Change in Contemporary China

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This essay seeks to evaluate different impacts of the 1989 Tian’anmen incident on China’s domestic and external affairs. Some of the lasting impacts include the Chinese government’s loss of credibility as a government of reform and a ‘Party of the people. ‘ The 1989 incident also afforded unprecedented insight into the authority and command structure of the People’s Republic of China with long-term implications for those working within, as well as seeking to externally influence this structure.

A third lasting impact of the Tian’anmen incident was international political and economic responses to the Chinese Communist Party’s use of extreme force against nonviolent student protesters. Tian’anmen Square (Tian’anmen mean ‘Gate of Heavenly Peace’) has been a focal point of protest since modern times. In 1919 students protested in Tiananmen Square the signing of the Treaty of Versailles which granted German territories in China to the Japanese rather than returning them to China. This protest which began on May 4th came to epitomise the ideal of student patriotism.

In 1976 the death of Premier Zhou Enlai inspired thousands to gather in Tiananmen Square to commemorate him. This commemoration was also used as an opportunity to criticise Chinese leadership. This protest, which sparked clashes between mourners/protestors and police, became known as the first ‘Tiananmen Incident. ‘ This protest was initially labelled as ‘counter-revolutionary’ but some years later this verdict was reversed. On April 15, 1989, former Chinese Communist Party General Secretary, Hu Yaobang, died of a heart attack.

Hu Yaobang was very popular with students who then began gathering in Tiananmen Square in commemoration. This commemoration, almost a mirror of events in 1976, may have appeared to students an appropriate medium for the expression of their discontent with government policy and corruption, given the official reclassification of the previous ‘Tiananmen Incident’. The student protest in 1989 grew into one of the largest protest in modern China. The official response was to end the protests using troops and tanks. Official estimates of the death toll are in the hundreds with other estimates of deaths reaching into thousands.

One long-term impact of the 1989 Tiananmen incident was the Chinese Communist Party’s loss of credibility. This occurred both abroad, in lost credibility as a government of reform, and at home in lost credibility as ‘the peoples party’. The now famous Jeff Widener photo of a lone student standing in front of a column of tanks (Widner, J June 5), captured the essence of the 1989 Tian’anmen incident as a courageous act of nonviolent protest. Richard Baum, director of the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, said there’s ‘an emotional legacy to that shot [The Widener photo].

I think that has cost China more in public image than any other single image in modern times’ (Baum, R. 2004). Chinese Premier Li Peng, in his speech announcing the imposition of martial law to end the 1989 Tian’anmen incident, stated that his government was interested in ‘protecting the patriotism of students’ (Li Peng, 19-20 May 1989), however it would seem that the imposition of martial law, the use of PLA troops and tanks against unarmed students, and the lengthy prison terms given to student leaders contradict this assertion.

A long-term effect of the Premier’s speech and subsequent brutal repression of student protest was that of students and intellectuals losing faith in the government’s commitment to genuine social and political reforms, and loss of credibility as a government of the people. The Premier’s response to the Tian’anmen incident clearly displayed to students, pro-democracy advocates and the world that there was, in 1989, little likelihood of real change in China while octagenerian reminants of the Mao era still influenced key policy decisions.

Another second long-term impact of the 1989 Tian’anmen incident on Chinese domestic and international affairs was the revealation that the persons who actually exercised power and influence in the People’s Republic of China were not neccesarily those that held the official titled positions of leadership. The Tian’anmen incident created a crisis during which formal lines of command were not able to make key decisions.

According to Hunter & Sexton neither the standing committee of the Politburo nor the State Council ordered the supression of the student demonstrators (Hunter, A & Sexton,J. 999). The 1989 incident revealed that the real power brokers in Bejing were still the octaganarian old guard – persons who because of personal experience with the Maoist revolution were accorded deep respect. The decision to supress the protestors appears to have been made by the Central Advisory Commision, a group composed of mainly older members of the Party and previously thought to have little real power (Change in Contemporary China, 2004).

This small group of older leaders, with little in the way of formal postions of authority, had enough influence with state, military and Party officials to ensure that their decision was carried out. An example of this was in the arrest of Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang for failing to support the defacto leader’s decision to use force against student protestors (Mackerras, C. 2001). ‘Real power holders [in China] may occupy apparently trivial offices or no offices at all’ (Hunter, A & Sexton,J. 1999).

The CCP’s response to the Tian’anmen incident highlighted the real power/command structure within modern China. The CCP’s response clearly communicated that the government of the People’s Republic of China rather than being a ‘government of the people’ was instead a government protecting the authority of the Party. In spite of protestations to the contrary the Tian’anmen incident of 1989 also showed the world that those who controlled real power in China were not yet ready to share that power that in any way might weaken the control of the CCP.

A third lasting effect of the CCP’s repressions of students protest in 1989 was in the sanctioning of China by the international community. While sanctions may not have delivered significant economic chastisement, there is no doubt that they afforded some impact upon the Chinese leadership. According to Hunter & Sexton (1999) most countries suspended new loan approvals to China following the Tian’anmen incident and China’s international credit rating was downgraded. China had been experiencing a period of large international investment into its industrialisation and infrastructure.

The imposition of trade sanctions and suspension of new loans probably had a longer term impact on the Chinese leadership due to a ‘loss of face’ than the economic effect of the sanctions themselves. According to Hunter and Sexton (1999) the flow on effect of the continued provision of loans agreed to prior to the Tian’anmen incident tended to reduce the impact of ant economic sanction. The vast economic opportunity and the political stability of the communist regime, albiet maintained by the use of tanks against unarmed civilians, appeared to soon overcome investment hesitation into what was likely to become the world’s largest economy.

A side effect of the economic investment into China was the increase of means for foreigners and overseas Chinese to relay accurate news about the student protest into China and the new ability for the Chinese population to share information across the nation in the form of faxes and telephones ((Change in Contemporary China, 2004, p8. 7). Radio and and satalite television broacasts worked until cutoff off by the government. The difficulty the Chinese government faced in controlling the flow of news about 1989 incident perhaps demonstrated a new level of ‘people power’ previously unknown in contemporary China.

The ongoing international (generally non-government) outcry regarding the imprisonment of student protestors in the aftermath of the Tian’anmen incident while being a source of embarrassment to China does not appear to have significantly changed the result. According to Amnesty International ‘at least 50 people are still imprisoned for their part in the [1989 Tiananmen] protests’ and that ‘[t]his figure is believed to be a mere fraction of the true figure which has never been released by the authorities. ‘ (AI, June 2004).

While economic sanctions may have had little long-term effect Chinese leaders would find it difficult to forget symbolic nature of the sanctions themselves. The 1989 Tian’anmen incident had a lasting impact on many aspects of the Chinese state. Loss of credibility at home and abroad, an erosion of support within broad segments of the population and international sanctions combined to make the Tian’anmen incident one of the most significant political events in modern China. 1989 was the year that tanks won out over idealstic pro-democracy students.

It must only be a matter of time before octagenarian elements within China’s authority and command structures are no longer present to direct the affairs of a China. The middle kingdom is poised to run by a new generation of leaders more familiar with current economic prosperity than Maoist revolution. Just as China has experienced an economic tranformation, it would seem likely that modern China is poised to experience political transformation. It should be noted that this may well be a uniquly Chinese transformation rather than some copy of a western experience.

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