“The dream of changing China died on a night of no moon.”    -Phillip Cunningham

It began as a demonstration of mourning for Hu Yaobang, the highly admired former General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) who passed away suddenly on April 15, 1989.  Hu had been dismissed as General Secretary in early 1987 by hard-liners in the Politburo for his perceived mishandling of student protests in the months prior.   On the evening prior to Hu’s memorial service, thousands of students occupied Tiananmen Square.  The organized display of grief was a veiled criticism of Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese “leader emeritus” who continued to hold considerable power despite no longer holding a formal position.  The student’s complaints ran from economic (30% inflation the previous year) to personal (no choice in career) to political (official corruption; communist party’s monopoly on power).[i]  Although Deng had done much to reform China’s political and economic system since the Mao era, he still had to balance between competing factions within the Chinese political establishment, and many of the demonstrators chafed at both the slowness of the political reforms and the significant inequality created by the economic changes.[ii]  The unrest ultimately spread to 341 cities throughout the country.[iii]  

By April 18, the mourning had morphed into full protest and a “United Students Association” was formed.  After the official mourning period for Hu Yaobang ended, the Politburo issued an edict – via a People’s Dailyeditorial on April 26 – denouncing the “chaotic disturbances” and illegal organizations, warning that troops would be sent in.[iv]  Deng indeed gave instructions for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to mobilize at this time.[v]  The editorial backfired, sparking many more students to occupy the square, now with widespread support from Beijing citizens.  Some students began hunger strikes, which brought attention from the foreign press.[vi]   The protests disrupted a previously scheduled visit from Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, an embarrassment which was the final straw for the hard-liners in the Politburo – they declared martial law on May 19.   General Secretary Zhao Zhang, who had opposed the April 26 editorial and had sought to ease tensions by establishing dialogue between the students and their government, was removed from power in circumstances similar to his predecessor and placed under house arrest.      

As Chinese soldiers, mostly unarmed, moved in from the outskirts toward the center of the city they found themselves swarmed and stopped by the citizens of Beijing, intent on protecting the students in the square.  What followed were two tense weeks.  As the troops withdrew and regrouped, Deng maneuvered to install Jiang Zemin as Zhao’s successor.   Jiang had earned high praise for his deft handling of Shanghai protestors in 1986.[vii]   Deng also spent much political capital convincing the military leadership that the use of force was required to restore order.   Meanwhile, the student leaders of the protest struggled with flagging participation, disorganization, and the lack of coherence in their poorly articulated goals.   The now iconic “Goddess of Democracy” styrofoam statue was in some ways a last gasp attempt to provide a symbol of unity and attract attention from abroad.

When Deng gave the order to clear the square by any means necessary no later than dawn on June 4, the military was ready.  In addition to some 150,000 troops positioned at the periphery of the city, many plain-clothed soldiers had been sent in via clandestine means.   On the moonless night of June 3, the army entered Beijing in pre-planned waves, and were met once again by civilian resistance.  Citizens blocked PLA vehicles with concrete barriers, buses, and their own bodies.  Government vehicles were set on fire with molotov cocktails.  The demonstration had morphed into an uprising.[viii]  The soldiers at first responded with bullhorn warnings and tear gas, then rubber bullets, stun grenades, and warning shots with live bullets in the air.  By 11 pm, frustration turning to anger, they fired directly into the crowds, and ran over civilians with their vehicles.[ix]   Estimates of the death toll vary.  At least several hundred died, by the Chinese government’s own admission, but more likely between 1000-3000, with thousands more wounded.  Most of the violence took place on the main streets leading into Tiananmen, while the square itself was cleared with relatively little force.  Given the fact that college students in Beijing were inherently from an elite privileged class, evidence suggests that the occupiers of the square were treated differently than the ordinary citizens who bore the brunt of the PLA’s wrath.[x]             

The summary above only hints at the intricacy of politics and reform in late 20thcentury China, a complexity that continues today.  Understanding what the demonstrators truly wanted proves difficult. Much like the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Tiananmen protests relied on disaggregated leadership and mass appeal, which means that few hard choices were made.   Some wanted reform within the confines of the communist system, especially with regard to the corruption and nepotism practiced by many officials.  As parts of the economy became more market-driven, certain elites were better postured to profit, creating inequalities.  Other protestors demanded more significant changes.  Indeed, it was the statements and slogans calling for multi-party politics that became a red-line for the Politburo.   The Chinese leadership blamed the most aggressive demands on a small minority of protestors and the “black hand” of foreign intervention.   

Likewise, it is far too simplistic to simply refer to the “Chinese leadership.”   The Chinese Communist Party is not monolithic.  Factionalism prevails at the national level, and federalism attenuates the party’s control at the local level.  There was significant disagreement within the Politburo, not only in how to deal with the protests, but also with regard to the legitimacy of their grievances.  Zhao vehemently disagreed with the 26 April editorial (published without his consent while he was out of the country) and took note that the mainstream populace was highly sympathetic to many of the students’ demands. In China today, despite continued factionalism, Xi Jinping has significantly consolidated power. Elizabeth Economy describes him as “the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong” who has “launched an aggressive set of reforms that augments rather than diminishes the party’s role in political, social and economic life”[xi]   

Another key takeaway is that positions and titles have limited meaning in Chinese politics.   Deng’s ability to influence events from the background relied greatly on his personality and reputation, as well as the Chinese culture’s customary respect for elders. Even within the Politburo, the CCP gives mere lip service to laws and established procedures, as demonstrated by the manner in which Zhao was removed from power.[xii]  In times of crisis, especially when the CCP monopoly on power is in question, conservative voices prevail and reformers will take the fall.  

Deng Xiaoping demonstrated no remorse for the horrific actions he directed to keep his party in power.  The Bush administration, despite significant domestic political pressure, gave a response balanced between condemnation and continued engagement.   There was no desire to throw away almost two decades of rapprochement that still held strategic importance even in the waning years of the Cold War, not to mention increasing economic value, with a confrontational response that would have little effect.  “Bush walked the tightrope with skill and elegance,” writes Henry Kissinger.[xiii] Still, one would have liked to have seen more costs imposed on China at the time, to demonstrate to the Chinese Politburo that mowing down unarmed citizens is not how modern, civilized countries conduct themselves.   In retrospect, the muted U.S. response was realpolitik based on a false premise: that continued engagement with China would lead to reform, liberalization, and assimilation into the existing world order. And yet the United States needed to conduct a strategy of engagement for the last thirty years, even in the face of Chinese recalcitrance, if only to provide moral and historical justification for the competition that has since arisen and the conflict that may yet to come.

The 1989 Tiananmen protest was not an isolated event in China’s modern history.   From the May 4thmovement in 1919, the 1976 demonstrations honoring Zhou Enlai’s death, and the previously mentioned 1986 student movement, China has often seen its youth seek to remind the government of its responsibilities and promises.   Since 1989, protest activities have actually increased in terms of occurrence, albeit on much smaller scales.  Protestors have gotten wiser with regards to avoiding CCP tripwires, focusing more against local authorities.  And the party has grown more adept at dealing with protest – nipping it in the bud when required, ignoring it otherwise, and all the while tightening censorship on the internet and building sophisticated surveillance networks.   As Melanie Hart from the Center for American Progress recently commented on the “Jaw Jaw” podcast, we should not underestimate the CCP’s ability to adjust and calibrate their approaches to maintaining power.   The leadership now relies much more heavily on People’s Armed Police (PAP), the domestic security apparatus, instead of the PLA, to handle domestic unrest and has most recently placed the PAP under the Central Military Commission alongside the PLA.   In Xinjian, hundreds of thousands of Muslim Uighurs are held in concentration camps.  As Dr. Economy succinctly summarizes, “Under Xi’s leadership, China’s domestic political and economic landscape does not reflect progress toward an open, transparent, or democratic system.”[xiv]   

We should have no illusion that political unrest in China will bring about regime change any time soon. Yet despite a demonstrated ability to suppress and manage mass protests, they are crises that consume and distract Beijing leadership.  There are signs that the leadership in Beijing are becoming more anxious, even as they tighten their grip, reflecting a historical fear of chaos.[xv]  Given the significant civil disturbances seen in Hong Kong over the past decade, as the CCP reneges on previous agreements regarding Hong Kong’s autonomy, China’s continuing desire to bring Taiwan into the fold is somewhat baffling.  If Hong Kong is causing headache for Beijing, Taiwan will be a migraine, since its citizens have already participated in full-throated democracy.  Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, they have seen behind the curtain.  

The best we can hope for in China is continued protests that might cause a slow erosion of the CCP’s monopoly on power, information, and ideas, meanwhile imposing cost and distraction on the leadership in Beijing.  A reformed China may not necessarily be a democratic country, and most likely not a liberal one.   There is a high probability that even a democratic China without the CCP will still be highly nationalistic with continued extralegal claims on neighboring territory and seas, hegemonic designs in East Asia, and a desire to warp the existing international system to better suit its goals.

Thirty years later, the ghosts of Tiananmen continue to haunt.   They remind the Chinese elite that their mandate for power comes not from heaven, but from the barrel of a gun, and yet reinforces their notion that repression is still the best alternative to the chaos that would replace them. And the same ghosts remind us, in this era of renewed competition and confrontation, that we must be clear-eyed in understanding who we are dealing with.   

Any and all opinions are solely my own and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense.  

Photo credit:  AP Photo/Mikami


[i]Ezra F. Vogel, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 2011), 599-601.  

[ii]Henry Kissinger, On China(New York: Penguin, 2012), 406-407.

[iii]Kissinger, 409.

[iv]June Teufel Dreyer, China’s Political System: Modernization and Tradition(New York: Routledge, 2019), 120.

[v]Vogel, 616. 

[vi]Dreyer, 120.

[vii]Vogel, 578.

[viii]Philip Cunningham, Tiananmen Moon: Inside the Chinese Student Uprising of 1989(Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009), Kindle edition, location 3897.

[ix]Vogel, 629 and Cunningham, 3867.

[x]Cunningham, location 3291.

[xi]Elizabeth Economy, The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State(New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 11.

[xii]Bao Pu, Renee Chiang, and Adi Ingatius, trans. and eds., Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Zhao Ziyang(New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009) Kindle edition, location 1005.

[xiii]Kissinger, 415.

[xiv]Economy, 236.

[xv]Chris Buckley, “Chinese Leader on Edge in Year Rife with Risks,” New York Times, 26 February 2019 

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