Zachary Keck

Tiananmen Square in the Age of Twitter

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Zachary Keck

Tiananmen Square in the Age of Twitter

The real wild card in assessing whether Tiananmen Square could happen today is the role of social media

As The Diplomat has already noted, this week marks the 25th year anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. The anniversary is being commemorated by some within China, and many more outside of it, particularly in the West. Hong Kong has been especially vocal in ringing in the anniversary of the tragedy. Although this is always the case, this year’s gathering in Hong Kong has taken on special meaning since some in the city are drawing parallels between the June 4 protesters and their own struggle for the political freedoms once promised to them by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Over at the National Interest, Gordon Chang asks the interesting question of whether Tiananmen Square could happen again today. In answering this question, he focuses largely on whether the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would follow an order by Xi Jinping to brutally crackdown on peaceful protesters like those in Tiananmen Square in 1989. As Chang puts it, “the critical issue for him [Xi] is whether the military in today’s China would follow orders he might give to impose another brutal solution.” Not surprisingly, given his long-standing views on the PRC’s future, Chang doesn’t think that the PLA would.

In general, I think Chang is right to focus on the loyalty of the PLA as that it is probably the single most important factor in assessing regime stability in China. Certainly the Xi and the CCP believe it’s important, given their constant need for the PLA to declare loyalty to Xi personally and the CCP as an organization, rather than to China as a nation. I have no idea if the PLA would crackdown on peaceful protesters today, and I don’t think anybody else truly does either.

However, I do think it’s reasonable to assume that as the PLA becomes a more professional force focused primarily on external threats, it becomes less likely that it would agree to crackdown on protestors at home. In this sense, Xi’s anti-corruption campaign within the PLA could make it less likely that the armed forces obey the Party over the nation. Ditto for the Chinese Dream. In the end, the PLA could decide — much as Egypt’s army has — that it can protect its fundamental interests without the CCP in charge. After all, the military is a great source of pride for the whole Chinese nation, and it would likely continue to be well funded under any conceivable government in Beijing.

At the same time, it’s not clear that the PLA would even be needed. Although the PLA’s ascendance since the 1990s has received far greater attention from abroad, China has also vastly expanded the paramilitary People’s Armed Police and the Ministry of Public Security. In fact, according to official figures — which admittedly could be entirely false — the CCP invests more in these domestic security agencies than it does in the PLA itself. Furthermore, Xi has vested greater control over these agencies in his person with the new national security council.

More importantly, however, assessing whether Tiananmen Square could happen again requires a much broader approach than merely determining the PLA’s loyalty to the Party. To begin with, one has to ask whether large scale protests like those in 1989 could happen in China today.

It’s easy to make a case that they are extremely unlikely. For one thing, there is much evidence suggesting that since 1989, students in particular, but Chinese society more generally, has moved away from the political sphere and into the economic one. That is, students and others appear far less interested in large political issues and more interested in personal, largely economic success.

More importantly, after Tiananmen the Party learned a number of crucial lessons designed to prevent similar movement. One such lesson, which was implemented during the Jiang Zemin period, was the necessity of expanding the Communist Party to include more societal groups like students and intellectuals. By co-opting these crucial groups and allowing them to benefit from one-Party rule, as well as providing the possibility of changing the system from within, the CCP has given them less incentive to use large scale protests to demand change. At the same time, by co-opting more elite groups the CCP has robbed potential large scale protest movements of viable leaders.

In addition, the events of 1989 taught the CCP the importance of cracking down on potential sources of unrest before they metastasize into larger problems. It’s therefore reasonable to assume that the CCP would squash a potential new Tiananmen protest long before it became as large as the one in 1989.

Nonetheless, there are other factors which suggest that a Tiananmen style protest could once again take root in China. To begin with, while the Western world has overwhelmingly focused on the political demands of the students, these were hardly the only factors that spurred the student protests or created sympathy for them among the larger population. Indeed, economic grievances created by the rapid reforms of the 1980s — most notably, inflation — were essential to the movement’s success in gaining support.

As the CCP undertakes some of the largest economic reforms since the initial ones initiated by Deng, it’s possible that the dislocations that this will cause in society will motivate protests much as it happened in 1989. As I’ve noted before, of crucial importance is the fact that the economic rebalancing by definition means that CCP members themselves will have to gain less economic advantage from being Party members than they currently do. This, in turn, could lead some of the elites within the Party to want to instigate large scale change, or else lead large scale movements that start organically.

Another of the major motivations for the original student protests in 1989 was the endemic corruption that had taken root within the CCP as a result of the economic reforms of the preceding decade. This corruption has, if anything, grown since 1989, and remains a major and widespread grievance against the Party. It is the kind of issue that can lead the masses to side with protesters over the Party. Although Xi is ostensibly trying to reduce corruption throughout the Party and the military — and in many ways needs to for economic rebalancing to succeed — there is no guarantee that he is genuine in this desire or that he will succeed even if he is well-intentioned. Furthermore, even making progress in stamping out corruption within the Party could have the unintended consequences of exposing just how massive the problem is, which in itself could trigger unrest.

There are also other developments within China since 1989 that could help propel a new round of large scale protests. One of these, of course, is the rapid urbanization that China has undergone over the last 25 years. If the CCP gets its wish — and in China the CCP usually gets its wish — this urbanization will not only continue but accelerate in the years ahead.

Although the 1989 protests were not located solely within Beijing, they were primarily concentrated in cities, as the senior leadership in the CCP noted at the time. I’ve previously discussed how, all things being equal, urbanization enhances the chance for kind of unrest that could threaten one-party rule in China. Suffice to say here that the higher population density in cities, as well as the greater connectivity, increases the chances that large scale protests could spring up quickly before the CCP has a chance to stamp them out.

The real wild card in assessing whether Tiananmen Square could happen today is the role of the media, and social media in particular. One of the most powerful aspects of social media for political movements is that it allows them to develop rapidly and without the need for strong leadership. This could eliminate the impact of the CCP co-opting more elites during the 1990s.

The information age and social media have also created greater uncertainty over how state sanctioned violence against protests will impact the situation. In today’s world, much of the violence of the PLA would have likely been captured on video by protesters armed with cell phones. If such videos were distributed to Chinese across the country via social media, imposing martial law and clearing Tiananmen Square with force could set off even greater unrest throughout China. After all, Bashar al-Assad was far more brutal in his crackdown than the CCP was in 1989 and it hardly stabilized Syria.

Of course, while a Twitter Revolution in the vein of Tiananmen Square could certainly increase the chances of the protesters succeeding, there is no Twitter in China. In fact, the service was banned right before the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 2009. Nor are many other foreign social media sites allowed in China, and the CCP heavily censors Chinese social media tools. It also appears to have the power to block foreign websites at will, and could almost certainly shut down the Chinese sites in times of crisis.

Thus, the CCP’s ability to clamp down on social media and other aspects of the information age is likely the most crucial factor in determining whether a Tiananmen-like movement is possible in contemporary China, as well as whether it would succeed. Unfortunately, at least for supporters of Tiananmen-like protests, the CCP invests enormous amounts of time and resources in ensuring it can impose a media blackout if need be. At the same time, protesters elsewhere have proven mightily resourceful during times of unrest.