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Introduction

On the night of June 3, 1989, Chinese state security forces opened fire on student-led demonstrators in the area surrounding Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The demonstrators had been in the streets for weeks demanding political and economic reform. The Chinese Communist Party, led by Deng Xiaoping, faced a choice: engage with the protesters and take steps toward liberal reform, or close ranks and clamp down on dissent. Secret reports and minutes from high-level party meetings held during the demonstrations, published in Foreign Affairs in 2001, reveal a stalemate that was resolved only by a directive from the top. Deng opted for a crackdown. By the morning of June 4, Tiananmen Square was cleared of demonstrators. Hundreds were killed, if not more; the precise death toll is still unknown.

In the three decades since, the Chinese economy has grown to more than 70 times its size in 1979. But political change has been minimal. International observers once predicted that political liberalization would be the inevitable consequence of freer markets and economic development. Recently, the conventional wisdom has changed. As President Xi Jinping consolidates power and tightens the state’s grip on society, fewer China watchers speculate that the country’s politics will liberalize anytime soon. 

In Tiananmen at 30, Foreign Affairs is revisiting the history of the Tiananmen crisis and how it has shaped the thinking of China’s rulers since. We begin with a new set of previously secret documents: speeches from a Politburo meeting held within weeks of the crackdown, translated and analyzed by Andrew J. Nathan, a political scientist at Columbia University and co-editor of The Tiananmen Papers. The transcripts show Chinese leaders’ commitment to party discipline and social control, with one participant after another lining up behind Deng and his decisions.

As Nathan notes, the lessons of 1989 remain central to Xi Jinping’s approach to leadership. The rest of this collection shows just how much the legacy of Tiananmen shapes China’s domestic politics and foreign ambitions more broadly.

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