The Rift that Began in Tiananmen Square

When Deng Xiaoping met with Mikhail Gorbachev in May 1989, neither communist leader could have predicted that the events simultaneously transpiring in Tiananmen Square would ricochet around the world -- all the way to the Berlin Wall.


The world changed in 1989.

At the start of the year, the globe’s strategic map looked much like it had since the end of World War II. Communist leaders in China and the Soviet Union held power. Their American counterparts, skeptical of recent calls for change throughout the communist world, prepared for a reinvigorated Cold War of unknown duration and ferocity. Meanwhile, Europe prepared for another year divided along fault lines imposed by conquering armies nearly a half-century before.

A year later, communism would be dead in Eastern Europe and dying in the Soviet Union itself. China would be once more in the grip of hard-liners wary of reform, and once more on the precipice of isolation. Washington would be looking to capitalize on its Cold War victory. Europe would soon be rejoined. The future — our 21st-century present — would be at hand. And no one had seen it coming, least of all perhaps China, where the first of 1989’s cracks in communism would begin.

Following decades of enforced deprivation, justified by the quest for ideological purity, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and his ruling cadre sought to change their country, but without simultaneously losing the communal zeal and nationalism that had largely defined China since its 1949 revolution. More immediately, they sought some means of managing the social and political transformation sure to result from their economic reforms, believing only strict government control could ensure that the mayhem and violence of China’s recent past did not reappear.

In March 1989, dismayed by the growing power of reform movements throughout the Soviet-dominated half of the communist world, Chinese Communist Party officials met to discuss "the unrest in Eastern Europe," concluding that "every effort should be made to prevent changes in Eastern Europe from influencing China’s internal development." What was undermining communist rule abroad, they worried, might infect their own country. In 1989, they proved right to worry.

By April, Chinese masses were demanding change to a degree unseen in a generation. Students began to march in favor of reform. Others quickly followed their lead. From the hinterland, protesters surged into the city. While Chinese officials debated, the crowds continued to grow in size and enthusiasm. By May 15, more than 500,000 people filled Tiananmen Square. Just two days later they would number more than a million.

When Deng saw protesters filling the very central square of his capital promising that "turmoil was imminent," he knew it was time to act. The government’s official mouthpiece, the Renmin Ribao (People’s Daily), had in late April castigated the protesters. The editorial, derived from Deng’s own words, read: "Under the banner of democracy," the protesters "were trying to destroy the democratic legal system. … This was a planned conspiracy, a riot, whose real nature was to fundamentally negate the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and to negate the socialist system." According to Deng, they were stirring forces that they could not hope to control and that could not therefore be tolerated.

But on the morning of May 16, Deng arrived in high spirits at the Great Hall of the People, located at Tiananmen Square. He was there to meet Mikhail Gorbachev, the first head of the Soviet Union to visit China in 30 years.

The meeting went well. While defending Beijing’s stand in the Chinese-Soviet split, Deng acknowledged that, like Moscow, Beijing also "had made some mistakes" in the Chinese-Soviet polemic leading to the split. The thrust of Deng’s presentation, though, was not about the past but about the present and the future. Gorbachev seemed to echo Deng’s opinion, saying that the Soviets were very pleased to see that a new and promising phase in relations between the two parties and countries. Their strategic consensus to enhance Sino-Soviet relations, would strengthen both countries’ positions in managing domestic challenges, while also enhancing their positions in international affairs. Furthermore, the session also meant that for the first time since the late 1950s and early 1960s, the international communist movement would not be burdened by the animosity and mutual exclusion of two of its most important members.

But the 1989 envisioned by Deng and Gorbachev was not to be. Four days after the Deng-Gorbachev summit, the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership, headed by Deng, responded to the hundreds of students holding a collective hunger strike by imposing martial law in Beijing. When the student protest persisted, force was employed to crush it. On June 4, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers fought their way into Tiananmen Square, leading to an unknown number of civilian deaths.

The events of Tiananmen Square shocked the whole world. Ironically, it was the rapprochement between Beijing and Moscow that exposed the crackdown to a global audience, as hundreds of journalists and cameramen who reported on Gorbachev’s visit stayed to cover the students’ demonstrations. They showed, often on live television, how bloody violence was used. The scene of one young man standing alone in front of the PLA’s tanks was broadcast repeatedly, often moving the global audience to tears. This was a defining moment in 20th-century history, a moment that would begin to slowly drain international Communism of any moral strength that it once might have possessed. It was the beginning of the end.

The effects of the Tiananmen tragedy ricocheted throughout the entire communist bloc, especially in the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc countries of Eastern Europe. In Moscow, Gorbachev, in spite of his disapproval of the CCP leadership’s behavior, tried to avoid criticizing Beijing directly (though the impact of the Tiananmen crackdown indirectly restricted his ability to influence and control developments in the Soviet Union, and he was even less willing and likely to resort to force in dealing with activities related to the disintegration of the Soviet Union).

In almost every East European country, the pro-democracy movements grew rapidly in the following summer and fall of 1989. These opposition movements took the opportunity of international Communism’s deepened legitimacy crisis to wage new offensives against the Communist authorities in their own countries. The Communist leaderships were all facing difficult dilemmas — they could neither afford to take a totally defensive attitude toward the pro-democracy movements nor dare resort to violent means.

During the following summer and fall, Eastern Europe experienced great unrest, eroding the political foundation and undermining legitimacy of every Communist regime there, culminating on Nov. 9 and 10, 1989. In Germany, the uprising masses brought down the Berlin Wall and with it the symbolic divide between the East and the West. By December — with the execution of Romania’s Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu — the communist bloc in East Europe had virtually collapsed.

Somehow, the Chinese Communist regime survived the shock waves of 1989. After a three-year period of stagnation, Deng used a dramatic tour of southern China in the spring of 1992 to regenerate the "reform and opening-up" project, initiated by Deng and the CCP leadership in the late 1970s. What has followed, as is well known today, is China’s rapid economic growth — despite continuous stagnation in the country’s political democratization — in the last decade of the 20th century and entering the 21st century.

Twenty years after the Tiananmen tragedy and the fall of the Berlin Wall, we have gained some perspective on those events, their causes, and their immediate consequences. Still, China’s story in 1989 — how China shaped the specific course of that year’s events and helped define the immediate aftermath — remains full of questions. In China itself, 1989 has been a "forbidden zone" in the press, scholarship, and classroom teaching. After 20 years, it remains inconceivable for scholars to access Chinese archival sources and many other key documents related to 1989.

The impact of this fateful year continues to play a role in defining the trajectory of China’s development. The Chinese experience of 1989, and the Tiananmen tragedy in particular, remains a knot that must be untied and a barrier that must be removed in China’s continuous advance toward modernity. Without doing so, the legitimacy narrative of the Chinese "communist" state will always be burdened by its fundamental inability to justify itself.

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