Signs of a New Tiananmen in China
Image Credit: ssristu

Signs of a New Tiananmen in China


The Western media has largely missed the most significant development in Chinese politics these days.  It’s not the dramatic downfall of Bo Xilai, although the incident is one of the most important events in elite politics in post-Deng China.  Rather, it’s the stirrings that have revived contentious political issues banished from polite society in China since the Tiananmen crackdown more than two decades ago. 

Of course, one is unlikely to find the discussion of such sensitive issues in most official publications (although some media outlets affiliated with official publications have been particularly adventurous in carrying articles on these topics in the past few months). The range of issues is wide and diverse. Despite disagreement among participants in this incipient post-1989 Chinese intellectual renaissance, the discussion is fast converging on three critical issues. First, there appears to be a widely shared consensus among China’s thinking class that the country’s economic reform is either dead or mired in stagnation. Second, those who believe that economic reform is dead or stuck argue that only political reform, specifically the kind that reduces the power of the state and makes the government accountable to its people, will resuscitate economic reform (some advocate for more radical, democratizing changes, although the consensus on this particular point has yet to emerge). Third, the status quo, which can be characterized as a sclerotic authoritarian crony-capitalist order, isn’t sustainable and, without a fundamental shift in direction, a crisis is inevitable.

Such signs of an intellectual awakening are worth noting for many reasons. Its timing is certainly significant. Many people would connect this development with China’s pending leadership transition. In China, as in most other countries, pending changes in leadership usually stimulate discussions among the intelligentsia about the future of the country and the accomplishments or failures of the departing leadership. Chinese intellectuals, mostly liberals, may want to seize this once-in-a-decade opportunity to reignite a debate on whether the existing political system serves the country’s long-term needs of economic development, social justice, and national unity. 

Another, perhaps more important reason, is that more than two decades after the Tiananmen crackdown (and after Deng Xiaoping famously admonished his colleagues there should be “no arguing,” essentially ending the ideological debate among the ruling elites over whether post-Mao China was embracing capitalism), members of China’s thinking class have come to realize that the post-Tiananmen consensus, which might be characterized as giving economic reform and development a chance to solve China’s political problems (one-party rule and poor governance), has basically broken down. In other words, the post-Tiananmen model, all but intellectually bankrupt, provides no useful guidance in the coming decades.

One may be tempted to dismiss such discussions as idle chatter among marginalized Chinese intellectuals. This would be a mistake. Some of the participants in these discussions are influential opinion makers or advisors to the Chinese government. Their views reflect the thinking of at least some insiders of the Communist Party. So the frustrated tone and anxiety conveyed by their views could suggest that more open-minded elements in the party, some of whom may be in line to assume senior or important positions as a result of the leadership transition, share the same sense of crisis and urgency. 

June 4, 2013 at 16:13

I am working China now. The level of censorship is so paranoid that they blocked the BBC signal everytime there is a sensitive issue. This time was the news about Tutkish protest. They might think that someone might get inspired. I am surprised reading the post above that tries to depict a smooth repression in China. This is not true.

March 25, 2013 at 02:12

[...] range of social groups nationwide, as happened during Tiananmen in 1989.  The manifestations of such a political revolution will be identical with those seen in the heady days of the pro-democracy Tiananmen protest and the “Jasmine [...]

[...] jailed as well. Mr. Chen recently released his memoir. While trying to show that he had nothing to with the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, he revealed that his secret trial was perfunctory and he called the proceedings [...]

Kexin Renlei
April 12, 2012 at 07:28

“China’s thinking class”? As if all those who aren’t intellectual elites don’t think? Are you serious?

April 10, 2012 at 06:09

The PRC and PLA may be building their economy like Japan in the 1980′s-a house of cards.
Real wealth is not measured in things, but in wealth producing assets. As the PLA continues to rape the country thru crony-capitalism and the gerontocracy dies off, it will be interesting to see how the highly motivated and productive youthful china takes off…we need to give them inspiration not political hype…

April 8, 2012 at 13:28


Everything is blocked in Chinese about the Tienanmen Square incident or anything related to it in mainland China (I think it’s not blocked in Hong Kong though). I’ve never personally met a Chinese student or average Chinese citizen in mainland China who understands the significants of what happened in 1989. Perhaps they know that something very bad happened that day and heard second hand stories, but they don’t know the impact it had on their country or the rest of the world. If they do manage to get a VPN I don’t think it’s one of the first things they seek to understand (they probably seek to understand porn first), nor do they trust the sources they read because they’ve been told to be distrustful of foreign, Taiwanese, or Hong Kong sites. (I think the government told the public shortly after the incident that the students had been manipulated by foreigners to attack the regime or something, but I don’t remember the specifics on this). Honestly, I’m a grown man (and I’m not even Chinese) and this situation really hits home because this event, especially in regards to Tank Man, had such an influence on the rest of the world.

Whenever a nationalistic Chinese acquaintance in a discussion about politics or history seeks to talk down to me because I’m a foreigner, I politely ask them to name to me the five most influential Chinese people in the last one-hundred years. If they can’t name Tank Man, then the discussion is over and I tell them to research who Tank Man is before they wish to speak to me again about politics, otherwise I just can’t take them seriously.

April 8, 2012 at 07:18


You said :They(CCP) didn’t even block the recent article about another potential Tiananmen. However, the average Chinese person doesn’t possess the reading ability to understand articles at this level of English.

So does the CCP block those article about another Tienanmen in Chinese?The major medium in China,

Oro Invictus
April 8, 2012 at 03:58

@ a_canadian_observer

Nevertheless, I believe it a common courtesy to still respond unless the risk of a discussion descending into complete discord becomes to great to continue; no matter who John Chan is or what he believes, whether or not he is indeed a paid commentator or just a nationalist (albeit, a particularly extreme and xenophobic one), he still deserves respect as a person. While we can dispute and refute what another says, to completely disregard them is uncivil and only harden attitudes on all sides. While I may temper my replies to him with dry and/or sardonic humour (to varying degrees), I still believe it important to examine the points, no matter how ludicrous they may be; indeed, not only does this allow me to ensure I have not neglected to point out various factual and rational errors, but it also ensures that any rational point he does make (which, admittedly, one is hard-pressed to find [though I recall his first post under "China in 2030" was, if not overly in-depth, sober and level-headed]) will not be lost.

@ Richard

The key is that the PRC does not need to follow the US or “West” in creating its future; one of the greatest atrocities of history was the “West” claiming rule by consensus and equality their invention. Indeed, the oft-touted “democracy” of Athens was a patriarchal, nepotist, and plutocratic system in which generally only men of means had the slightest voice and (functionally) the Archons served to dictate most decisions; socialism and communism, while codified by Europeans, drew on various concepts present in every society on Earth. That every altruistic philosophy in human history holds the equality amongst man as core to them, no matter the culture, shows that this is not a “Western” trait but a human one.

At the same time, one must ensure not to allow xenophobic tendencies take hold and dismiss other nations’ systems as incompatible or irrelevant to one’s own; while one must be sure to develop and earn one’s own way of though, adapting things that worked for others is hardly a bad thing. In the PRC, the focus should be less on creating a “Chinese system” rather than a system which most benefits its citizens; since all modern cultures derive from the same source (as do all people), drawing on the ideas and support of others does not diminish the accomplishments of one’s own system. While it is prudent to be wary of those who seek to use offers of help to further their own ends at the cost of the one supposedly being assisted, ideas and help from others of differing nationalities should be treated as just as valuable as those of the same nationality as long as their rationale is solid and intentions sincere.

While I realize that humanity is more prone to change if it has a successful model to follow, it is important not to impede such change if it is necessary; likewise, if another model (or aspects thereof) has value in it, to simply ignore it as “foreign” is foolish and bigoted. The sooner that we, as a species, can see past the immaterial nature of “nations” and “ethnicity” the sooner we will cease to be seething mass of warring states and become a unified people; we are part of a global community, and there is no precedent we need follow, nor helping hand we need slap away.

April 8, 2012 at 01:14

On John Chan’s behalf I’d like to say that I’m currently working at a university in North East China and can access this website without a VPN. They didn’t even block the recent article about another potential Tienanmen. However, the average Chinese person doesn’t possess the reading ability to understand articles at this level of English.

Censorship in China is very odd. The local internet bars used by the average person block sites such as the NY Times and this site which have plenty of articles about Tienanmen and more recent news of civil unrest in China, but these very same sites, I believe, are allowed for students and private internet users (who tend to be more educated and have more money, but don’t necessarily read English too well in a significant number to cause political trouble) so they don’t believe they’re being censored too much. I could be wrong though on the actual intentions of this.

I don’t agree with most things John Chan says, but facts are facts.

April 7, 2012 at 03:05

@ACT: “judging by the fact that you’re able to post here, i assume that you live in hong-kong, perhaps even in the United States itself…”
Well, the regular chinese doesn not have access to this site but the CCP mouthpieces do. You can figure out the rest.

Major Lowen Gil Marquez, Phil Army
April 7, 2012 at 00:55

There was a rampant, too much, overwhelming corruption in communist Chinese which is manipulated by the elite Chinese politburo central committee, the wealth of the nation were given only to the communist central committee leadership and its Chinese masses were living in poverty eating one cup of rice with 10 litters of water.. the victim was the poor Chinese peasant….

April 6, 2012 at 12:40

@John Chan

judging by the fact that you’re able to post here, i assume that you live in hong-kong, perhaps even in the United States itself…

either way, many of the accusations that you have made on here are rather baseless, as is much of the slander you have posted about other commentators. is it because you’re not used to–and cannot accept–direct criticism of the PRC? i know from reading reports that when living in mainland China, you can’t directly criticize them; you can’t directly say “this policy is horrible”; rather, you have to say something along the lines of a suggestion or a personal opinion lite. Although, seeing as you have been posting here for the better part of a year, i would think that you would have gotten used to western-style criticism of other nation’s governments by now.

moving on….why does it even matter if the F-35 is better than the J-20 or vice-versa? by all accounts, we’re nowhere near close to war, and anyone who proposes on the political stage that we should isn’t received kindly…

April 6, 2012 at 12:40

@Oro Invictus: I admire your good nature and tenacity when dealing with the kind of people like John Chan. However, you must understand when John Chan utters such garbage is when he runs out of argument, and that’s the way he conceeds.

April 6, 2012 at 11:24

@ JC and chinese posters (yes, even the ones with fake Western names):

Why don’t you guys use Google and look up “pollution pictures in china” and then “corruption in china” and then “the last train home movie” (without all the quotes of course). Just look up the links from chinese authors so you won’t say Westpac nations are behind that. I would give direct links but the Diplomat would not allow it.

The hundreds of millions of poor chinese are fed up with dirty air, poisonous land, unusable water, rampart corruption from top to bottom, high inflation, dirty and tain foods/meat, and on and on. It is a pressurize powder keg ready to blow up at anytime.

April 6, 2012 at 10:29

@Oro Invictus

No need to apologize,I understand where you are coming from,it is an enjoyable discussion.
Now specifically I refer to your point that:
“many of the same economic grievances cited during the period leading up to Tiananmen are being voiced with increasing frequency at this point in time, the position of “No. 2 Economy” in the world having done little to provide remedy these longstanding issues.”
Yes,same grievances over inflation, limited career prospects for students(Now most of the students/graduates want to work for CCP government), and corruption of the party elite are growing rapidly.
Internationally, during Tiananmen square protests of 1989,Communist governments were losing their grip on power in Eastern Europe.
Now with Arab spring,dictators are being overthrown and some killed.
Except that voters in the West,especially those in USA which served as model for the Chinese students during 1989, are now facing with similar social problems.1% vs 99% “Occupay Wall Street” (OWS)protest movement began in US began September 17, 2011,It is pretty difficult to find many Chinese intellectuals citing the West and US as models now.

April 6, 2012 at 10:22

What people in our contry thinks about the “communist” government is complicated. You can not say that we hate or like it. Some how, its the only gov that can protect China’s independent development from interruptions outside, and its also the gov that makes and made so much hurt for its people. Things in China is getting better, but maybe not as fast as the civil want. Especially when all people can know whats going on outside their country. Although,those info has been distorted somehow,not only those from Chinese medias but also from westen medias

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