China Power

The Meaning of Tiananmen: 28 Years Later

Revisiting the official verdict on the morning of June 4, 1989 would be dangerous for China’s Communist Party.

The Meaning of Tiananmen: 28 Years Later
Credit: Flickr/ Audrey

The Communist Party of China likes celebrating anniversaries. It is already geared up for 2021, which will mark the 100th year since the Party’s founding. That event will no doubt be marked with endless, massive public events throughout China, most of them broadcast to the outside world.

Every year, amongst the rhythm of big and small celebrations marking this or that landmark, comes the one anniversary that the Party and state resolutely blank out, and parts of the rest of the world, including Hong Kong, equally resolutely insist on remembering. It has been 28 years since the tanks of two crack divisions of the People’s Liberation Army were ordered to roll along Changanjie in Beijing and into the vast public square at the center, Tiananmen, with instructions to simply “clear it.” As collateral, and despite many warnings, on the morning of June 4, 1989 hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of people were killed. Information about the precise number of casualties, where and how they died, and who they were, has never been released, despite attempts by groups like the Mothers of Tiananmen and others.

The Party itself issued judgments prior to the event, and almost immediately after it, which stand to this day. The whole student-led rebellion, which had started in April with the death of Hu Yaobang, a former premier, and which was snuffed out in June, was “counter-revolutionary,” according to a noisy opinion piece in the official People’s Daily issued in May. Deng Xiaoping, then deep into his 80s but still the powerful paramount leader, met an army group a few days later and thanked them for aiding the country in its hour of need.

Had China gone the way of the Soviet Union two years later, with the collapse of the Party, Tiananmen Square would today figure as the key moment in its move toward a post-Communist reality. But that didn’t happen. China bucked the trend. While movements of students, workers, and others ignited profound change in societies from Poland to South Korea to Russia, in China the Party maintained its power.

It was a close thing. Many argue that had the United States under George H. W. Bush not offered a lifeline, ensuring China was not wholly isolated after 1989, then the country would have faltered. The Party would have been denied the key plank of its new quest for legitimacy – economic growth – and it would have traveled the path other one party states did.

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All of this is speculation. What we do know is that 28 years on, the Tiananmen anniversary maintains a particular sensitivity. Figures like today’s President Xi Jinping, then an official in Fujian, or Premier Li Keqiang, in the Party Youth League in Beijing at the time, were at most peripheral, junior players. Their generation is largely untainted by too many links to the decision made in 1989 to use military force to quell unarmed protesters. Even so, they have resolutely maintained the policy, attempting, as Louise Lim in her book on the matter made clear, to impose a mass amnesia about the issue. The most significance that any official account will accord June 1989 is that it was a period of “turbulence” linked to the unrest in the outside world. There the matter remains.

Over the years, there have been periods of excited speculation that a revision of the formal Party verdict mentioned above might be in the cards. In the late era of Hu Jintao, there was talk of the Party finally coming clear and admitting some culpability for what had happened. But others urged caution. While figures like then-premier Li Peng, who played a key role in implementing the crackdown, are still alive, this is unlikely.

For the historiography of the Party, too, a change of official view on 1989 would perhaps start an uncontrollable process. If verdicts can be changed on this event, then why not look further back: to the meaning of Mao, to the Cultural Revolution, to the Great Leap Forward. The Party has partially come to a consensus about the meaning of these events in a framework where they are seen as unfortunate mistakes made by a Party whose intentions were good, but which sometimes made mistakes. In 1981 it issued the last such major reassessment of its history. Changing tack on 1989 would necessitate another one. And at the heart of that would be grappling with the most massive of all the problems – the complete rupture in the political and economic narrative pre- and post-1978, when reforms started.

At the moment all post-1949 history is seen as an organic whole. But even the most cursory examination of China under Mao, and China since, shows manifold differences. In this context, the odd thing about 1989 is that it belongs more to the pre-1978 narrative – a Party showing that the Maoist saying that power grows from the barrel of a gun, with violence as the final arbiter, still held good. In many ways, post-1978 Chinese history is a long attempt to get away from this. The greatest problem of 1989 was that it showed how superficial that attempt, till then, had proved. For critics, the events of June proved that a leopard indeed could not change its spots.

There is no sign that the current leaders of the People’s Republic have the will, the incentive, or the imagination to undertake a reappraisal of the meaning of 1989. For them, with most people with any recollection of this event in their 40s or older, amnesia works just fine. It is an irritation that the rest of the world seems to stuck on its attempts to not lapse into this amnesia too. But under Xi, the rest of the world has plenty of other priorities and needs when it comes to China and can thus be persuaded to bury this one.

And so it is likely that one of the most important, significant moments in modern Chinese history will continue to pass unmarked in China. But it is also likely that it will never be forgotten. And that, more than anything else, shows the limits of the all-powerful Communist Party of China, even in an era when it seems so complete and strong.