China 30 Years After Tiananmen Square


Bottom Line Up Front:

  • On June 4, 1989 the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) staged a violent crackdown on peaceful protesters who gathered at Tiananmen Square to demand democratic reforms.
  • Thirty years after the event, China has arguably grown more autocratic than it was in 1989 under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping.
  • Chinese President Xi Jinping has solidified power domestically in a fashion unseen since the time of Mao Zedong, instituting a more assertive foreign policy.
  • China’s economic success means Beijing has managed to craft a narrative of success that does not rely on the necessity of liberal democratic reforms.

Yesterday marked 30 years since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ordered a military crackdown on student-led, peaceful protest calling for democratic reforms. Although protesters had amassed throughout the country, the largest gathering was in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, where tanks rolled in and the military opened fire on unarmed protesters. The official number of casualties has never been confirmed, but estimates range from several hundred to 10,000 people. In China, the night of June 4, 1989 has been erased from historical memory. The leaders of the protests are either imprisoned or living in exile, with many having disappeared. The protest is not discussed publicly, and Chinese history books gloss over the government’s actions. Internet pages featuring information about the event remain blocked from domestic users.

In the three decades since the violence at Tiananmen Square, China has gradually grown more autocratic. Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, also known as ‘reform and opening-up,’ placed China on a path toward integration into the global economy. This has been realized in a number of ways, including membership in multinational institutions and establishing diplomatic relations that had been severed under Mao Zedong’s leadership. Succession of power also became institutionalized with Deng’s predecessors, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and, most recently, Xi Jinping. Above all others, Xi has solidified power and moved to position China on a trajectory toward becoming an increasingly authoritarian state.

Domestically, Xi Jinping has moved to consolidate personal power by eliminating term-limits to his presidency, purging political opposition within the CCP under the auspices of ‘anti-corruption,’ and appointing personal friends in key leadership positions within the politburo—especially in the area of economic and foreign policy. Xi has arguably ‘personalized’ the authoritarian rule of China, demonstrating striking similarities to Mao. The detention and forceful assimilation of millions of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang under the guise of ‘anti-terrorism’ and the use of biotechnology, AI, and big datafor domestic surveillance purposes are all areas of concern. On a global level, Beijing’s foreign policy has become more assertive, even uncompromising, under Xi. Growing aggression in the South China Sea, heightened tensions and fiery rhetoric in cross-strait relations, military modernization and space exploration, the establishment of an overseas military base, and controversy surrounding Huawei and 5G technology are but a few examples.

With China’s economic success, rapid development, and increased living standards over the past decades, Beijing has managed to craft a narrative of success that does not rely on liberal democratic reforms. Compared to the Soviet Union, the majority of China’s population has prospered under the CCP, which has lifted more than 100 million people out of poverty. With a more outward-facing foreign policy, Xi is now inviting other states in the international system to share in China’s success—principally through the Belt and Road Initiative. While Western-led multinational financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund, often demand a level of transparency and liberal democratic reforms in order to receive loans, membership and benefits from Chinese-led institutions, like the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, come with no such strings attached. China’s emerging leadership occurs against the backdrop of U.S. receding global leadership, wavering Western-led multilateral institutions and alliances, and a nationalist surge in many liberal democracies—posing a plethora of questions about the future stability of the current world-order.

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