Forgetting Tiananmen, and What Came Before It

Publication: China Brief Volume: 14 Issue: 11

Former General Secretary Zhao Ziyang advocated talks with protesters in 1989

While it has been established practice for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) administration to lock up intellectuals and NGO activists in the run-up to the anniversary of the June 4, 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square, police action the past month or so has been markedly more draconian compared to the 20th anniversary in 2009. On May 3, prominent lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, legal scholar Xu Youyu and at least three other intellectuals were picked up by Beijing police as they and other friends held a private gathering to mark the 25th anniversary. Pu and Xu were charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” which carries a maximum sentence of five years. Public security personnel also detained Pu’s lawyer and two friends, both journalists (Hong Kong Economic Times, May 6; VOA Chinese Service, May 6). Other private commemorative functions, such as one organized by Zhejiang economist Wen Kejian in Hangzhou a week later, were similarly disrupted. Meanwhile, a number of public intellectuals, including respected journalist Gao Yu, were nabbed for reasons including “leaking state secrets” and supplying articles to overseas media (Ming Pao [Hong Kong] May 14; Hong Kong Economic Journal, May 14).

The CCP security and propaganda apparatus is always keen to scrub clean reminders of events which detract from the carefully nurtured image of the party as “always correct, shining and great.” But the political amnesia Xi promotes covers more than the violence of June 4.

“China’s [current] leaders are personally vulnerable because they trace their lineage to the winners of the power struggle that cleaved their party in 1989,” said veteran China journalist Louisa Lim. [1] As heirs to the conservative faction behind the crackdown, China’s current leaders also seek to efface any memory of the liberal side of Deng Xiaoping’s legacy. While Deng was the mastermind of the eventual massacre, he was also the leader who backed beloved political reformists and former general secretaries Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang. As Xi seeks to inherit Deng’s mantle while rolling back the limits Deng placed on his office, it behooves him to avoid any mention of the more progressive path the patriarch could have taken.

Since taking office at the 18th Party Congress in November 2012, Xi has sought to convince his countryman that he is a worthy successor to Deng. In December the same year, he went on a pilgrimage to Guangdong, Deng’s testing ground for economic reform, and told local cadres that he would build on that legacy. “The decision made by Deng Xiaoping on the reform and open door policy is correct and we will continue to walk down this correct road,” he said. “This is the road toward a strong nation and rich citizenry. We will not only go down this road resolutely but also make new developments and reach higher levels” (China News Service, January 1, 2013; Xinhua, December 11, 2012).

What Xi has vowed to enrich and develop is only one part of the Deng legacy: pursuing the globalization of the Chinese economy while using tough tactics against dissent. Xi has also gone about adulterating and reversing aspects of Deng’s institutional and political reforms that were celebrated both by liberal cadres and the intellectuals who converged upon Tiananmen Square after the death of Hu Yaobang in April 1989.

Tiananmen Square is thus a useful prism through which to examine the trajectory of political reform since the advent of the Era of Reform and the Open Door. After the gunshots in the Square, the party’s liberal faction was obliterated—and political liberalization has been frozen until today. Under Xi, it has begun to move backward.

While Deng was best known for economic liberalization measures, the Great Architect of Reform also initiated impressive institutional changes to prevent the return of Chairman Mao’s “one-voice chamber.” The rationale behind institutional reform was laid out in Deng’s article in the People’s Daily in August 1980 entitled “On the reform of the leadership system of the party and state.” The patriarch argued that to avoid a return of the Cultural Revolution, China must substitute “rule of personality” with rule of law and rule of institutions. Deng said: “If systems [of governance ] are sound, they can place restraints on the actions of bad people; if they are unsound, they may hamper the efforts of good people or indeed, in certain cases, may push them in the wrong direction” (Phoenix TV News, January 22, 2013; People’s Daily, August 19, 1980).

Nearly up to the eve of the June 4, 1989 crisis, Deng—aided by his first two chosen successors, Hu and Zhao—was pushing the following changes in the political arena:

  • Collective leadership instead of the “rule of personality.” The party and state will be run collectively by the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC). The general secretary is at most a “first among equals.” Each PBSC member has clear-cut division of labor. When votes are cast to settle controversial issues, the vote of each PBSC member carries equal weight. [2]
  • Separation of party and government (dangzhengfenkai). This ethos was spelt out in Zhao Ziyang’s Political Report to the 13th Party Congress of 1987, and championed by Deng. After the Tiananmen Square killings, Deng said “not one word of the 13th Congress Report should be changed. The CCP should focus on long-range goals and planning. Day-to-day governance should be left to professional administrators in the State Council and regional governments ( [Beijing], January 15, 2013; People’s Daily, October 25, 1987).
  • The organizational principle of the “five lakes and four seas” and delegation of authority to localities. There should be a balance of factions within the top echelons of the party-state apparatus. More administrative powers should be delegated to local governments under the principle of “to each [locality] in accordance with its characteristics.” (See China Brief, “Interpreting the significance of CCP personnel changes,” June 19, 2006).
  • Abandoning mass movements (qunzhong yundong) and political campaigns in pursuit of ideological purity. The Great Architect of Reform simply declared that “economic construction is the core task of the party.” At least until 1989, Deng opposed several waves of “anti-bourgeois liberalization campaigns” launched by leftist party elders because they were seen as disrupting China’s economic progress. [3]
  • Not too long after taking power in late 1978, Deng began the world-famous demobilization of one million soldiers. Annual budget increases for the military were kept to the single digits. Most significantly, the “New Helmsman” indicated that the defense establishment should sub-serve China’s main pursuit of economic progress. While Deng was a beneficiary of actions taken by a gaggle of senior PLA generals to remove the Gang of Four radicals upon the death of Chairman Mao in 1976, the Great Architect of Reform did not favor military involvement in either politics or foreign affairs. [4]

X’s track record in the past one-and-a-half years amounts to a renunciation of much of Deng’s political project. Almost from day one, Xi started a power grab that is as stunning as it is inimical to Deng’s ideals about putting institutions ahead of individuals. For example, the two new super-powerful party organs—the Central National Security Commission (CNSC) and the Central Leading Group on Comprehensively Deepening Reforms—have given the supremo powers to ride roughshod over the entire party-state-military establishment (Hong Kong Economic Journal, February 6; Ming Pao, January 25). This concentration of powers at the party’s topmost echelon has amounted to a reversal of Deng’s hard-won separation between the party and the state and a threat to the principle of collective leadership (See China Brief, “New High-Level Groups Threaten Line Between Party and Government,” April 9).

In terms of internal party affairs, Xi has run counter to two of Deng’s axioms: avoiding factionalism and giving more clout to regional administrations. While it is true that Xi’s two predecessors—Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao—also put together personal factions, there are indications that the Fifth-Generation potentate is about to outshine his two predecessors in terms of assembling a formidable coterie of trusted confidants (See China Brief, “Members of Xi Jinping Clique Revealed,” February 7). Xi, the son of revolutionary-era party elder Xi Zhongxun, has groomed cadres with revolutionary bloodlines for top jobs, also violating Deng’s internal instruction in the early 1980s that the offspring of party elders should focus on business, not politics. Compared to Jiang and Hu, Xi has posted more officials with central experience to regional positions, so as to firm up the grip of the party central authorities on the localities. In terms of the execution of economic and other tasks, Xi’s preoccupation with “top-level design” in policy-making means that the wiggle room of local officials has been constricted (South China Morning Post, July 5, 2013; Xinhua, March 20, 2013).

Xi has also rolled back the party’s focus on development over ideological struggle, established to keep peace after the Cultural Revolution. He has argued that that the pursuit of politically correct ideology and thought (yishixingtai) and other ideological goals is as important as building up the economy. “The core task of the party is economic construction,” Xi said. “Ventures relating to ideology and thought are the party’s extremely important task.” As the conservative Beijing Daily put it: “the fate of the CCP depends on whether it can defend the battlefield of ideology and thought.” Moreover, the General Secretary has launched political movements such as the Mass Line Education Campaign that are reminiscent of the qunzhong yundong of Great Helmsman Mao (China Daily, April 20; Beijing Daily, September 3, 2013; Xinhua, August 21, 2013). Xi has also reiterated that economic developments that may be “subversive”—meaning detrimental to the CCP’s perennial ruling party status—should be quashed.

The military began to reassert itself soon after Deng’s retirement, as Jiang and Hu gave the army double-digit budget boosts. Particularly during the second half of the Hu administration (2007–2012), the generals began to have a bigger say in national-security issues. Yet the political clout of the generals has reached an apogee under Xi, who started his career as secretary to then-defense minister Geng Biao from 1979 to 1982. [5] After the 18th Party Congress, a record number of officials who either served in the PLA or military enterprises have been posted to party and government jobs. Xi underscored his connections with the PLA establishment at a national conference late last month on providing employment for demobilized soldiers. “I too am a military man who has became a cadre [in civilian departments],” said the commander-in-chief (China News Service, May 28; Ta Kung Pao [Hong Kong] May 28).

25 years later, Tiananmen Square has become a contest of narratives. The leaders who have governed China since 1989 have emphasized a dictum attributed to Deng: “The gunshots have afforded us 20 years of peace and opportunity for doing business” (Radio Free Asia, June 7, 2011; BBC Chinese Service, June 6, 2004). According to noted China expert Perry Link, the massacre has bequeathed the CCP this terrific inheritance: “Deng Xiaoping’s logic is that shooting to kill can ensure stability,” Link said in a talk last week in Hong Kong. If a massive opposition movement were to recur, Link added, the CCP would again face the choice of either a bloody crackdown or giving up power. “They will still choose force,” he said. Another tool that the CCP is using to consolidate its support base is nationalism. Said French Sinologist Jean-Philippe Béja: “Xi Jinping has raised the Chinese Dream slogan and bolstered China’s position on the world stage. The CCP is relying on nationalism to uphold its legitimacy” (Ming Pao, May 30; Apple Daily [Hong Kong], May 30).

But there is absolutely no space in Xi’s “Chinese Dream” to accommodate the rival Tiananmen narrative that emphasizes the possibility of China adopting global norms such as the rule of law and institutional checks and balances. The top priority that Xi has given to “mega national security”—and repeated moves taken to stake out China’s sovereignty claims in the South and East China Seas—seem to testify that the Tiananmen legacy of propping up the party-state via repression and nationalism will continue for the foreseeable future. [6]


  1. Author’s interview with Louisa Lim, May 28. Lim has recently published a book on the topic titled The People’s Republic of Amnesia.
  2. For a discussion of Deng’s idea about a collective leadership, see, for example, Chen Xianku, “Deng Xiaoping’s theory about a central collective leadership,” CCP Central Party School Journal, January 2005.
  3. For a discussion of Deng’s rationale for giving up mass movements, see, for example, Tan Yuxi, “The historic change from organizing lots of political campaigns to stop holding political campaigns: Learn from Deng Xiaoping’s idea of no more political movements,” Harbin Academy Journal, June 2001; Kan Heqing and Chen Changshen, “Rethink on the history of political movements after 1949: Deng Xiaoping’s thoughts on ‘Stop organizing movements,’” Journal of the Yunnan Administration Academy, June, 2004.
  4. For a discussion of Deng’s stance on the PLA’s role in the polity, see, for example, Yitzhak Shichor, “Demobilization: The Dialectics of PLA Troop Reduction,” The China Quarterly, June 1996, pp 336-359.
  5. For a discussion of the PLA’s influence in foreign policy, see, for example, Willy Lam, “The military maneuvers of Xi Jinping,” Wall Street Journal, January 14, 2011; Michael Swaine, “China’s assertive behavior: The role of the military in foreign policy,” China Leadership Monitor, Hoover Institution, 2012, No. 36; Trefer Moss, “PLA influence over Chinese politics: Fact or fiction?” The Diplomat, August 10, 2012.
  6. For a discussion of the concept of “mega national security” see, for example, “Top-level design to open up the vista of mega national security,” Global Times, November 14, 2013. Also see Willy Lam, “Terrorism Fears Push Muscular Approach to ‘Overall National Security,’” China Brief, May 7.