NEW YORK – The publication of secret, audio-taped memoirs by fallen Communist Party reformer Zhao Ziyang, who sought to “eradicate the malady of China’s economic system at its roots” and died under house arrest for his efforts, is reigniting debate over the complex legacy of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Indeed, as China looms ever larger in the world economy, it is worth remembering that 20 years ago this June, the People’s Republic of China almost fell apart. The protest movement that gathered in Tiananmen that year posed an existential threat to the Communist Party state, proclaimed in that very spot 40 years earlier by Mao Zedong.
The threat came from two directions – from within the highest echelons of the Party leadership, where ideological differences over reform split the ruling Politburo, and from the urban masses, who, with Beijing’s university students at the vanguard, stood in open, peaceful revolt against state authority.
Amazingly, the Party emerged from the crisis unified around Deng Xiaoping’s vision of a “socialist market economy,” and regained legitimacy with the urban population through implementing that vision. The Party restored unity on the platform of globally integrated, market-driven growth, to be achieved without the intercession of the students’ “Goddess of Democracy,” but bringing tangible material benefit to city residents.
Sure enough, urban development, investment, and GDP growth accelerated throughout the 1990’s, but so did the gap between urban winners and rural losers. The protest energy that briefly electrified Tiananmen Square dissipated out of the cities and spread across the countryside. At the euphoric outset of the 1989 demonstrations, more than 80,000 students marched through the streets of Beijing demanding a more responsive government. By 2005, there were more than 80,000 mass disturbances reported across the country – but mostly not in the booming coastal cities, and certainly not at the elite national universities.