Tiananmen at 25

One week ago was the 25th anniversery of the crackdown that crushed the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Would things had been different today had the protests not taken place? There was never a possibility of the protests succeeding in overthrowing the existing order given that the ideas and demands where inchoate and unrealistic, so what were the causes and consequences of the protests and why is there so little resonance here in China today?

Had Tiananmen not taken place, the perennial internal problems that bedevil China, internal versus coastal developemnt, rural versus urban and central versus regional power would remain. What the crackdown did was that it allowed the hard-liners such as Li Peng to gain enough power to recentralize control and shape social and economic policy in the years following the incident. Then Party Secretary General Zhao Zhiang, who was a champion of Deng Xiaoping's market oriented reforms, would not have been purged and the current economic liberalization may have happened sooner. Deng must be considered one of the great leaders and humanitarians of the 20th century, bravely initiating reforms that would eventually lead more people out of destitution than at any other time in human history.

In 1989, extensive fiscal and legislative powers had been decentralized to regional governments, leaving Beijing weakened and unable to unify policy. The economy was faltering, which was a prime driver of the protests to begin with, and Beijing may not have been able to reassert control without Tiananmen. What the protests did was allow the CCP to recentralize power on their own terms in 1989. This is important because two years later the disintegration of the Soviet Union rapidly occured and could have spread to China, and without the retrenchment of power in Beijing that had just taken place as a result of the serious but managable Tiananmen incident, China may not have had the command and control in place to manage the crisis. For the CCP, the Tiananmen protesters, with no real platform or power base, may have saved the Communist Party of China by giving it cause to reassert control before the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Since 1989, due to censorship and a general scrubbing of history, “the incident” has disappeared down the memory hole for the most part. To those born after 1989, it exists, in some sort of ephemeral way, but an entire generation has grown up post-1989 with no real knowledge of the event and has only seen a China that is on the rise. No attempt has been made to rehabilitate the memory of those involved as is the case with The Great Leap Forward and The Cultural Revolution. This history of Tiananmen should not be viewed as simply the crushing of a genuine uprising and realistic hope for democracy for China, it was neither to begin with. Ironically, the history of Tianamen shoud be viewed as the event that permitted the reassertion of CCP authority during a time of weakness, crucially just prior to the dissolution of the Soviet Union that saw the fall of communism from Poland to Russia to Khazakstan.

 

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