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Home » Analyses and Opinions » How the Tiananmen Massacre Changed China, and the World

How the Tiananmen Massacre Changed China, and the World

By Hu Ping, translated by Matthew Robertson, June 2, 2015

“What we need to grasp is that the existence of a political system that is so perverse in its reason, and so unfair and unjust to its subjects, is an open taunt to the conscience and sense of justice of humanity. The international rise of that system, too, is perforce a threat to freedom and world peace.”  

 

Revealed for the first time this year, this photo is from a personal collection. https://twitter.com/ZhouFengSuo/status/602473738148257794 revealed

Revealed for the first time this year, this photo is from a personal collection. https://twitter.com/ZhouFengSuo/status/602473738148257794 

Twenty-six years ago in China, a peaceful civil movement of unprecedented proportions suddenly blossomed, demonstrating once and for all that democracy in China wasn’t the special province of a few dissidents, but the deepest wish of millions. But before long the movement was brutally crushed by the Chinese Communist Party’s hardline faction, headed by Party leader Deng Xiaoping. The violence drew international outcry and fractured the ruling regime at the apex of its power.

Then, within a year, Eastern Europe and then the Soviet Union underwent a massive shift, and the international communist camp crumbled. America became the sole superpower, and democracy saw its greatest victories. It seemed a matter of common sense to believe that China’s communist dictatorship would, too, soon fall apart.

But 26 years have passed, and the Chinese Communist Party has not collapsed. On the contrary, it’s become stronger than ever, and its rapid economic growth is widely acclaimed to be “the China miracle.” Perhaps more surprising, though, is the fact that along with its economic reform China has seen no reform, or even softening, of its political system. Furthermore, recent events have shown that the Communist Party has become even more dictatorial domestically, and has abandoned its dictum of “biding time” on the international stage and is instead openly throwing its weight around.

Meanwhile, it seems that Western democracies, including America, are encountering all manner of crises. The structure of international geopolitics seems to be shifting, and the so-called “China Model” appears to pose a major challenge to global democracy.

It’s in light of all this that we have to conclude that, 26 years ago, the June 4 Massacre not only changed China, but the world too.

The Tiananmen massacre did two things: it stunted China’s political reforms, and it put the country’s economic development on a deviant path. Public sentiment was so badly crushed during June 4 that the privatization agenda which soon came to China lacked even the most basic public participation or supervision, and devolved into a naked wealth grab by those with power. Officials mighty and small got involved in unrestrained asset stripping in the name of “reform,” turning what belonged to the commonweal into their own personal property.

Oddly, this cronyist privatization, while morally base and sordid, is probably one of the most effective and rapid means of transforming a state-run economy—for the simple fact that it avoids the fragmentation of capital that would have occurred in a truly public process. This, in turn, prevented an economic slowdown, and ensured growth—for a time.

On top of this, China was able to ride on the coattails of globalization, sucking in massive amounts of international capital, technology, and managerial know-how, while exploiting its ability to give the lowest possible wages and conditions to its workers. All this took place as the Party encouraged the masses to forget about politics and simply make as much money as possible, ensuring that the worst form of capitalist excess was delivered with the most competitive punch.

China’s economic development is indeed dazzling. But it has a fatal flaw: it lacks legitimacy. The Chinese Communist Party rose to power by lynching landlords and capitalists and dividing up the spoils, and now the Party itself has become China’s biggest landlord and capitalist. In the name of revolution, it took from the individual and gave to the so-called collective, and later, in the name of reform, it stole from the collective and lined the pockets of its own members.

It robbed in the name of revolution, and is now divvying up the loot in the name of reform. It’s remarkable that these two rotten things—each contradicting the other—were done by the same Party within a 60 year span. Has there ever been such shamelessness, such obscenity?

Even today, there are still some who believe that with further development, and the growth of a middle class, China will gradually evolve towards liberal democracy. This long-held narrative presupposes that China is on the right path now. But it isn’t. It isn’t, because of choices made through political expediency after the Tiananmen Massacre. Continuing down this crooked path is simply going to move China further away from democracy, and this has become plainly evident especially over the last couple of years since Xi Jinping took power. For 26 years, precisely because too many people have accepted the faulty premise of economic development inevitably leading to political reform, the proper and righteous resistance to the Party’s dictatorship has been forgotten. Instead, the world sits and watches, or even helps the hydra grow.

What we need to grasp is that the existence of a political system that is so perverse in its reason, and so unfair and unjust to its subjects, is an open taunt to the conscience and sense of justice of humanity. The international rise of that system, too, is perforce a threat to freedom and world peace. Waiting for history to do its work is merely postponing the time to make a stand, trying to avoid risk, or forcing the next generation to shoulder that burden. But as time marches on, resistance will become harder, the dangers will become even more acute, and when victory is won, it will be won with even greater difficulty and suffering.

 

Hu Ping (胡平)

Hu Ping (胡平)

Hu Ping (胡平) is the chief editor of Beijing Spring, a long-running New York-based Chinese democracy magazine. Mr. Hu has been one of the best known Chinese liberal thinkers and commentators since early 1980s, and his essay On Freedom of Expression influenced many intellectuals and students in China in the 80s when he was a graduate student of philosophy at Peking University.

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Related:

June 4th Stands for the World’s Unfinished Business, by Kong Tsung Gan, May 31, 2015.

 

 


13 Comments

  1. Foo Wong says:

    I can understand a limited and distorted view of the world before 1989. But to insist on another view of the world from abroad, from relative freedom, begs the question why?
    Egypt, the Middle East, Africa are all suffer as immensely, politically, and economically, as one fifth of the world’s population who are Chinese. This is all under liberal democracies.
    Tiananmen was put down because it was a movement for political revolution, which is why it was crushed.
    A genuinely successful democratic change will have to beyond the constitutional democracies of East Asia and the West. Otherwise we are adking people to make predictable risks in order to replace Xi Jinping with Jack Ma.

  2. […] were not necessary, the CCP is heading in the direction the students demanded all by itself. An article I saw today does a good job blowing a hole in this […]

  3. […] Exiled writer Hu Ping makes a similar point in a piece published on China Change: […]

  4. […] How the Tiananmen Massacre Changed China, and the World « China Change – Hu Ping 26 years have passed, and the Chinese Communist Party has not collapsed. On the contrary, it’s become stronger than ever, and its rapid economic growth is widely acclaimed to be “the China miracle.” Perhaps more surprising, though, is the fact that along with its economic reform China has seen no reform, or even softening, of its political system. Furthermore, recent events have shown that the Communist Party has become even more dictatorial domestically, and has abandoned its dictum of “biding time” on the international stage and is instead openly throwing its weight around. […]

  5. […] How the Tiananmen Massacre Changed China, and the World « China Change – Hu Ping 26 years have passed, and the Chinese Communist Party has not collapsed. On the contrary, it’s become stronger than ever, and its rapid economic growth is widely acclaimed to be “the China miracle.” Perhaps more surprising, though, is the fact that along with its economic reform China has seen no reform, or even softening, of its political system. Furthermore, recent events have shown that the Communist Party has become even more dictatorial domestically, and has abandoned its dictum of “biding time” on the international stage and is instead openly throwing its weight around. […]

  6. Godfree Roberts says:

    It’s too soon to know what will be the ‘legacy’ of Tiananmen.
    It happened before we had Internet access to our collective memory, but now Tiananmen is beginning to look like another WMD or Russian invasion of Ukraine. In other words, did it happen at all? Was there a massacre, or was there an months-long demonstration by China’s elite university students – after which they went home?
    Here’s some documentary evidence that it might have been the latter:
    The Columbia Journalism Review critiques coverage of Tiananmen:
    http://www.cjr.org/behind_the_news/the_myth_of_tiananmen.php?page=all

    US State Department’s cables at the time:
    http://www.alternativeinsight.com/Tiananmen.html

    The Massacre that Wasn’t: http://www.globalresearch.ca/what-really-happened-in-tiananmen-square-25-years-ago/5385528

    Britain’s Daily Telegraph:
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/wikileaks/8555142/Wikileaks-no-bloodshed-inside-Tiananmen-Square-cables-claim.htm
    Wikileaks: no bloodshed inside Tiananmen Square, cables claim

    Secret cables from the United States embassy in Beijing have shown there was no bloodshed inside Tiananmen Square when China put down student pro-democracy demonstrations 22 years ago.

    [IMAGE] Students link arms to hold back angry crowds from chasing a group of retreating soldiers Photo: AP Photo/Mark Avery

    By Malcolm Moore, The Daily Telegraph, Shanghai

    8:00AM BST 04 Jun 2011

    The cables, obtained by WikiLeaks and released exclusively by The Daily Telegraph, partly confirm the Chinese government’s account of the early hours of June 4, 1989, which has always insisted that soldiers did not massacre demonstrators inside Tiananmen Square. Instead, the cables show that Chinese soldiers opened fire on protesters outside the centre of Beijing, as they fought their way towards the square from the west of the city.

    Three cables were sent from the US embassy on June 3, in the hours leading up to the suppression, as diplomats realised that the final showdown between the protesters and soldiers was looming. The cables described the “10,000 to 15,000 helmeted armed troops” moving into the city, some of whom were “carrying automatic weapons”. Meanwhile, “elite airborne troops” and “tank units” were said to be moving up from the south.

    Wikileaks Tiananmen cables 04 Jun 2011

    The army came up against “an elaborate system of blockades”, described in a cable from May 21, 1989, which allowed students to “control much of central Beijing”.

    Diplomats observed that “there were buses turned sideways to form roadblocks” and students had vowed the army would not be able to cross. “But we doubt it”, one cable added. Students also used teams of motorcycle couriers to communicate with the roadblocks, sending reinforcements where needed.

    As the troops moved in, the cables stated that diplomatic staff were repeatedly warned to “stay at home” unless involved in front-line reporting. “The situation in the centre of the city is very confused,” said a cable from June 3. “Political officers at the Beijing Hotel reported that troops are pushing a large crowd east on Chang’an avenue. Although these troops appear not to be firing on the crowd, they report firing behind the troops coming from the square”.

    Inside the square itself, a Chilean diplomat was on hand to give his US counterparts an eyewitness account of the final hours of the pro-democracy movement.

    “He watched the military enter the square and did not observe any mass firing of weapons into the crowds, although sporadic gunfire was heard. He said that most of the troops which entered the square were actually armed only with anti-riot gear – truncheons and wooden clubs; they were backed up by armed soldiers,” a cable from July 1989 said.

    The diplomat, who was positioned next to a Red Cross station inside Tiananmen Square, said a line of troops surrounded him and “panicked” medical staff into fleeing. However, he said that there was “no mass firing into the crowd of students at the monument”.

    According to internal Communist party files, released in 2001, 2,000 soldiers from the 38th army, together with 42 armoured vehicles, began slowly sweeping across the square from north to south at 4.30am on June 4. At the time, around 3,000 students were sitting around the Monument to the People’s Heroes on the southern edge of the giant square, near Chairman Mao’s mausoleum.

    Leaders of the protest, including Liu Xiaobo, the winner of last year’s Nobel Peace prize, urged the students to depart the square, and the Chilean diplomat relayed that “once agreement was reached for the students to withdraw, linking hands to form a column, the students left the square through the south east corner.” The testimony contradicts the reports of several journalists who were in Beijing at the time, who described soldiers “charging” into unarmed civilians and suggests the death toll on the night may be far lower than the thousands previously thought.

    In 2009, James Miles, who was the BBC correspondent in Beijing at the time, admitted that he had “conveyed the wrong impression” and that “there was no massacre on Tiananmen Square. Protesters who were still in the square when the army reached it were allowed to leave after negotiations with martial law troops [ …] There was no Tiananmen Square massacre, but there was a Beijing massacre”.

    Instead, the fiercest fighting took place at Muxidi, around three miles west of the square, where thousands of people had gathered spontaneously on the night of June 3 to halt the advance of the army.

    According to the Tiananmen Papers, a collection of internal Communist party files, soldiers started using live ammunition at around 10.30pm, after trying and failing to disperse the crowd with tear gas and rubber bullets. Incredulous, the crowd tried to escape but were hampered by its own roadblocks.

    The cables also reveal the extent to which the student democracy protests had won popular support, and how for several weeks the protesters effectively occupied the whole of central Beijing, posing an existential challenge to the Communist party.

    One cable, from May 21, 1989, reports that an anonymous caller had told the US consulate in Shenyang that Ni Zhifu, the chairman of China’s labour unions, had condemned martial law in the capital and warned that unless the students were treated with more respect he would lead a general workers’ strike that would cripple China.

  7. […] How the Tiananmen Massacre Changed China, and the World, June 2, 2015. […]

  8. […] How the Tiananmen Massacre Changed China, and the World, June 2, 2015. […]

  9. peter says:

    How the Tiananmen Massacre changed China? Nil. It doesn’t exist.
    How the Tiananmen Massacre changed the world? It is here: US, Britain, France, Germany and Australia had accepted a huge bunch of Chinese asylum seekers, 90% of which has never been to Tiananmen at all. Just like what is happening now, US and EU stirred up big chaos in Syria, now they have to accept millions of asylum seekers in which more than 80% are not even Syrians.

  10. […] How the Tiananmen Massacre Changed China, and the World, June 2, 2015 中文原文《與其問蔡英文,不如問習近平-九二共識之我見》,translated by China Change. […]

  11. […] How the Tiananmen Massacre Changed China, and the World, by Hu Ping, June 4, 2015. […]

  12. […] How the Tiananmen Massacre Changed China, and the World, Hu Ping, June 2, 2015. […]

  13. Frank says:

    The bloody and merciless crackdown on unarmed demonstrators in Beijing, in the streets leading into Tiananmen but not right on the Square itself, became notorious worldwide as “the Chinese solution.” This negative example of how terroristically a communist regime could trample over its own unarmed citizens in order to hold on to its monopolistic power contributed–as an example to avoid–to the almost entirely bloodless collapse of every single-party Leninist authoritarian regime in Eastern Europe from 1989 to 1991, with the exception of the Ceausescu communist regime in Romania, which went down with some violence in response to the regime’s Beijing-like massacre of unarmed demonstrators in Timisoara. However, none of Asia’s handful of single-party Leninist authoritarian regimes except for the Republic of Mongolia underwent political liberalization at that time around the 1989-1990 watershed period–so the PRC is not an exception here, but part of the rule that also holds for North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and arguably Cambodia as well, where Hun Sen has been de facto “president for life” ever since his Vietnamese Communist patrons installed him as leader in place of the defeated Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. This isn’t to claim that political liberalization can’t or won’t happen among these Asian authoritarian regimes, but to point out that such liberalization is not an historical inevitability even if a given regime shifts from central planning to bureaucratic capitalism, which most have done. There must be a critical mass of public intellectuals and other activists to lead the citizenry in demanding their basic rights such as popular elections of national leaders, genuine rule of law, an independent judiciary, nationalization of the party-defending military, and genuine freedom of speech and press.

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