How Tiananmen Square Shaped Modern China

While Western media has focused heavily this week on today’s 25th anniversary of the brutal crackdown at Tiananmen Square—where thousands of pro-democracy protesters were killed by the military—the Chinese government has done its utmost to quash the discussion in its own land. The Internet is being heavily censored, and rights groups say at least 50 people involved in commemoration efforts have been detained, put under house arrest or disappeared. Police have even warned foreign journalists not to go to Tiananmen Square.

So why are the events of June 4, 1989 so taboo? NPR’s Louisa Lim argues that anniversary censorship and repression in general serves as a barometer of Chinese leadership’s fear: fear of loss of control, fear of interruption to the country’s recent history of economic growth, and fear of its own leadership legacy. Let’s break this down.

Back to 1989

At the time of the Tiananmen Square protest, Chinese citizens had endured an ass-full of repression and bizarre social and economic reordering at the hands of Mao Zedong and his immediate successors. Lim argues that to address the social unrest exemplified by Tiananmen (but also present throughout China) and regain legitimacy, the party had to offer something to the masses.

They were none too eager to put their own hides on the chopping block through political reform, but after ages of ineffectual state-planned economics, leaders were open to economic reform. Thus a grand bargain ensued, allowing the party elite to keep themselves seated firmly in the driver’s seat, while partial capitalism yielded the material gain China currently enjoys.

Problems Today

Disposable incomes are nearly 20 times higher now than in 1989—and we know that money talks. But the economic boom wasn’t felt evenly among the populace: government critic Bao Tong outlines the “kleptocratic free-for-all” that resulted when party officials and other elites reaped the lion's share of dismantled state-owned enterprises.

And though even this unbalanced economic boom has helped quell dissatisfaction within the past couple decades, there’s indication that the populace is becoming increasingly disillusioned with their dear leaders. China experienced an estimated 180,000 protests in 2010 (the last year for which figures were disclosed), aimed at widespread government corruption, wealth disparity, human rights abuses, land seizures, environmental problems, ethnic issues and extralegal behavior (gasp for breath).

Stability Above All

But the Communist party likely internalized an important lesson from Tiananmen: that it should maintain stability, even through violence if necessary. That means stopping protests from spreading, monitoring threatening individuals and instilling strict censorship—all backed up by the threat of physical harm. Ever heard of those Chinese “Black prisons?” Yikes.

So we’re left with the irony that though China's recent economic and political history may pivot on the defining moment at Tiananmen Square, today—possibly more than ever— it's a moment that cannot be openly discussed.

Image: ThinkStock

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