How China Has Changed Since Tiananmen Square

Students Tiananmen Square in Beijing on May 24, 1989.

Students Tiananmen Square in Beijing on May 24, 1989. (Photo by Chip HIRES/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

June 4, 2019

Even after the People’s Liberation Army soldiers opened fire into crowds of civilians in Tiananmen Square on the morning of June 4, 1989, it seemed that some didn’t believe the bullets were real.

For weeks, students had gathered in the Beijing square, demonstrating for more political freedom and less corruption in the Chinese government through sit-ins and hunger strikes. Still, they didn’t want to overthrow the one-party system, then led by de facto head Deng Xiaoping, and several government officials had advocated for a peaceful resolution to the protests.

That never came. On June 2, Chinese Communist Party elders gave orders for the military to clear the Square with force — crossing into uncharted authoritarian territory. Today, the effects of the crackdown are clear in China’s top-down political system and the Chinese Communist Party’s obsessive repression of dissent.

FRONTLINE spoke with Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political science professor at Hong Kong Baptist University and author of “China Tomorrow: Democracy or Dictatorship?,” to understand how the events of thirty years ago have influenced the Chinese Communist Party today.

What happened right after the government crackdown on the protests at Tiananmen Square? 

Jean-Pierre Cabestan: Well, first of all repression and reassertion of order. And a very conservative reaction within the Communist Party leadership. All the reformist leaders were expelled or arrested or demoted. Deng Xioaping and the elder leaders of the party took things back in their own hands.

For two years the Communist Party restored rather traditional policies in terms of political control. It abandoned any kind of political reform. Also, in the economic sphere, there was a downturn in the economy, and there was a stop to any kind of economic reform. The idea was to stabilize the economy and stop inflation, which was one of the immediate causes of growing dissatisfaction in the spring of 1989.

In the spring of ’91, Deng Xiaoping decided to revive reforms, at least economic reforms. But there was no intention in his mind, and in the mind of the leadership, to revive any kind of political reform. I think political reform had been put on the shelf for good.

Did Tiananmen have an impact on the way the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) runs?

Cabestan: I think for the CCP it was a turning point. That closed the door to any really meaningful political reforms.

The CCP realized that if it wanted to protect its leadership role and keep a monopoly of political power, it needed to suppress any kind of opposition. And that is exactly what has been happening since ‘89 in China, and even more so with Xi Jinping, who doesn’t give any space to independent forces in China as far as politics are concerned.

We see Xi Jinping intensifying the party’s control over any kind of NGO and suppressing labor rights organizations, being very intrusive in any kind of education. Clearly, they want to make sure they can control the situation in the long run. And even within in the party any kind of reform — like instilling some kind of intra-party democracy — has gone nowhere and actually been by and large questioned and abandoned by the current leadership.

Now what Xi Jinping is insisting upon is much more of a top-down, rather than bottom-up, way of organizing the party and controlling society, because they fear that if they start sort of opening up it’s going to be very hard to keep control over the situation. Whether this kind of paranoia within the leadership is well placed or not is hard to tell. But I think they have good reason to be more paranoid today than before, because society has changed a great deal since ‘89.

How has society changed?

Cabestan: You’ve got a much larger middle class, a much higher degree of urbanization — so a much larger concentration of Chinese dwellers in cities — and all the risk of having that human concentration leading to more frequent protests if they get organized.

Also, you have a class of entrepreneurs who are much more autonomous in spite of the party’s attempts to control them, and much more powerful from a financial point of view than 20 or 30 years ago.

The final factor of uncertainty and risk for the leadership is the youth, actually. The younger generation are being slowly diverted from politics. They are interested in material life, their tablets, having fun, finding a job. But they can get politicized on the road, and that’s a risk the authorities want to prevent.

What is the impact of the events at Tiananmen on the Chinese political system today?

Cabestan: The Chinese leadership since Tiananmen, even more under Xi Jinping, has been very keen to prevent and preempt any kind of political or social protests which can get politicized. From a physical point of view, it means it’s very hard to get onto Tiananmen Square — it’s impossible. That was not the case in ‘89.

Within the party, one of the lessons I think the leadership has drawn from Tiananmen is pretend, or try hard and pretend, to be united all the time. Hide your differences. It’s very hard to decipher differences in views and to identify factions and groupings. We know there are factions — particularly on the trade war with the U.S., we know pretty well there are differences of views and reformists — but it’s very hard to identify them because they want to show a face of unity. That’s why the communist party even more than in the 1980s is what I call a secret society. It operates like a mafia. You don’t have democracy in the mafia.

Is Tiananmen still affecting China’s relationship with the U.S.?

Cabestan: After 30 years, I think Tiananmen affects Sino-U.S. and Sino-Western relations in different ways. The first is that Western governments, the U.S. government, are still putting pressure on Chinese authorities to revise the verdict and recognize that something bad happened, and there should be some recognition of the victims of the massacre and some reparations.

The other thing is that a lot of political refugees ended up in the U.S. or Europe. They’ve been away from China a long time, most of them are prevented from going back, and their influence within China is rather weak. Still, they can influence Western governments in the countries where they live. These people are seen by China as outside forces trying to change a political situation in China. The U.S. and other countries give shelter to these people.

We are in what I would call a new ideological Cold War with China. With Xi Jinping, clearly China is much more on the offensive in denouncing Western values and promoting its own authoritarian model of development and modernization. For all these reasons, I think Tiananmen is not far away. There are a lot of echoes because if we look back at the 1980s, Chinese society was re-linking with the world and embracing all sort of ideas, including democratic ideas, which led to Tiananmen in a way. But today those liberal views and ideas have been suppressed. It doesn’t mean they don’t exist, but they are facing a lot of difficulties.

Catherine Trautwein, Former Tow Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

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