Hundreds of thousands of Chinese held vigils in Hong Kong, Taipei, Washington and elsewhere Tuesday as part of an annual commemoration of the bloody 1989 crackdown on China's democracy movement at Tiananmen Square. In mainland China, although unofficial commemorations did take place, the anniversary went largely unrecognized. Sensitive topics related to the incident remained censored, political dissidents were kept jailed or placed under enhanced surveillance, and political leaders maintained total silence on the matter.
It has been 24 years since a dramatic socio-economic transition began in post-Tiananmen China. A fourth generation of leadership since the expulsion of Zhao Ziyang has assumed power, with more ambivalent feelings toward the protesters and dead students. Long-standing public demands for the rehabilitation of the Tiananmen protesters have fallen on deaf ears. Since the 2000s, the official status of the Tiananmen protest has been "political turmoil" rather than the previous "counter-revolutionary rebellion," and a few people associated with the protest, such as Hu Yaobang, the reformist Party secretary whose death catalyzed student protests, have been allowed to resurface in the official media and public discourse. However, most of the victims and those affiliated with the protests have remained in the shadows, along with the event itself.
As a result, millions of young Chinese have come of age since 1989 with little knowledge of the event. Democratic movements orchestrated from overseas claiming to have inherited the legacy of Tiananmen and seeking to inspire political transition at home have faded over the years due to a lack of coherence and an inability to connect with mainland Chinese. Still, despite the event's fading legacy, the Communist Party still finds Tiananmen a difficult issue — one that challenges its legitimacy and stands out among the many political upheavals the Party has seen during its more than 60 years in power.
Throughout the devastating Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward and various class conflicts and power struggles, the Party largely managed to retain its legitimacy through a combination of factional purges and "rehabilitation." The Party's ability to portray condemned people in a new light and reinterpret the events in which they took part arose from the fact that while each event represented a serious blow to the Party, it could justify the rehabilitations by shifting the Party's political direction or reinterpreting its ideology. Ultimately, the Party has proved itself adaptable and resilient in the shifting political landscape, staying true to its populist origins.
The result was a head-on collision between the Party, which called for top-down reforms of the existing system, and the people, who demanded a more Western-style polity in which the Party would not be the central force.
Unlike previous political movements, however, the student-led democratic protests throughout the late 1980s were a result of the fast-paced economic liberalization unleashed by Deng Xiaoping's reforms in the late 1970s. Those reforms raised a new political awareness and demands from below for new political structures and the elimination of single-party rule. Grievances ranging from corruption to inequality fueled these demands, which were exacerbated by visible divisions among political elites and ideological debates in academia.
The result was a head-on collision between the Party, which called for top-down reforms of the existing system, and the people, who demanded a more Western-style polity in which the Party would not be the central force. The Party was not ready for this. Thus, the crackdown in Tiananmen Square, which represented the Party's rejection of a grassroots democratic movement. It also meant the end of reforms that recognized the inevitable need to modify China’s political framework to facilitate reform.
The Party attempted to deal with its legitimacy problem in the early 1990s by implementing an unprecedented economic transformation. It had hoped that greater economic wellbeing would mitigate public resistance to its monopoly, resolving the legitimacy crisis that arose with Tiananmen. Today, material benefits no longer satisfy the public, and the Party's ability to increase wealth has been degraded by ongoing global economic turmoil.
It was in this context that many expected a Tiananmen rehabilitation as the Party sought to promote, under the new and reformist leadership of Xi Jinping, a long-postponed political agenda tabled in the aftermath of Tiananmen. Such hopes were dampened by an intense intra-Party debate over constitutional reforms at a time when the leadership was focused on managing China's economic transformation.
Eventually rehabilitating those condemned after Tiananmen will not be easy. Political elders involved in the crackdown, or their "princelings" — the children of former prominent leaders who occupy high-level political or economic positions — remain opposed to rehabilitation. It will also mean a reinterpretation of the legacy of Deng Xiaoping. Even so, the Party understands it can no longer avoid the subject, just as Deng could not avoid broaching the topic of the Cultural Revolution.
Even minor political reforms can alleviate grassroots grievances, but they can also generate forces spinning outside the Party's control. History may again prove a useful guide. China's last dynasty, the Qing, fell after instituting significant reforms, which were put in place after it first failed to keep pace with grassroots demand. Beijing must manage a delicate balancing act within the Party to facilitate its reform agenda or it, too, will risk demands from the street for revolutionary change.