30 Years After Tiananmen: How the West Still Gets China Wrong

Washington once mistakenly thought the crackdown would be temporary. It was wrong then, just as it’s wrong about a new Cold War now.

By Melinda Liu, Newsweek’s Beijing bureau chief.
Students from Beijing University during a massive demonstration at Tiananmen Square on May 18, 1989, before they began a hunger strike as part of the pro-democracy protests against the Chinese government.
Students from Beijing University during a massive demonstration at Tiananmen Square on May 18, 1989, before they began a hunger strike as part of the pro-democracy protests against the Chinese government. CATHERINE HENRIETTE/AFP/Getty Images

BEIJING—Each year, around the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square bloodshed, Beijing feels like a parallel universe. On the surface, everything’s normal. Under the surface, people use elaborate metaphors to refer to the June 1989 violence. Political dissidents disappear. Internet access, virtual private networks used to access the uncensored internet, and social media accounts get twitchier than normal. People are on edge. Yet rarely does the June 4 bloodletting—during which hundreds, possibly thousands, of protesters were killed by government forces—merit official mention. This week, as I watched television news footage of protesters being fired upon in Sudan, it felt like a flashback to the carnage and chaos of Beijing all over again.

This year, on the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen, Beijing’s mood feels especially weird. China’s relationship with the West—especially the United States—today evokes the big chill that epitomized the June 4 aftermath. Thirty years ago, many Western governments slapped economic sanctions against China—depriving it of precious advanced technologies—and condemned the regime’s human rights abuses. Societal controls tightened. Activists were jailed. Many Chinese officials with reformist tendencies were purged. And the regime sought to erase the Tiananmen crackdown from China’s collective consciousness.

Yet things got back to so-called normal with startling, if unseemly, haste. In a moving op-ed for the New York Times published June 1, the former Tiananmen protest leader Wang Dan revealed his disappointment at how quickly China’s ties with Western countries recovered: “Many Western governments lifted their sanctions against China. The West’s engagement policy—based on the hope that trade and investment would bring about democratic changes in China—prevailed. But instead … Western capital fattened the pockets of the Communist Party leaders, giving them the power to prolong their rule by silencing dissent at home and expanding the country’s global clout.” (Chinese authorities imprisoned Wang twice; he’s currently based in the United States.)

Now we’ve nearly come full circle. Each decade has featured its own distinct miscalculations and missed opportunities. But today’s Beijing bears uncanny similarities to the post-crackdown mood. The U.S.-China trade war rages with no end in sight. Abandoning their earlier restraint, Chinese authorities have reverted to dark and defiant rhetoric, accusing Washington of “naked economic terrorism.” Beijing’s Western critics—such as U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who’s slated to give a hard-hitting speech on China soon—rail against the detention of reportedly up to 1 million ethnic Muslims in China’s hardscrabble western regions. U.S. and Chinese naval assets play a maritime version of cat and mouse. Pundits on both sides warn of a new Cold War set in the high-tech arena, in which engagement (or lack of it) with the Chinese tech firm Huawei is a digital dividing line, like a latter-day Berlin Wall.

And yet once again, Washington appears to be getting China wrong, continuing the cycle of either underreacting (as happened after Tiananmen) or overreacting, as is happening today. After the Tiananmen Square massacre, the West would have done well to recognize that without more pushback, the Chinese leadership was never going to allow a political liberalization movement to flourish again—and that the opening of China’s economy was going to remain measured and limited as well. Today the West needs to recognize that we are not exactly in a new Cold War—China is already too enmeshed in the international system—but rather another, if protracted, big chill.

For Western policymakers, the challenge is how to grapple with Beijing’s rise, even as “China has to recognize that it is in a totally new situation created by its own success,” as Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a speech at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue on regional security issues. “Countries have to accept that China will continue to grow and strengthen, and that it is neither possible nor wise for them to prevent this from happening. … The United States, being the preeminent power, has the most difficult adjustment to make.” Beijing should be encouraged to participate constructively in current global rules, norms, and institutions—or help create new ones—because, Lee said, “if China cannot do so, it will create its own alternatives.” Yet in Washington today, engagement is out of fashion. And talk of a new U.S.-China Cold War, even if it’s only bluster, has sown dark paranoia within the Politburo, where the specter of the Soviet Union’s collapse haunts Chinese leaders as stubbornly as the ghosts of Tiananmen.

Over and over I keep wondering: How did everyone get China so wrong?

To be sure, the dramatic changes of the post-Mao Zedong era triggered such great expectations that some level of misunderstanding, and later disenchantment, was inevitable. China’s late strongman Deng Xiaoping instituted unimaginable economic reforms beginning in 1978, injecting quasi-capitalist principles and free market energy into China’s moribund Maoist economy. Deng even tolerated—briefly—a free-wheeling Democracy Wall of handwritten posters in Beijing. They revealed ordinary citizens’ insatiable curiosity about the West, their hopes, and their dreams. Such themes built to a head during the tragically short-lived Beijing Spring of 1989, when one activist in Tiananmen Square showed me his sign, which read, “I love an American girl; her name is Democracy.” A female protester declared, “I don’t know what democracy is, but China needs more of it.”

The 10 years before Beijing’s crackdown was a “decade of Chinese political enlightenment,” as Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, put it in a recent op-ed for Nikkei Asian Review. (By contrast, today’s China is an “intellectual wasteland,” he said.) Back then, even some senior Chinese leaders advocated a degree of democratization. One of Deng’s top aides, then-Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang, made a startling remark in 1986 to visiting editors of Newsweek and the Washington Post. “For years the image of socialism has not been good, and not only in China,” he said, “The rate of economic development has not been fast. And there have been some problems, politically speaking, in the field of democracy and human rights.”

Such candor rankled Chinese conservatives, some of whom were dragging their feet over Deng’s market reforms as well. When small-scale protests erupted in 1987, Hu was compelled to resign, blamed for not handling the unrest firmly enough. (He was also blamed for comments he made to the visiting American editors, just for good measure.) Yet Hu remained a liberal champion in high-level meetings. At one, in April 1989, Hu stood up to deliver a rambling criticism of corruption and other government misdeeds. “We have failed the people and the nation,” Hu declared. Then he collapsed—of an apparent heart attack—and was rushed to a hospital.

On April 15, Hu died. His demise triggered an outpouring of nationwide grief. Streams of young protesters carried white funeral wreaths to lay below the monumental obelisk in the heart of Tiananmen Square. On one university campus, a poster hinted: “Those who should have died haven’t died,” referring to the party elders who had disagreed with Hu. Such public displays of genuine sorrow were the beginnings of the Tiananmen Square protest movement.

Every year around this time, people who witnessed the horror of Beijing’s crackdown write articles and give interviews about what took place. I’ve been one of them. We do it not only to commemorate and remember the victims, but also to try to exorcise the demons of doubt and guilt. If Western media had been more knowledgeable and less naive, could we have made a difference? Were we too quick to resume business-as-usual reporting on China—just as Washington and other Western governments did with policy—exacerbating the misunderstandings about Beijing today?

In 1989, I got China so wrong that I hadn’t a clue what a huge story it would become when I first arrived in Beijing in early April. At the time I was based in Hong Kong as Newsweek’s Asia regional editor and was temporarily accredited to Beijing because the bureau chief was on maternity leave. Newsweek needed someone to coordinate coverage for the impending state visit by Mikhail Gorbachev, healing the Moscow-Beijing rift that had festered for years. On the first day I saw a few protesters who’d linked arms while riding their bicycles and thought it was odd—I knew Beijing pretty well, having opened Newsweek’s bureau there in 1980 and lived and worked there until 1982. But my first week’s story made little mention of the protests. By the second week, the unrest was the story; Gorbachev’s visit was eclipsed by the growing spectacle in Tiananmen Square.

During that tumultuous Beijing Spring, most Western media—and the student protesters themselves—badly overestimated the influence of liberal voices in the Beijing leadership, including that of Zhao Ziyang, who succeeded Hu as general secretary of the Communist Party. Today it would be mind-boggling to see disheveled student representatives on a hunger strike, wearing jeans and headbands (or, in the case of the prominent Tiananmen activist Wuer Kaixi, pajamas), meeting with any Chinese leader, much less hard-line Premier Li Peng. When Wuer Kaixi scolded Li (“We don’t have much time to listen to you”), who then ended the encounter with an abrupt “goodbye,” we should have known the die was cast. In the pre-dawn hours of May 19, the reformist Zhao materialized in the square pleading with the protesters one last time, asking them to go home. Even when Zhao seemed tearful and distraught, muttering, “We’ve come too late,” I didn’t allow myself to believe the square would be cleared by soldiers with combat weapons.

Nor did many other foreign journalists and photographers who, exhausted by working nonstop for weeks, chose that first weekend in June to get some rest. As a result, when violent scuffles between protesters and soldiers began erupting on June 3, the ranks of Western media had thinned considerably. Around dusk on June 3, I saw that some protesters had grabbed canteens, helmets—and weapons—from some scared and disoriented soldiers. The troops I saw seemed impossibly young. “Which direction is this, anyway?” said one of them with a thick regional accent.

The shooting and killing began in earnest after dark. A colleague and I took turns, one reporting in the square while the other filed by telephone from a room in the Beijing Hotel. I saw soldiers shoot directly into crowds of protesters, many of whose light-colored shirts showed rapidly spreading stains of crimson blood. Civilians with tricycle carts loaded casualties onto their vehicles, pedaling furiously to try to outrun the whizzing bullets. Again and again, the troops formed a line and fired at the crowd. Shortly after dawn, a noisy convoy of military vehicles—trucks, tanks, armored personnel carriers—clattered down Changan Avenue. One protester yelled, “Beasts! You’re inhuman!” Others wept wordlessly. Tricycle carts continued to speed past, with bleeding victims. The shooting continued long after loudspeakers in the square had declared, “The rebellion has been suppressed.”

Reporting on the carnage was traumatic. But watching state-run TV immediately afterward chilled me to the bone as well. In an endless loop, television footage showed charred bodies of Chinese soldiers who’d been burned alive when their vehicles were set on fire. A number of party elders, many of them political conservatives, were shown back in action, pulled out of quasi-retirement to assist Deng and Li in the purges to come. One U.S. correspondent called that scene “the night of the living dead.” Wang, the former protest leader, concluded in his op-ed that the students had “underestimated the power of the party elders.”

Still, U.S. big business could not shake the lure of the Chinese market, which then seemed to promise an endless and bountiful payday. Ever since Deng launched his reforms, American CEOs had done much of the heavy lifting on China’s behalf, lobbying in Washington to promote bilateral ties. That role quietly continued after the Tiananmen turmoil, even though “the events of Tiananmen should have been a wake-up call, in particular the way in which pro-reform elements of the Chinese Communist Party were demoted or purged in the aftermath,” said Stewart Paterson, a research fellow at the Hinrich Foundation and the author of China, Trade and Power: Why the West’s Economic Engagement Has Failed. “The argument that to push back on China would play into the hands of hard-liners was meaningless if the pro-reform faction was being purged anyway,” he said

And so, China’s relations with the West gradually returned to normal, even as the revanchist thinking inside the Chinese leadership after Tiananmen stymied political liberalization, with the Politburo deciding to pursue party unity—and political survival—whatever the cost. During the ’90s, the economies of China and the United States in particular became more and more intertwined. Then came the new millennium and a new digital age. With it came a new type of miscalculation, fed by the West’s love affair with high tech. Suddenly, email and social media gave people unfettered and instantaneous communications, a nightmare scenario for autocrats, who preferred to keep information on a tight leash. Many China watchers—myself included—predicted the internet would make the Chinese free.

But once again the West was mistaken in its expectations of change. The internet and social media were not tools dedicated to spreading democracy. They were simply tools, period. True, they could spark Twitter revolutions. But they could also be channeled by firewalls and online censors, and they could become a tool for the dissemination of hate and extreme views. Today, the Chinese regime has proved itself adept at mastering its digital toolkit—often employing Western technology—to profile, control, and intimidate its citizens through facial recognition and internet surveillance, the Great Firewall and armies of nationalist trolls.

At the same time, China has lost its allure for many Western executives over the past decade. Again, these appear to be the old post-Tiananmen misunderstandings come home to roost: the erroneous idea that, through enough engagement over a long enough period, China would inevitably open up and become like the West.“There’s a certain disillusionment. The costs of doing business there have been high in terms of dealing with the bureaucracy, forced technology transfer, and the arbitrary nature in which rules and regulations have been enforced,” Paterson said. In the Singaporean prime minister’s recent speech, Lee said, “U.S. business sentiment toward China has soured. American businesses used to be the strongest supporters of China. … Now, that goodwill has all but evaporated. U.S. businesses feel let down.”

But the misunderstanding cuts both ways: China’s leadership may not have fully appreciated this tectonic shift within the U.S. business community. During the last, unsuccessful round of U.S.-Chinese trade talks, Chinese President Xi Jinping was believed to have overestimated U.S. President Donald Trump’s eagerness to clinch a deal. “This loss of goodwill on the part of an important constituency is a serious problem for China, which the Chinese have not fully appreciated or dealt with,” Lee said.

Is the West doomed to keep getting China wrong, veering between engagement and decoupling in an endless loop, as we’ve seen since 1989? One reason why Western analysts have gotten Beijing wrong is because the Chinese people have also changed over the years. During four decades of economic modernization, the country’s per capita GDP has grown more than 25 times in real terms; its defense budget has mushroomed, too.

China is no longer the relatively poor and internationally isolated “sleeping giant” that an older generation of Sinologists had begun studying decades ago. The rise of nationalistic sentiment is accelerating among younger Chinese, many of whom weren’t even born during that ill-fated Beijing Spring. Chinese censors and propagandists, meanwhile, have taken pains to ensure whatever their citizens learn about the bloodshed—if anything—adheres strictly to the party line.

Complicating perceptions further, in his day Deng had pursued a strategy of “hiding your capabilities and biding your time,” which essentially meant downplaying China’s diplomatic, economic, and military clout. In contrast, Xi is less deferential to the West, more assertive, and more obsessed with cementing his authority. He hasn’t shied away from purging political rivals and making disparaging remarks about Westerners. He is in a much more powerful position than Deng was, simply because he is in charge of a much more powerful China. All of this makes him a formidable sparring partner for Trump.

If Chinese activists see any silver lining in the clouded relationship between China and the West, according to Wang, it’s this: “In a perverse way, President Trump’s tough stance against Beijing, despite its unpredictability, is proving effective. … I hope Washington will show the Chinese leadership that the West will not tolerate the use of technology for spying and controlling ordinary citizens.” He believes “the West has finally recognized the dangers of China’s totalitarian regime.” The big question is whether the West can find a new way to calibrate its delicate relationship with a prickly, rising China without falling prey to a new round of wishful thinking.

Melinda Liu is Newsweek’s Beijing bureau chief and the co-author of Beijing Spring, about the events of April-June 1989.