This week marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the deadly crackdown on peaceful pro-democracy protestors in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. On June 4, 1989, hundreds (perhaps thousands) were beaten, shot, and crushed to death as Chinese soldiers fired on demonstrators and drove tanks and armored vehicles through the crowds. In the quarter-century since, much has changed in China—but has political reform advanced at all? A host of experts and activists are pessimistic.
First of all, say Andrew Nathan and Hua Ze, there has been a “continuous intensification of repression” since 1989. Last month, a dozen activists were “disappeared” after meeting privately to commemorate the massacre. The government continues to detain nearly 5,000 political prisoners, and its approach to political dissent is still informed by its conclusion regarding the 1989 protestors: dialogue shows weakness; crackdowns preserve the regime’s power. The fateful choice to deal with Tiananmen protestors in the latter fashion cast the mold for government-subject relations into the present day. “Refusal to dialogue with citizens,” the authors note, “has marked the regime’s modus operandi since then. This explains why citizens lack trust in government when it comes to land seizures, corruption, and pollution.”
This refusal to dialogue, from China’s perspective, is part of a bargain that has maintained the regime’s power over the last few decades. As Naazneen Barma and Ely Ratner explained in Democracy in 2006, China has developed “a radical counterpoint to democratic liberalism”: “a state-society compact through which the government provides a certain measure of economic prosperity in return for society allowing it to govern unchallenged. Freedom and civil liberties are exchanged for order and wealth and, to the degree that the state continues to deliver on its promise, the regime is unlikely to moderate.” Despite uprisings like Tiananmen, “the regime’s grip on power has yet to crack, and liberty has yet to blossom.”
In 2011, Jeffrey Herf wondered in these pages how long the regime could maintain this strategy. How long, Herf asked, can China “become wealthier and more educated while remaining a one-party dictatorship”? Herf observed,
In 1989, the Chinese Communists still believed enough in their own system to kill young people in Tiananmen Square. It seems plausible to me that in ten, 20, or 30 years, fewer and fewer will be willing to fight for that belief. China will probably face its own reckoning when, in the face of protests for democracy, it decides not to shoot to sustain dictatorship. It has already abandoned the essence of communist economics. To use Marxist terminology, the base is undermining the superstructure.
That prediction may turn out to be true someday, but many Chinese activists seem to think that day could be very far off. Liao Yiwu fears that if “commemorat[ing] 1989 in a private home” counts as “‘provoking unrest,’ then we have returned to the thought-police of the Mao era.” Hua Jia, currently under house arrest, argues that over the last 65 years, the Chinese Communist Party has created “a sense of spiritual confusion. We have no belief or faith. Instead we have brutal competition and treating people brutally. If someone falls, no one goes to help them.” And many young Chinese—the people who, a generation ago, would have been in the streets—are accustomed to the status quo, writes Helen Gao: “Nationwide, China’s best and brightest are chasing the stability and prestige offered by the state system.” The regime’s bargain persists, for now.