The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How today’s China was shaped by the events in Tiananmen Square 30 years ago

Paramilitary police officers march past the portrait of late communist leader Mao Zedong at Tiananmen Gate in Beijing on May 18, 2019, as the site undergoes renovations. (Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images)

BEIJING — China’s vice president, Wang Qishan, was in no mood for questions when a group of American economists went to see him in a pavilion at Communist Party headquarters in Beijing recently.

Instead, Wang, wearing a tracksuit and slippers, delivered a philosophical, hour-long lecture to scholars from the Peterson Institute for International Economics in which he asserted the supremacy of the Chinese way over Western traditions.

After reminding his visitors that the lives of Socrates and Confucius overlapped, he talked about how Europe ended up as small, splintered states while China became a vast and powerful empire. There was no doubt his critique of the West’s perceived weaknesses also included the present-day United States.

This is the China of today: supremely confident, richer than it could have imagined three decades ago, and more convinced than ever of the rightness of its repressive model of authoritarian political control.

In many ways, this is a direct result of a seismic event that took place 30 years ago Tuesday. On June 4, 1989, unknown numbers of Chinese — hundreds or perhaps thousands — were killed by their own military in response to a huge gathering in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to call for change.

As many as 1 million people — students from Beijing’s most prestigious universities, later joined by Chinese from all walks of life — had made their way to the heart of the capital. That sparked smaller supporting demonstrations around the country. They were calling for greater transparency, less corruption and, ideally, the opportunity to elect their own government.

Here's what led to the 1989 student demonstrations and military crackdown in Beijing. This video was originally produced for the 25th anniversary of the event. (Video: Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

The Communist Party of China, which had been in power for 40 years by that stage, viewed the demonstrations as an existential challenge. Its leaders ordered the soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army to clear Tiananmen Square, using whatever means necessary. The soldiers beat people, shot people, ran people over with tanks.

He spent 17 years in prison after Tiananmen. But he will not be silent

“The powerful figures in the country were meant to serve the people, but they turned out to be the enemy of people,” said He Weifang, a Peking University law professor and public intellectual who was involved in the 1989 movement and continues to call for greater freedoms.

After the blood had been washed from the streets, the Communist Party began the great reshaping of the country. It created an implicit compact with the people: You can have economic growth, but you can’t have political freedom.

This bifurcation is more apparent than ever as President Xi Jinping enters his seventh year at the helm of China.

“My generation had so much hope and enthusiasm,” said Liu Suli, who was a 29-year-old university lecturer when he joined the protests in 1989. “We wanted elections, freedom of speech, freedom of association, the ability to demonstrate, education for all.”

Today, however, many academics are banned from talking to foreign media. Officials from government departments and state-owned enterprises are allowed to travel abroad only if they go in pairs. Think tanks and historical journals have been closed. 

PostReports: How China erased the Tiananmen massacre

Ideological education has been re-energized in scenes reminiscent of the era of the communist leader Mao Zedong 50 years ago. Students at the top universities are finding Marxist lessons woven into their curriculum. Human rights lawyers have been detained by the scores.

Religion is repressed, none more than Islam. The authorities have razed mosques and locked millions of Uighurs, a largely Muslim ethnic minority, in indoctrination centers in an attempt to instill loyalty to the Chinese state.

Social pressures are building because Xi’s China does not offer a release valve for dissent. “If you’re beating a child, you should allow it to cry,” said He, the intellectual, citing an old Chinese saying. “They should let us cry.”

Meanwhile, China has flourished into the world’s second-largest economy, a global power with 400 million middle-class consumers and a military budget exceeded only by the United States’. It is going toe to toe with Washington on trade and is able to project its influence worldwide by disbursing $1 trillion in loans through its “Belt and Road” infrastructure project. 

It is building high-speed trains to rival Japan’s and next-generation telecommunication products that alarm American intelligence agencies.

China tends to its economy with eye toward possible long trade war

China’s reality is one few would have foreseen in 1989. Except maybe Deng Xiaoping, who, as chairman of the Central Military Commission, was ultimately responsible for the massacre.

A decade before the Tiananmen protests, Deng had set out a vision for a more open, free-market economy that also ushered in a wave of foreign, liberal ideas. After he crushed the 1989 protests, Deng quickly tried to forge a more positive legacy for himself and his country.

In 1992, Deng, then 88, set out on a famous journey to accelerate the development of special economic zones in Shenzhen and Guangzhou that were powering China’s transformation into a manufacturing powerhouse.

“It was a shock. Deng came out of nowhere on his Southern Tour,” said Xu Youyu, a former researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “Everyone was rushing in to get rich. Deng was determined to push through his economic reform vision no matter the cost.”

“But it was apparent: There would be no political reform, only economic reform,” Xu added.

On one level, the numbers have backed up Deng’s vision: Income per capita has soared from $311 in 1989 to $8,826, according to latest World Bank figures.

But the party could not just present its economic accomplishments as justification for its rule. It has also sought to erase its darkest moments, creating the kind of “memory hole” that George Orwell only imagined in his classic dystopian novel “1984.”

“China has been surprisingly successful in erasing the memory of June 4,” said Louisa Lim, the author of “The People’s Republic of Amnesia.”

“They have so many different tools at their disposal, like censoring the Internet, removing any kind of material that mentions June 4 from the bookshops, and making sure that the narrative, when there has to be one, parrots the party line,” Lim said. “Wherever possible, they’ve just removed it.”

High school students, if they are told anything at all on the subject, learn only that there was an “incident” between the spring and summer of 1989. And few Chinese under age 30 recognize the “Tank Man” photo, the quintessential image of the protests in which a man carrying two shopping bags, as if he’d been out shopping for vegetables, stood in the street and stopped a column of tanks.

In the National Museum of China on the edge of Tiananmen Square, there is no mention of the protests or of the government’s response, only a photo of a Communist Party meeting that was held soon after. 

Anchors from China’s state TV and Fox are facing off

Today, a history textbook assigned at Peking University — whose students led the 1989 Tiananmen occupation — states that “throughout the student protests and hunger strikes, the party and government exercised great restraint” to deal with “those plotting riots.”

Several students said in interviews that they were cautioned by parents and teachers about discussing the event.

“Even if you know about it, you can’t say anything about it,” said one woman who is about to graduate from one of China’s best universities. The students and other Chinese spoke with The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity to avoid official reprisal.

There has never been a public reckoning about that day. There has never been an official death toll. Most parents received no explanation about how, let alone why, their children died. Some parents never even found their children’s bodies. 

“It’s 30 years now, but we have never been told the truth: How many people died, who they were, and why?” said Zhang Xianling, whose 19-year-old son, Wang Nan, was found dead a few hundred yards from Tiananmen Square on the morning of June 4. He had bullet wounds in his head. 

Authorities have been on particularly high alert this year ahead of the 30th anniversary. 

Automated censoring software is blocking any mention of the event on China’s parallel Internet. Activists and dissident former government officials who typically live under house arrest have been sent away on enforced vacations during the sensitive period.

“Even if people remember, they have no way of actively expressing that memory,” said Lim, the author.

China’s Xi looks to stoke nationalism as Tiananmen anniversary nears

Though China’s leaders smothered dissent and acts of remembrance, they have presented their economic accomplishments as justification for heavy-handed rule. While China boomed in the 2000s, the West was crippled by the 2008 financial crisis. The difference was proof, party officials said, of their authoritarian efficiency and the shortcomings of the chaotic liberal democratic model.

As China gained its swagger, Xi Jinping, the son of a politically moderate Communist Party elder statesman, was rising to the top of the party apparatus.

“When Xi became leader in 2012 and president in 2013, many people hoped that he would be like his father, a very open leader,” said He, the public intellectual. “People thought Xi would be amenable to reform. But there’s an Arabic saying to describe what happened instead: ‘A man can be more like his era than like his father.’ ”

Under Xi, the sense of Chinese preeminence quickly morphed into outright hostility to Western values. The Communist Party’s central office in 2013 distributed a watershed document warning that seven dangerous Western ideas, including democracy, media freedoms and the free-market system, was forbidden in classrooms.

If Tiananmen was a milestone in the Communist Party’s retreat from a political opening, the 2013 communique was the definitive repudiation, said Gao Yu, the dissident journalist who was jailed in 2015 for obtaining and leaking the document.

“Document No. 9 almost cuts off all Western politics and economics, it completely cuts off China’s connection with world civilization,” Gao, whose seven-year prison sentence has been reduced to house arrest, said by email. 

Months after the communique was distributed, Xi personally drove his point home. In what became known as his “August 19” speech in 2013, Xi warned Communist Party cadres that their rule could end if they loosened controls on thought.

But China’s intellectuals increasingly wonder about the cost and sustainability of the ideological firewall.

Every year, more than 360,000 Chinese students attend American universities. That number includes Xi’s daughter, who graduated from Harvard in 2014. Many leading professors and administrators at China’s top universities have studied overseas.

Chinese who spend time abroad “bring back not only the specific skills, but also the whole package, a changed framework of social values,” said a senior professor at Peking University, the Harvard of China. “It’s getting difficult for the Chinese leadership to maintain ideological discipline.”

Anecdotally, some well-educated or rich Chinese say they have had enough. Data also suggest they are voting with their feet. In 2018, twice as many millionaires — about 15,000 — emigrated from China than from any other country, according to the consultancy New World Wealth.

Those who remember 1989, when China seemed a more hopeful country, doubt the repression can hold.

As Liu, former protester and now bookstore owner, puts it: “You can build a dam higher and higher but the water just rises higher, too.”

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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