What We Can Learn From Tiananmen Square, 25 Years Later

A quarter century after the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, UT historian Jeremi Suri reflects on what’s changed about China—and what hasn’t.

This article first appeared on Global Brief.

The early summer of 1989 was the most optimistic season in recent memory. William Wordsworth, writing in a previous revolutionary moment, captured the sentiment: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!” I remember that feeling, if not those words, as a high school student convinced that I was blessed to be born at such a time.

In the early months of 1989 the communist governments of Poland and Hungary, two traditional stalwarts of the Soviet bloc, opened political participation to long repressed trade unions and dissident groups. The leaders of these societies saw that the Soviet Union had entered a period of rapid political and economic reform, including unprecedented efforts to open to the capitalist West. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev spoke explicitly of ending Cold War tensions and creating what he called a “common European home.” This meant a reversal of Soviet-enforced tyranny in Poland, Hungary, and soon all the other satellites in Eastern Europe. By June 1989 it was clear that Gorbachev and his political reforms were for real. No one knew precisely where events would lead, but all signs pointed to brighter sunshine in what had been the very dark world of postwar communism.

On May 15 Gorbachev visited China. He was greeted by mass demonstrations led by students and intellectuals demanding democratic reforms in their country. Centered on the huge Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing, but spreading throughout other urban areas, a popular movement that began to grow in April took rising inspiration from the Soviet reformer. If Russian communism could be reformed to allow more political freedoms, why couldn’t Chinese communism do the same? The street demonstrators in Beijing and other cities had supporters within the Chinese ruling elite who were themselves inspired by Gorbachev and the example of reform throughout Eastern Europe. The Soviet leader’s visit brought international attention to the tremors shaking China.

For nearly three weeks after Gorbachev’s visit, leaders throughout Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and China debated how to manage the powerful impulses unleashed for radical change in their societies. This was one of those rare but recurring historical moments when impregnable institutions looked like they were about to crumble under the weight of their long-standing inertia. Gorbachev and his East European counterparts chose to embrace change and re-define political authority in their societies to address the demands of their citizens. Chinese hard-liners, led by Deng Xiaoping, turned in the other direction. They purged reformers from government and ordered more than 200,000 soldiers from the countryside to attack demonstrating students in the cities. On the night of June 3-4, 1989, the Chinese Communist Party massacred those who dared to hope for democracy in their country.

For many American observers, the flowering of freedom in Eastern Europe disguised the murder of courageous activists in China. The Chinese Communist Party has subsequently used force, economic coercion, and propaganda to erase the memory of June 1989. Twenty-five years later it is difficult to imagine the democracy movement in China producing anything other than the repression and autocracy that followed it. Twenty-five years later the current communist regime appears “natural,” even appropriate for a vast and populous Chinese society in need of political order and managed economy.

Returning to the history of the Chinese tragedy in 1989 deflates this very damaging lie. Chinese society, like its counterparts in Eastern Europe, had many democratic alternatives to repression in that promising early summer. The popular movement in Beijing and other cities was as serious and substantive as anything occurring elsewhere. Chinese democracy activists had a long history of their own to draw upon, including major efforts a decade earlier. The reformers were well-educated, cosmopolitan, and compelling. They had supporters throughout the Chinese political and military establishment. Many of them had strong personal and institutional connections to the power elite of their society.

The massacre at Tiananmen was a rear-guard action opposed by many and, by some accounts, barely pulled off. For a few days it appeared that the military might revolt against its instructions to attack civilians. Some high-ranking generals resigned or disregarded orders. The success of the repression shows the extreme determination of a select few leaders, and their effective manipulation of a large and poorly-informed rural population.

It clearly did not have to turn out this way. Renewed focus on the realistic alternatives of 1989 should remind us that alternatives are also available today. History is about contingencies, near misses, and possibilities for rapid change after long periods of stagnation. Repression is never as “necessary” as it seems.

Americans had little influence over the Chinese events in 1989. Our influence is similarly limited twenty-five years later. We have many reasons to work closely with the contemporary Chinese government for the sake of East Asian security and global economic growth, both of which are imperiled today.

The historical memory of 1989, and the remembrance of what might have been, should prevent us from simply accepting present circumstances. The Chinese people have a recent and an ancient history of struggling for self-governance, personal dignity, and freedom from repression. We should affirm those values as we manage our relations with the current regime.

All politics, like all relationships, is about the past, the present, and the future. The present Chinese leadership must recognize that it cannot erase the past. It must instead make that past part of its future. Thinking back to the optimistic early summer of 1989, we owe the kindling of this historical memory to those who suffered for change and those who might make it young again.

Artwork by Melissa Reese. 


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