The Beijing massacre of June 1989 was never necessary to clear Tiananmen Square. Thanks to bitter infighting and a lack of clear purpose in the student movement, the million protesters who gathered in mid-May had already shrunk to a few thousand stragglers by the time of the shooting. They could easily have been dispersed by riot police or tear gas. But the massive show of military might was not aimed only at the students. It was also the conclusion of a hidden drama inside China's top ranks, where an intense power struggle had paralyzed the leadership for weeks (the main reason the protest was able to grow so large in the first place). Paramount leader Deng Xiaoping had only just succeeded in purging his anointed successor, Zhao Ziyang, and the show of force was meant to seal the gaping rift in the party. But the bloodshed only tore open new holes, since the needless brutality forced many party members to question the viability of their organization.
When leaders convened three weeks later to announce the new party chief, an unlikely candidate from Shanghai named Jiang Zemin, many assumed he had little chance of surviving such a tumultuous time. Jiang's initial speeches, lifeless and obviously scripted by committee, only reinforced this impression. As 1989 came to a close and communist governments in Europe fell like dominoes, China's leadership -- suffering from a badly outdated ideology, endemic corruption, and a devastating loss of legitimacy after the massacre -- seemed poised to follow.
Since 1989, however, both Jiang and his party have defied all expectations. Not only is Jiang still at the helm and stronger than ever, having won the added title of president in 1993, but the party has also remained firmly in control, without ever changing its intensely secretive and outdated mode of governing. Virtually no moves have been made to dilute its autocratic powers; party leaders still reach decisions in private, without more than a cursory pause to consider public opinion.
Remarkably, this ability to
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