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.

Having picked the path of repression in 1989, the regime has had to steadily step it up. Here, too, the May 3 meeting is emblematic. The participants were calling for the regime to acknowledge that the student demonstrations were not dongluan,  “a turmoil” -- the official term for the demonstrations, which implies that they were a violent rebellion. They also requested that the government acknowledge that its killing of people in the square was a mistake, absolve those who had been convicted in connection with the protests, and identify those killed and offer compensation to their families. Such demands are not exactly radical, but they fly in the face of the government’s preferred method for dealing with 1989: forgetting it. Even today, the regime is unable to hold a dialogue with citizens on this or any other substantive topic for fear of losing control.

To be sure, the regime is still widely accepted in society for several reasons, including economic growth, nationalism, and what is still a quite effective system of information control. But repression remains a key pillar of its rule, because people keep searching for facts, keep wanting to speak, keep wanting to communicate. And the more repression is used, the more is needed.

Accordingly, China’s security apparatus has grown. It includes the Ministry of Public Security, with a recently added special branch for national security, the political police or guobao. Then there are the relatively new Internet police, the paramilitary People’s Armed Police, which has been strengthened since Tiananmen, the Ministry of State Security, and, backing these up if necessary, the People’s Liberation Army. According to official figures, the budgets for all these units have steadily grown, to the point where the official budget for the domestic security agencies is larger than the budget for the military, although the openly published figures for both are probably close to meaningless.

The security apparatus is unconstrained by legal procedures and enjoys the use of a wide range of flexible measures. The political police may start by “inviting [dissidents] to drink tea,” to warn them politely that their behavior has begun to exceed the regime’s ill-defined red lines. If the message is not heeded, the police can follow up with 24-hour surveillance. And if that doesn’t work, security officials can disappear people for weeks or months. A dissenter who is still stubborn can be subjected to a trumped-up criminal charge, trial, and a jail sentence, such as the 11-year sentence meted out to Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo or the four-year sentence given to Xu Zhiyong, the leader of a activist group called the New Citizens Movement. Despite the rise of social media, the police can carry out these acts inconspicuously, because censorship keeps the news from all but the most attentive members of the public.

These measures have prevented political activists from forming a strong movement or reaching out for broader social support. Meanwhile, local governments use arrests and tactical concessions to deal effectively with the tens of thousands of small-scale protests that break out all over China every year over issues such as land seizure, pollution, labor conditions, and corruption. Another challenge to the security agencies is rising opposition among some of the ethnic groups that China labels “national minorities,” especially the Uighurs in Xinjiang and the Tibetans in the Tibetan Autonomous Region and in the provinces adjoining Tibet. In the last five years there have been over 130 Tibetan self-immolations; a wave of Uighur refugees has tried to flee to other countries (and then been sent back from Pakistan, Cambodia, and Malaysia in violation of international norms against refoulement); and Uighurs have been involved in a growing number of violent incidents, which the regime has labeled terrorist incidents.

With each new generation of leaders since Tiananmen, outside observers and many Chinese have hoped for a period of liberalizing political reform, meaning some kind of movement toward democracy -- not American-style, but a Chinese version, having at least the minimal attributes of political freedom, rule of law, and governmental accountability. Instead, each successive head of state -- Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and now Xi Jinping -- has restricted freedom further. China will likely eventually democratize. But with every passing year, doing so gets more dangerous for the regime because the bottled-up social pressure has only increased. And so democratization is postponed again and again.


Political repression is not the only legacy of Tiananmen. The last 25 years have also been a period of rapid economic growth. The crisis of 1989 grew out of the problems produced by ten years of economic reform -- inflation, corruption, and ideological confusion -- and out of the divisions in the leadership between so-called reformers and conservatives over how to move forward with reform. The violent resolution of the crisis produced a momentary victory for the conservatives, who believed that reform had gone too fast and far enough. But in 1992, Deng restarted reform, effectively arguing that, just as in 1978, only economic growth could save China (meaning in part, the regime) because the Chinese people would no longer accept living in poverty as a form of socialist utopia. As a result of the reforms, between the early 1990s and last year, China’s economy grew at double-digit rates each year, producing the fastest and biggest upsurge in wealth in world history, lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty, and creating a huge middle class -- and a new world power.

Regime apologists give the government’s decision to crack down on the students in Tiananmen Square credit for this economic growth, arguing that it produced the political stability necessary to attract investment and win export contracts. In fact, the credit for growth should go to China’s land, resources, industrious labor force, and entrepreneurship -- its economic potential -- and to Deng’s decision to unlock that potential by integrating China into the globalizing world economy. Had the country opted for political liberalization in 1989, it would likely have still enjoyed economic growth -- and what economists call better “quality” growth, with less repressed wages, a more consumption-driven model, more equity, less pollution, and less corruption.

What the Tiananmen crackdown did do was to create the conditions for the specific model of growth that a globalizing China pursued, a form of authoritarian crony capitalism. The state controls the main factors of production: land, labor, credit, transportation, energy. It fosters “national champion” companies that are nominally private but are controlled by the CCP. It allows the political elite to get rich through influence and access. As GDP goes up, so does economic inequality, pollution, land seizures, and labor repression.

The point of leverage in this model of growth -- the hinge between politics and economics, between government above and society below, and (to use human rights terminology) between rising economic, social, and cultural rights and declining civil and political rights -- is the local CCP secretary, especially at the municipal level. There are about 600 municipalities in China, and it is at this level of government that most of the policy action happens. These party secretaries are given specific tasks -- the three main ones are economic development, control of population growth, and “social stability maintenance” -- and their careers depend on completing them. To do so, they are given full power over the local economy, media, courts, police, the women’s federation, and all other local party and state agencies. In this way, strong-arm tactics have come to foster economic growth, and economic growth legitimates strong-arm tactics. Economic, social, and cultural rights have increased as civil and political rights wane.

And this, too, is testimony to the abiding importance of Tiananmen. A population with robust civil and political rights would be a population that the CCP could no longer manage with its current style of rule. The idea -- hard for outsiders to grasp -- that the award of a Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo is an existential threat to such a strong, successful, and resilient regime shows how fragile the system is at its core. The regime suffers from what we might call the fragility of repression. A regime that cannot allow people to discuss Tiananmen is a regime that is afraid of its own history and what that history can do to it. It is trying to outrun history, but history cannot be outrun. It can only be confronted.

When that finally happens, it will be a sign that long postponed political changes are imminent -- civil freedom, press freedom, academic freedom -- changes that will help a more democratic China to control corruption, pollution, and inequality, that will bring China more stability rather than less, and that will make China an easier neighbor for other countries to live with.

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  • ANDREW J. NATHAN is Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science at Columbia University and Co-editor of The Tiananmen Papers.
  • More By Andrew J. Nathan