Twenty-Five Years After Tiananmen: The Flame of Democracy Still Burns in China


A Sense of Crisis in the Party and Government

June 4, 2014, marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters occupying Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Fearing the outbreak of another incident, the Communist Party of China and the Chinese government reportedly stepped up their watch on pro-democracy activists and tightened the guard in and around the square. This was in response to the heightening of criticism of the party and government and calls for democracy that have accompanied the spread of the Internet, which has made it easier for ordinary citizens to learn about official corruption, scandals, and the widening wealth gap.

The party and government are aware of this situation and have a strong sense of crisis with respect to it. Speaking to a collective study session of the Politburo in November 2012, just after taking office as CPC general secretary, President Xi Jinping noted, “In some countries in recent years, contradictions that accumulated over a long period invited rancor among the masses, leading to social unrest and the collapse of governments.” He further warned, “Things always rot first, and then the worms appear. The mass of facts are telling us this: The problem of corruption is growing more severe and [if allowed to continue] will ultimately destroy the party and the state.” This sense of crisis has led to fear of a recurrence of the Tiananmen Square incident.

The 1989 Leadership Team Passes from the Scene

Time flies. Students who were around 20 years old at the time of the 1989 incident are now in their forties. The younger generation of people who do not know about the incident has grown, and one after another the party and government leaders of the time have passed away or at least disappeared from the political scene. Deng Xiaoping, the supreme leader who made the final decision to use military force against the demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, died eight years later, in 1997. Other senior leaders who backed Deng at the time have also died: Chen Yun (who was then chairman of the CPC Central Advisory Commission), Wang Zhen (vice-president of the People’s Republic of China), Bo Yibo (vice-chairman of the Central Advisory Commission), Peng Zhen (chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress), Yang Shangkun (president of the PRC), and Li Xiannian (former president of the PRC). Meanwhile, Jiang Zemin, the Shanghai-based leader who became CPC general secretary and president of the PRC after the incident, has retired, as has Li Peng, who was serving as premier of the PRC at the time. Meanwhile, CPC General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, who opposed the use of force against the demonstrators and was forced to step down, subsequently lived under house arrest, refusing to recant through to the end of his life in 2005.

When CPC and Chinese government officials are asked their views of the Tiananmen Incident, they say little, declaring that the matter is settled. In fact, though, the authorities’ assessment of the incident has changed gradually over the past quarter century. In the highly charged atmosphere immediately after the event, the activities of the students and citizens who had been calling for democracy were labeled an “antirevolutionary insurrection” (fan-geming baoluan). This assessment was never officially revoked, but later the incident came to be called a “disturbance” (dongluan), and now the term “political tempest” (zhengzhi fengbo) has come into use. It has become impossible for the authorities to keep voicing the original assessment and completely cast aside the demonstrators’ call for democracy.

More than 600 Million Net Users

The Chinese economy stalled in the wake of the Tiananmen Square incident, but it subsequently recovered, and after an extended period of rapid growth, China has overtaken Japan, becoming second only to the United States in terms of gross domestic product. Of course, there are many Chinese who have not enjoyed the benefits of this growth, but overall the lives of common people have improved steadily. And according to the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), the number of Internet users as of the end of 2013 came to 617.58 million.

Ordinary people now have some financial leeway, and they have turned in great numbers to the Internet, which quickly transmits information of various sorts. Many have taken to directing criticism at the corruption of the party and government officialdom, ducking the eyes of the authorities. On December 9, 2008, a document titled “Charter 08” suddenly appeared and spread online, causing a great commotion with its attack on the one-party dictatorship of the CPC and demands for democracy, liberty, and respect for human rights.

The charter was signed by 303 people, including famous Chinese authors and scholars, lawyers, and journalists. Many intellectuals subsequently added their signatures online, causing the authorities to take alarm at what they saw as a “revolt of the intelligentsia.” Liu Xiaobo, the writer believed to have been the originator of the charter, was later arrested, and in 2010 he was sentenced to 11 years in prison and 2 years without political rights, but in the same year he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The idea that democracy is a natural objective has spread within Chinese society, and the advocates of this cause have won support from the international community. This would have been unthinkable during the Cultural Revolution, the decade of upheaval that started in 1966 under Chairman Mao Zedong.

Revisiting Tiananmen

The momentum in favor of reassessing the Tiananmen Square incident can only grow stronger. Every year demonstrators gather on June 4 in Hong Kong to demand democracy for China and a reevaluation of the 1989 incident. And new pro-democracy activists are emerging one after another within China. The party and government are bringing their police powers fully to bear in an ongoing attempt to suppress this movement, but they have been unable to come up with a fundamental solution. The torch of democracy has continued to be passed on in China even after Tiananmen.

(Originally written in Japanese. Banner photo: Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the site of the bloody incident on June 4, 1989. © Reuters/Aflo.)

China Xi Jinping Communist Party Tiananmen Square incident pro-democracy movement