Tom Grimmer is a Hong Kong-based consultant and writer
On June 3, 1989, I was in Toronto, listening to the BBC World Service reporting on the violence in Beijing as the People’s Liberation Army put down the Tiananmen protesters. It was with a mix of horror and helplessness that I sat glued to that shortwave radio, because I had friends who might be in harm’s way. (As it turned out, one friend’s wife was shot, but survived.) As a young journalist, I also badly wanted to be there.
I had left China nine months before after three years in Beijing and Shanghai, working and teaching. In the steamy Shanghai summer of 1988, in those final chats with my students at Fudan University, I was told that all they wanted to do was graduate, join the Communist Party, make some money and play bridge. Some had already gone abroad; others wanted to leave. China’s students, put in their place in 1987 after a wave of protests I witnessed, seemed like a defeated, docile lot.
And then they exploded.
The trigger was the death of Hu Yaobang in April, 1989; Mr. Hu had been forced out as Communist Party secretary general after a relatively minor student upheaval in 1987. Ostensibly mourning Mr. Hu, students were in the streets again, in ever-increasing numbers and stayed there through the imposition of martial law in late May and then the bloody denouement in June.
With the 30th anniversary upon us, there is no shortage of reminiscences about Tiananmen. For me, the story is not about squandered opportunity or a government that refuses to acknowledge this chapter in history, rather, it’s about a simple question: Why has it never happened again?
Indeed, in the years soon after Tiananmen – I returned to China in January of 1990 – it became a cliché that the troubles would return. “Something small every five years, something big every 10,” people would say, and if you looked at the post-1949 period they were roughly right, with the “big” things being the famine-inducing Great Leap Forward of the late-1950s, the Cultural Revolution in the 60s, and the death of Mao Zedong and the rise of Deng Xiaoping in the 70s. Tiananmen fit the pattern perfectly, being almost exactly 10 years after Mr. Deng declared the “reform” period.
What many in and outside of China failed to appreciate was that while Mr. Deng was a reformer, he was no liberal. Faced with what looked to the Party like an existential threat, Mr. Deng crushed the students.
So, here we are, 30 years later, and politically it’s status quo ante. But other things have changed in a big way. First, China is now rich. Unlike in the 80s, when the cities felt neglected as Mr. Deng reformed the rural economy, the cities have done exceptionally well.
Also often forgotten is the economic backdrop to Tiananmen. In 1988-89, inflation was nearly 20 per cent. The central bank had introduced a 100-yuan banknote, which gave people the jitters as it echoed China’s prerevolutionary hyperinflation. That economic angst, and disgust with corruption, brought the people of Beijing and other cities out in support of the students. Yes, those 80s were a liberal time in China, but I would argue that for the man and woman in the street, the anger over livelihood and graft was at least as strong as any passion for a nascent democracy.
The other thing that’s changed is the state’s power to control. I didn’t think it was possible, but that chunk of history has been erased for almost anyone under 40. Ask them about Tiananmen and reactions are vague at best. This success in blocking out history is equalled by the government’s ability to block the internet and filter content it does not like.
Add to this the surveillance-state’s power to digitally track its citizens and you have an almost seamless, nationwide mechanism that makes the old police state look bush-league. The things that China is now very good at such as facial recognition, machine learning, artificial intelligence and the internet of things only make the controllers more efficient. That is on full display at the moment as every allusion to 1989 is scrubbed from cyberspace.
So, in 1989 the students went back to class, the urban class went back to its jobs, and a tacit deal was struck that said “we’ll make you rich but don’t mess with the Party.” That social contract has held through waves of economic re-structuring that resulted in massive job losses, the migration of hundreds of millions of rural people to the cities, the shocks of the Asian and global financial crises and many other bumps in the road.
The bottom line is that people have far more to lose today than they did in 1989, and their ability to organize into any sort of alternative group is constrained like never before. Urban (and increasingly rural) China sleep-walks through a world of online shopping, car culture, holidays and smartphones. It can seem submissive and tame. But then it did in 1988, too.