern Europe, the man in front of a line of tanks became a symbol of government resistance for protestors calling for the end of Communist governance there, and replicas of the Goddess of Democracy began to be used in gatherings of remembrance of the June 4th Massacre held everywhere, from Canadian Chinatowns to Hong Kong. The international response to the movement—as well as the international context of growing attacks on Communism’s strongholds—may well have shaped the Chinese government’s violent response, even if the international inspirations for the movement are often overemphasized, both by Westerners ready to see the struggle through the prism of their own ideals and by Beijing propagandists eager to portray the protests as the work of foreign conspirators and unpatriotic or simply naive domestic actors.

Ironically, though, the decade that followed 1989 marked China’s most ambitious period of international engagement up to that time. China became the world’s factory, and thus economic ties became a crucial part of its global reach. China also worked steadily to deepen its diplomatic ties and join international governing bodies like the WTO, as well as play increasingly robust roles in projects linked to the United Nations, whose Fourth World Conference on Women was held in Beijing in 1995. That same year saw a brief flare-up of Cold War era tensions and sabre rattling between Beijing and Taipei, but this did not stop the period as a whole from seeing a rise in the flow of money and people between Taiwan and the mainland. Just a few years beyond the period examined in this chapter, China would start to experiment with its newfound global power, as in Beijing’s belligerent response to the mid-air collision between a US Navy plane and a PLA Navy jet over Hainan Island in the South China Sea, and the subsequent week-long detention of the US crew members in April 2001.

China’s economic and political might has made the world more cautious of condemning it than was true in 1989, and in that regard the efforts of the 1990s have proved successful. Such efforts—a “China that can say no,” in the parlance of the time—are widely supported by the Chinese people. In this regard, there has been less change since 1989 than we might suppose. The 1989 protests were perceived as friendly to international ideals. Back then, protesters embraced the visiting Russian reformer Mikhail Gorbachev and prepared welcoming signs for him. They repeatedly sang the Internationale, and not only erected the Goddess of Democracy statue in Beijing but in Shanghai carried a model of the Statue of Liberty. Yet the crowds in Tiananmen were not always welcoming to foreign reporters attempting to convey information about the protests to overseas audiences. As Philip J. Cunningham relates in his memoir of the protests, Tiananmen Moon, in the highly charged atmosphere of the Square anti-government sentiment could quickly turn to anti-foreign rhetoric, old grievances overlapping with the new. While the protestors of 1989 were eager to draw global attention to their cause, to get the Party leadership to respond to their calls for greater transparency and greater rights for the Chinese people, at no time did they call for international intervention on their behalf. The students perceived of themselves as acting on behalf of the nation—a belief reinforced by their adoption of Hou Dejian’s famous patriotic song “Heirs of the Dragon” as one of the theme songs of the movement. Even so, in the end, having misread cues from protestors for months—arguably causing the protests to quickly balloon in size and scope as popular sympathy turned to the students—the government once again misread the protests as a referendum on their control over China (rather than, say, seeing it as a referendum on their style of governance and their recent policies). The role of the international community in this relationship was critical, at least symbolically. For the Party, the protests that curtailed Gorbachev’s visit were an international humiliation, and an attack in front of the international community on their legitimacy. Protestors, on the other hand, saw themselves as patriotic voices, speaking out in the hope of strengthening their nation. This mismatch in perspective may help to explain the government’s violent response as well as its unexpected nature among Beijing’s population.

Those lessons, like others examined in this chapter, have since been incorporated into Beijing’s political repertoire. In particular, the government took different approaches to two ideas that were prevalent in 1989: nationalism and the need for a more transparent and democratic political system. Throughout the 1990s the government cultivated a sense of nationalism among the population while discouraging the notion that the Chinese should aspire to universal ideals like human rights or democracy. In fact, the CCP actively challenged the notion that these universal ideals are indeed “universal,” and instead accused the West of attempting to impose its values on China, another ideological conflict with a long history.

Further events in the months and years that followed the protests seemed to confirm for many in China that the promise of those supposedly universal ideals was fleeting and potentially destabilizing. For instance, as we have seen, the collapse of order in Southeastern Europe in the 1990s allowed the CCP to imply that, no matter how dissatisfied someone might be to live in a Communist state, the alternative might be worse. The CCP was moreover able to claim that a post-Communist era involved not just economic collapse and widespread violence, but a loss of independence—an especially sore point in a nation that had historically suffered from imperialist encroachments which had themselves long fueled nationalist sentiments. Ironically, then, although many foreign accounts of China in the 1990s stressed the anomaly of the Communist Party staying in power there while similar organizations lost control elsewhere, the economic troubles, instability, and declining geopolitical clout of many former Communist states around the world were actually in some ways a boon to Deng and his allies, who were able to use this turn of events as evidence that another 1989-style protest would be devastating, a belief still widely held in China today.

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