Tiananmen: the legacy of 1989

Li Datong
4 June 2009

The fourth day of June - written as "6.4" in Chinese - never used to have any special significance. But in the last twenty years, since the events that culminated in the early hours of 4 June 1989 in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, it has acquired particular import. For the authorities it stands for resistance and turmoil; for the people it represents the democracy movement, and also suppression and slaughter. Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and a former editor of Bingdian (Freezing Point), a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaper

Among Li Datong's recent articles in openDemocracy:

"China: after the quake, the debate" (16 June 2008)

"China's leaders, the media, and the internet" (4 July 2008)

"China's digital nationalism: Kung Fu Panda under fire" (16 July 2008)

"The Weng'an model: China's fix-it governance" (30 July 2008)

"The Olympics: was China ready?" (22 August 2008)

"The Beijing Olympics: the last award" (29 August 2008)

"Death in Shanghai, law in China" (15 September 2008)

"China's power, China's people: towards accountability" (29 September 2008)

 "China's stalled transition" (19 February 2009)

"The CCTV fire: a voice without restraint" (5 March 2009)

"China: democracy in action" (19 March 2009)

There is a paradox in the commemoration of 2009. A rigorous clampdown by the authorities means that on the internet a search in China for reference to the Tiananmen events returns not one search result; yet in other ways the comparative silence of years past has been lifted. Some intellectuals even risked holding a "Tiananmen Square 20th anniversary seminar" - on the grounds that, as one attendee said, "if we stay silent, we become accomplices to the authorities' concealment of the crime."

But the biggest stir has been caused by the posthumous publication (in both Chinese and English) of the memoirs of the Chinese Communist Party's former general-secretary, Zhao Ziyang. An electronic version of the book is rapidly circulating among Beijing's intellectuals. Some compare its publication to that of the memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev after he was deposed as leader of the Soviet Union: both figures, after all, were reformers who lost internal party struggles and went on to dictate to tape memoirs which were published abroad after their death.

The hard debate

Such uncomfortable reminders have led an edgy Chinese government, aware of the potency of a "round figure" anniversary, to continue with the precautionary measures it started to put in place in early 2009. It has confined many "potential troublemakers" to their homes, and sent Zhao's former secretary Bao Tong on an enforced "trip". Some Beijing employers, responding to rumours of a "white memorial" on Tiananmen Square on 4 June, even forbade their workers from wearing white clothes that day.

The mix of fear and farce here is revealing. For two decades the government has prevented any record of the incident in the media, with the result that young people today do not even know who Hu Yaobang (the former party head whose death on 15 April 1989 sparked the first student protests) and Zhao Ziyang are. But the government officials themselves cannot forget, and every year impose severe measures nationwide to prevent real or imaginary "mishaps". It is the political elite, the "victor" of the 1989 contest of nerves and (in the steel), that finds itself sick with nerves.

It is left to the defeated - the former student leaders, the party reformers, liberal intellectuals and exiled democracy activists - to examine in retrospect the surge of public protest of these unforgettable weeks. Why did it fail? Why were the students and party reformers unable to communicate? Could the political deadlock have been broken, and everything ended differently? Can China's government and people ever be reconciled, and how? Such questions suggest that the "losers" have long moved past anger and onto rationality. Amid sometimes sharp internal criticism, they are deepening their understanding and drawing lessons.

The debate continues outside the circles of power. One conclusion is that the tragedy of 4 June 1989 was unavoidable, in part because of the effects of the the sheer longevity in power (in some cases almost five decades by that point) of the first generation of party leaders. Deng Xiaoping saw himself as part of a second generation, but in reality was an important member of the earlier cohort; before the cultural revolution he had been more powerful than Zhou Enlai.

A common characteristic of the first generation was familiarity with violence. Their political experiences - be it the war with the nationalists, or political struggles within the party - never considered compromise and mutual benefit. Differences were always irreconcilable, fights always to the death. When the party arrived at the pinnacle of state power in October 1949 that culture permeated society - including the education system. This culture inflected (and indoctrinated) too those who opposed the party, among them some of the university students demonstrating for democracy on Tiananmen Square for whom compromise was anathema and death in the pursuit of justice (even at the cost of bloodshed) could be glorious. 

The root of reform

In this absolutist environment, it is harder than it looks to identify the true architect of the decade of change and reform in China that contributed to the events of 1989. Deng Xiaoping's blueprints have not been found in the archives, nor any reform proposals he originated. His role in reform is more complex than is often recognised.

Deng Xiaoping had had a turbulent career. He fell from power (along with Liu Shaoqi) at the start of the cultural revolution in 1966, was reinstated in 1973 and established his authority within the party and society with a series of order-restoring "rectifications". But in 1976, he was again stripped of power by Mao Zedong following mass protests on Tiananmen Square, an event that became the political capital on which he would base his future rise. This political experience meant that by the time he acquired supreme power he had come to understand the need for urgent reform - albeit to maintain party rule.

The people were poor, and thirty years of communist government had only made them poorer. A public that dared to protest at Tiananmen was clearly running out of tolerance for its leaders. Deng often said that a failure to reform would lead to disaster; he knew the people had to get richer, and quickly. But he did not know how to make that happen, or what to do afterwards. Like Mao, he was no economist.

It was Zhao Ziyang, of the second generation of party leaders, who had both the best understanding of economics and the strongest ability to learn. In his time in Sichuan he had made a reputation for policies that increased industrial and agricultural output (a local pun on his name had him as the "go-to" man for grain). The historical evidence suggests that the real architect of China's reform was Zhao Ziyang, with Deng's contribution to history the provision of support.

Moreover, Deng's approval for economic changes was combined with consistent upholding of Mao's one-party rule. Deng, after all, had been part of the first generation of party leaders and shared its errors and even crimes. He maintained, for example, that the "anti-rightist" campaign was not an error but merely too wide in its scope (so wide indeed, that all but the five most prominent "rightists" were eventually rehabilitated). The Deng era also saw the end of the Xidan (democracy wall); the campaign against "spiritual pollution"; the denunciation of "bourgeois liberalisation"; opposition to the separation of powers; and violent suppression of peaceful public protest.

The long aftermath

Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang are emblematic of the second generation of party leaders. Their experiences taught them that there must be limits to the power of the ruling party - for example, that the party should have no role in "approving" works of art. They also knew that the public's rights should have legal protection. On different occasions in the mid-1980s, both Hu and Zhao said that the party must learn to rule even amid demonstrations and during periods of "small or medium disorder". This acceptance of public protest was one of the most important shifts in thought between the two generations - but unfortunately it was never consolidated.

The people paid for their protests in blood, but it was the party and the army that were most deeply damaged. No longer could they claim to be the "people's government" or the "people's army". No government can slaughter its citizens and escape opprobrium from the democratic world, and the atrocities committed then - despite the efforts to suppress their memory - will never be forgotten. Sooner or later there will be a reckoning for both the ruling party and political leaders.

A baleful legacy of 4 June 1989 is the habitual use of violence by local governments faced with difficult issues - there have been many subsequent "Tiananmens", large and small. Just as the party's culture of intolerance implanted itself into some of its student opponents in 1989, so official violence has to a degree generated a similar response from elements of the public. Yang Jia, who killed six Shanghai policemen, and Deng Yujiao, who killed a local-government official, received support and praise online. The inclination to meet violence with violence is growing. Tiananmen casts a long shadow.

Among openDemocracy's many articles on China:

Robert Barnett, "Tibet: questions of revolt" (4 April 2008)

Wang Lixiong, "China and Tibet: the true path" (15 April 2008)

James A Millward, "China's story: putting the PR into the PRC" (18 April 2008)

Chang Ping, "Tibet: looking for the truth" (8 May 2008)

Li Datong, "China and the earthquake" (2 June 2008)

Emily Lau, "Tiananmen, 1989-2008" (4 June 2008)

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "Tiananmen's shifting legacy" (26 June 2008)

Li Datong, "Death in Shanghai, law in China" (15 September 2008)

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "China's long march to modernisation" (7 October 2008)

Perry Link, "Charter 08: a blueprint for China" (5 January 2009)

Wei Jingsheng, "China's political tunnel" (22 January 2009)

Li Datong, "The CCTV fire: a voice without restraint" (5 March 2009)

Li Datong, "China: democracy in action" (19 March 2009)

Temstsel Hao, "Dharamsala: forging Tibetans' future" (29 April 2009)

Kerry Brown, "China's Tiananmen moment: the party rules" (3 June 2009)

Emily Lau, "Tiananmen, 1989-2009" (4 June 2009)

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