The June 4th Massacre and the Militarization of Chinese Politics

Publication: China Brief Volume: 19 Issue: 11

Protestors marching in Tiananmen Square in late May 1989, prior to the military crackdown.

Introduction: The Legacy of June 1989

Although the wounds of the June 4, 1989 massacre thirty years ago have not healed, it is imperative that the right lessons be drawn from perhaps the worst blunder of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the Era of Reform. The fact that top leaders after Deng Xiaoping—who made the fatal decision to use the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to crush student demonstrators in Beijing—have refused to re-open the case of the so-called “counter-revolutionary turmoil” testifies to the fact that political reform has stagnated in the past three decades. Moreover, President Xi Jinping has been reinstating with gusto Chairman Mao’s “one-voice chamber,” and has beefed up the CCP’s long-standing police-state apparatus (China Brief, March 22).

It is not an exaggeration to say that June 4 made possible the emergence of ultra-conservative cadres—such as “core leader” Xi—because the bulk of the pro-reform followers of Deng were purged or sidelined in the wake of June 1989. Shao Jiang, a London-based former Tiananmen student leader now doing research on the Chinese reforms of the 1970s and 1980s, has pointed out that immediately after the Tiananmen crackdown a whole generation of the most gifted intellectuals and reform-minded cadres were kicked out of the establishment. “Now what is left is only mediocrity,” he said (Apple Daily [Hong Kong], May 5). Within the party, forward-looking factions represented by the two liberal general secretaries appointed by Deng in 1981 and 1987, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, were totally sidelined. Many reform-minded, pro-Western officials associated with Hu and Zhao were either jailed or forced to go into exile.

It is true that Deng tried to resuscitate economic reform and the open-door policy through his famous 1992 Nanxun (“tour to the South”). Yet the Great Architect of Reform largely abandoned political and institutional reforms that he had introduced in the early 1980s. These included the abandonment of ideological campaigns, a gradual time-table for electoral politics, and crucially, keeping the princelings (offspring of state leaders) out of high-level party posts (, November 19, 2018; Voice of America, November 7, 2012). The ascendency of Xi as party General Secretary in November 2012 signaled the triumph of the Maoist theory of the “revolutionary bloodline:” that only men and women who are descendants of the PRC’s founding fathers could be trusted with upholding socialist orthodoxy and CCP one-party rule. While a relatively small number of cadres with exposure to the West—including “returnees” with degrees from Western universities—could go up the hierarchy as technocrats, they could never be inducted into the Politburo and other inner sanctums of power within the party (Reuters, November 26, 2012;, July 17, 2013).

“Political and Ideological Education for Our Youths” Since 1989

Reform activists of 1989 and China scholars have isolated two post-Tiananmen developments that are most inimical to the healthy development of a democratic republic: first, the CCP controlling the minds of youths and intellectuals; and second, the militarization of political life. While Deng left his mark in recent Chinese history as the progenitor of “thought liberation,” he turned arch-conservative after the first wave of student demonstrations hit Chinese cities in December 1986. Deng told foreign visitors in March 1989 that “our biggest mistake in the past decade lies in the area of education, particularly failing to grasp [the task of providing] political and ideological education to our youths” (, December 11, 2014). During the tenure of former general secretaries Jiang Zemin (1989-2002) and Hu Jintao (2002-2012), Communist party cells in universities tightened their grip over the ideology of both professors and students. This was a departure from another point proposed by Deng: the separation of party and college administration, which was a sub-set of his overall theory of the separation of party and government (Phoenix TV, August 22, 2015; New York Times Chinese Edition, April 21, 2014).

Yet it is Xi who has doubled down on Maoist thought control on campus. One year after taking office in 2012, Xi circulated Party Document No. 9, which forbade intellectuals—particularly college instructors—from talking about seven taboo topics: universal values, media freedom, civil society, civil rights, aberrations in the party’s history, the “crony capitalist class,” and independence of the judiciary (BBC Chinese Service, May 28, 2013). The paramount leader also noted that ideological education should begin as early as possible: “We must ensure that youths have the right kind of values from the very beginning,” he said in 2014. “It’s like getting the buttons right when wearing a garment. If the first button is tied correctly, so will the subsequent buttons” (People’s Daily, May 5, 2014).

The Militarization of Chinese Society

Yet the most lasting impact of June 4 is the militarization of Chinese politics. Firstly, only senior cadres with the backing of the armed forces—in addition to the paramilitary People’s Armed Police (PAP) and the police—can lead the CCP. As noted by Wong Yiu-Chung, a political scientist at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University, while Deng was but an ordinary party member in 1989, his status as Chairman of the CCP Central Military Commission enabled him to move the troops to subdue both student protestors and liberal party cadres loyal to then-General Secretary Zhao Ziyang. [1] The near-universal agitation for political change in May and June 1989 was so strong that only the PLA could have saved the party. Since the suppression of the 1989 “rebellion,” the CCP has imposed its rule on the people through a police-state apparatus underpinned by military and police power.

Because the party has refused to admit its blunder in 1989—in addition to other aberrations going back to the Korean War of the early 1950s—only the army and the police have been equipped to use force to sustain the party’s tattered mandate of heaven. This course of militarizing public affairs was made apparent in the immediate wake of the massacre, when Deng met on June 9, 1989 with representatives of the troops tasked with enforcing martial law. Calling the soldiers “the loveliest people” in China, he eulogized them for being “always under the leadership of the party, always the defender of the nation… [and] the defender of socialism.” Deng also addressed the intellectuals and students behind the democracy movement. “How cruel are our enemies,” he said. “We should not even give them one percent of forgiveness” (People’s Daily, October 24, 2006).

“After June 4, soldiers still directly rule over large swathes of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region,” said Albert Ho, Chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China. Ho, who has galvanized Hong Kong’s support for democratization in the mainland, added that “tight control all over China is also effectuated by the PAP, the police, spies, even members of the Chinese mafia [who have been co-opted by the police].” [2] The militarization of Chinese politics has undergone a qualitative change under Xi, who has promoted the symbiotic relationship between ordinary citizens on the one hand, and soldiers and other uniformed forces on the other.

Xi has pulled out all the stops to popularize Maoist axioms such as “all citizens are soldiers” (quanmin jiebing, 全民皆兵) and “the synthesis of the [requirements of] peace and war” (ping-zhan heiyi, 平战合一) (, September 22, 2017; People’s Daily, April 21, 2016). The White Paper on National Defense of 2015 provided the justification for a country-wide defense mobilization “that can meet the requirements of winning informationized wars.” It highlights mass civilian involvement in “preparation for military struggle” (US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, June 1, 2015;, May 25, 2015). Able-bodied men are encouraged to serve as reservists in after-work hours. Graduates from top universities such as Tsinghua and Peking Universities are urged to take a two- to three-year stint in the PLA after graduation to buttress their patriotic credentials. Fishermen become “marine militiamen” when the Navy wants to boost the projection of military power to assert Chinese sovereignty over the South China Sea (Ming Pao [Hong Kong], April 30;, April 28). If ordinary citizens, including students from top universities—who were prominent among the protest movement in the generation of 1989—feel that it is an honor to join the armed forces even on an irregular basis, the CCP’s objective of liquidating dissent through militarizing everyday life may have been realized.

The substantive merger of civilian and military interests has also been promoted through two mechanisms: first, the sharing of national resources between the two sectors; and second, the appointment of top managers from defense and aerospace companies to senior civilian positions. The 2015 White Paper praised the idea of “an all-element, multi-domain and cost-efficient pattern of civilian-military integration.” The document said this would facilitate “[the principle of] resolutely holding on to the developmental path under military-civilian symbiosis.” For example, both the CMC and the State Council would promote “uniform military and civilian standards for infrastructure, key technological areas and major industries, and explore ways and means for training military personnel in civilian educational institutions” (China Brief, June 19, 2015).

The Xi era has witnessed the enhanced cooperation of research and development (R&D) between military and government research facilities on the one hand, and laboratories of commercial firms and universities on the other. More government resources have also been devoted to nurturing PLA-related “private companies” such as Huawei and ZTE (Nikkei Asian Review, December 13, 2018;, June 10, 2018; Radio French International, May 5, 2018). Calling himself a junzhuan ganbu (军转干部), literally “a cadre who has transferred from the military [to the civilian sector],” Xi has elevated dozens of managers from the defense and aerospace establishment to positions such as the governors and mayors of major provinces and cities (People’s Daily, June 3, 2014; Xinhua, May 27, 2014). Examples of junzhuan ganbe who have made good include: Zhang Qingwei (Party Secretary of Heilongjiang), Ma Xingrui (Guangdong Governor), Yuan Jiajun (Zhejiang Governor), Zhang Guoqing (Tianjin Mayor), and Hao Peng (head of the State Assets Supervision and Administration Corporation). Zhang, Ma and Yuan are all former executives of the mammoth China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation. Zhang is a former president of arms manufacturer and marketer Norinco, while Hao used to run the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (China Brief, September 25, 2014).

Prospects for the Reemergence of Democratic Reform

With China showing signs of becoming a militarized state, it is perhaps not surprising that former Tiananmen Square protestors and other China observers are not optimistic about the reappearance of any democratic movement in China in the foreseeable future. “The further militarization of the party-state, in addition to the enhanced powers given to the secret police, has made political reform almost impossible,” said Guoguang Wu, Professor of Political Science at the University of Victoria. [3] Wu Renhua, a 1989 student activist who is now a visiting scholar at Taiwan’s Tung Wu University, attributes the lack of resistance to Xi’s militarized regime to “millennia of serfdom.” “From Confucius and down through the ages, Chinese have exhibited the slavish mentality of obeying the powers that be,” said Wu, who has authored a book on how the 1989 democracy movement was quashed. (Cable News [Hong Kong], May 15).

However, Yu Ying-shih, a former Princeton professor and a recognized authority on Chinese culture, is adamant that the “June 4 Spirit” of democracy will return. The year 2019 marks the centenary of the May Fourth Movement of 1919, which is hailed as the Chinese Enlightenment that first introduced the ideals of science and democracy to the newly emancipated intelligentsia. “The quintessence of the May Fourth Movement is still developing,” Yu told the Hong Kong media. “June 4 was also a manifestation of the May Fourth ethos. As long as Chinese democracy is not realized, people will keep remembering June 4, and another June 4-style movement will occur” (Apple Daily, May 4).

A major factor favoring change could be that corruption, which was one of the root causes of the 1989 student crusade, has worsened. Guoguang Wu, who was a member of a team that advised Zhao Ziyang on political liberalization, has said that rent-seeking and associated abuses had increased partly due to the Party’s dependence on “protection” by the military and the police. Albert Ho, who is also a former chairman of the Hong Kong Democracy Party, thinks the agents of change within China have increased even as the CCP has failed to run the country other than through brutal oppression. “So-called mass incidents, or riots and disturbances, have approached 200,000 instances a year,” he said. “Yet the CCP administration does not have institutional means to resolve contradictions between the party and the people.” Ho has further stated that, given the non-transparency of Chinese politics, it was difficult to predict whether—and when—cataclysmic changes might occur. “The moment of big transformation may come when the actions of anti-party, pro-democracy pace-setters in different sectors coalesce,” he said. “And the student movement of 1989, which spread the seed of freedom in dozens of cites, serves as a reminder that activists all over the country must never give up hope.”

Dr. Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation, and a regular contributor to China Brief. He is an Adjunct Professor at the Center for China Studies, the History Department and the Program of Master’s in Global Political Economy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is the author of five books on China, including Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping (2015). His latest book, The Fight for China’s Future, will be released by Routledge Publishing in August 2019.


[1] Author’s interview with Wong Yiu-chung, May 26.

[2] Author’s interview with Albert Ho, May 27.

[3] Author’s interview with Guoguang Wu, May 30.