Wednesday was the 25th anniversary of the bloody crackdown that ended China’s Tiananmen Square protests. The occasion offers an opportunity to consider what might have been. By this we do not mean if the protesters had succeeded, because “success” would imply that the students and workers who briefly occupied central Beijing in mid-1989 had a clear and achievable platform. They did not. Rather, we mean that the anniversary offers a chance to ask whether China would be different today had the protests never taken place, or if they had taken place at another time under different circumstances.
In key respects, not much would be different. The core tensions and structural imbalances that frame contemporary Chinese geopolitics, from perennial struggles between the central and local governments to starkly uneven regional development to China’s unprecedented maritime expansion in the South and East China seas that erupted a few years ago, would have unfolded in some similar form. These are problems whose roots run deeper than individuals and specific institutions. They are hardwired into China as a geographic and political unit and they play out in terms of generations and eras, not months and years.
In other respects, many things would not have been the same, for better or worse. Had the protests never materialized, then-Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang—a protege of Deng Xiaoping who championed market-oriented economic reforms and expressed sympathy for the protesters—might not have been purged. Hard-line leaders such as Li Peng, who opposed any premature changes that threatened to undermine social stability, economic growth and Communist Party control, might not have gained the upper hand in shaping social and economic policy in subsequent years. And the economic reforms being raised today, including financial liberalization and the privatization of traditionally state-controlled industries, might have been carried out far sooner. Socially, the intellectual ferment of the 1980s, a time likened by many Chinese who lived through it to the late 1960s in Europe and America, might have persisted into the 1990s and 2000s.
Perhaps more likely, if there had been no June 4, 1989, the sharp constraints the Communist Party and by extension the country faced would probably mean the same kind of crackdown would have happened on another day. The outcome and consequences of these other “Tiananmens” might have been radically different. Had the pressures and tensions that erupted June 4 been allowed to fester, China might have foundered amid the economic crisis that had been brewing since the mid-1980s or to its stark geographic divisions. It is often forgotten that spiking inflation, driven by asset price bubbles across dozens of Chinese cities, was one trigger for the Tiananmen protests.
Would the Party have survived such an ongoing crisis? It is important to remember that in 1989, China’s central government was weak and vulnerable, both domestically and internationally. In an effort to kick-start market-oriented economic reforms, throughout the previous decade Beijing had ceded extensive fiscal powers to the regions, and with them a great deal of its influence over local governments and other local institutions and over the military. Had the trend of political and military decentralization continued much longer, it is possible that the central Party leadership would have lost the capacity to manage a genuine national economic crisis when it finally arrived a year or two later. The Party also may have been unable to contain a social crisis spawned by economic collapse and further inflamed by the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Did Tiananmen save the Communist Party and the one-party state by provoking a revival of central power before it was too late?
The legacy of Tiananmen lies as much in what did not happen as what did, in the vast complex of potential histories that on June 4, 1989, became mere might-have-beens. The lesson? Perhaps that things fall apart when the center cannot hold. The re-entrenchment of central power that began in the 1990s and that continues, in modified and increasingly nuanced forms today, is in part a product of 1989, as is the central government’s extreme caution in pursuing social and economic reforms.
Republishing by The Manila Times of this Gopolitical Diary is with express permission of STRATFOR, which provides global awareness and guidance to individuals, governments and businesses around the world. It uses a unique, intel-based approach to analyze world affairs.