Modern China's Original Sin

Tiananmen Square's Legacy of Repression

A group of journalists at the pro-democracy protest in Tiananmen Square, May 17, 1989.
A group of journalists at the pro-democracy protest in Tiananmen Square, May 17, 1989. (Carl Ho / Courtesy Reuters)

On May 3, 2014, about a dozen rights activists met in a private apartment in Beijing, where they held a seminar marking the 25th anniversary of the protests and crackdown in Tiananmen Square. Since that night, most of the activists have disappeared. At least one of them, Pu Zhiqiang, a human rights lawyer, has been formally detained (the prelude to a criminal charge) for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”

In a way, none of this is surprising. China is an authoritarian regime. Whoever challenges it takes a risk. But what is surprising is that this small group of activists had held the same kind of meeting for several years without getting into trouble. The fact that they weren’t as lucky this year is one sign among many that repression in China has not only not eased in recent years but is getting worse.

But why? As the rights activists argued, it all goes back to June 4, 1989. The regime’s attack on the pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square was an inflection point, one at which it could have chosen liberalization or repression. Zhao Ziyang, who was the leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), favored dialogue with the students. He argued that they were patriotic, that they shared the regime’s goal of opposing corruption, and that if the leadership told the students that it accepted their demands the students would peacefully leave the square. Li Peng, the prime minister, countered that if the CCP legitimized opposition voices by negotiating with them, the party’s political rule, based on a monopoly of power, would crumble. In the end, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping sided with Li.

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