30 years after Tiananmen Square, a changed China largely ignores the milestone

Political scientist Avery Goldstein discusses the mood in Beijing this week, and how the regime has suppressed the history of the crackdown.

Protesters in Hong Kong
Hong Kong residents gathered in Stanley Park for a candlelight vigil to remember the victims of the crackdown. 

On June 4, 1989, Chinese soldiers opened fire on a massive gathering of protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The crackdown put a brutal end to weeks of demonstrations, originally spearheaded by student leaders, pushing the Communist regime to move toward democratic reforms, including freedom of speech and a free press. 

Soldiers killed hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of protesters, and wounded many more in clearing the square. Despite an international outcry, the event ushered in further suppression of dissent that persists to this day, even as China’s economic boom has made the country one of the world’s most powerful.

Avery Goldstein, a political science professor and the director of Penn’s Center for the Study of Contemporary China, was in Beijing around the anniversary. He talked with Penn Today about his experience, the long-term implications of Tiananmen, and what a brewing trade war with the U.S. might mean for both countries.  


You’ve been in Beijing this week. What’s the mood like there? Does it feel different?

The mood was no different as far as I could tell after I arrived a few days before June 4. Security was heightened around Tiananmen Square, but there has been increased security for the past several years after an incident in which a van crashed into people on the sidewalk. Basically, after that incident they put barriers in place to limit easy access to the huge open square and sidewalks in front of the Forbidden City, and to enter the square you have to go through a security check—an X-ray and bag check like at airport screening. It’s the same routine as I’ve encountered on visits to the square for the past few years. The result is much smaller numbers of people roaming around, which is the point, I think. 

More broadly, the regime’s approach is to nip any trouble, from their perspective, in the bud. I was surprised, however, that my local subway station did not have the usual additional security, the People’s Armed Police, that is put in place during other events, like the annual meetings of the National People’s Congress.

The U.S. coverage has focused on how tightly controlled things are in Beijing. Is that accurate? Did that surprise you?

I think some folks in the U.S., and maybe some here, don’t realize how controlled things are normally. It’s baked into daily life. So the added tightening was not remarkable. As I said, the regime seeks to head off any trouble and it has stepped up preventive measures—that is, political and security controls—quite a bit over the past six years since Xi Jinping became party leader. 

One distinctive step that was obvious to me this time was the very effective shutdown of virtual private networks (VPNs). Like many foreigners, I rely on a VPN to access news sites, Google and Gmail, and social media while in China. My VPN has always been one of the most reliable and effective. It would not work for the three days I was here after June 1 when using my laptop; the Wi-Fi would disconnect until I turned off the VPN and restarted the computer without it. But for some reason, the VPN continued to work on my iPhone. That enabled me to be in touch with the VPN vendor and find out that they were scrambling to find a solution. Before they figured it out, June 4 became June 5 and the VPN crackdown was over.  

Aside from the hassle—I had to work on a paper for a workshop here and limited internet access made that tougher—the takeaway is that the regime has gotten much better at shutting down access to banned sites by using VPNs, and probably is confident that it can do this effectively for at least several days whenever it wants to.

All these controls, and the fact that the topic of Tiananmen Square 1989 is taboo here, means that it is not openly discussed or even dealt with as a fact of history. Some seem to think this means that people here don’t know about what happened if they are under a certain age, approximately 35 years old. But it is hard to be sure. As my former colleague, Yuhua Wang, wrote in the Washington Post, knowledge is shared by parents and grandparents at home. And millions of Chinese tourists and students have gone abroad where they often find out more about what actually happened. 

So my working assumption is that the regime has effectively limited but not eliminated knowledge about the events. More importantly, it relies on the tools at the disposal of an authoritarian state to ensure that it forecloses any challenge before it can get started, an approach based on the lessons the Communist Party of China (CCP) draws from the collapse of communist regimes that followed shortly after Tiananmen in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

What did you think of the large turnout for the Hong Kong vigil? What do you think that means for the Chinese government and its relationship with the people of Hong Kong?

As a major anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown, a larger crowd would be expected to gather if it could. And the good news is that they still could, despite concerns about China increasing its influence over the Hong Kong authorities. As for the people, at least for those who took part and others who may have sympathized, it reminds Beijing of something it already knows—that there is a large fraction of Hong Kong’s residents who are unwilling to see Hong Kong become too much like China is today. 

Hong Kong is now sovereign Chinese territory, but the agreement that led to China regaining sovereignty from Britain’s colonial administration in 1997 was that it would be defined by one country with two systems. Hong Kong residents who resent Beijing’s heavy hand want two systems to mean two systems.

What’s changed, and what hasn’t, since the 1989 protests? China’s role in the world has been transformed, but is the government’s relationship with its people all that different?

This is huge topic that is hard to boil down to a few sentences. Many things have changed since the protests, including the end of the positive view about China’s possibilities for liberalization after the regime demonstrated it would do whatever it had to do to repress challenges to its one-party rule. But the biggest change since the immediate aftermath of the crackdown in terms of the regime’s relationship with the people is that the relationship rests on an implicit but obvious bargain: as long as the party delivers the goods—increasing prosperity, including not just rising wealth but an improving quality of life, improved medical care, and greater attention to food safety and environmental degradation—the people will support, or tolerate, or at least not openly challenge the regime’s grip on power. 

As China’s economy has taken off and as it has begun to play a larger role around the globe, inspiring pride that reinforces satisfaction with an improving standard of living, the bargain has held. 

What else do you think is significant to talk about in terms of China, its government, and its global reach as we mark this anniversary?

It is important to remember not only the sacrifice of those who suffered, and others who continue to suffer, because the regime refuses to tolerate any independent challenge to its ideas or preferences, but also that it is wrong to reduce one’s understanding of China to a single historical event or dimension. It is too easy, and misleading, to hold a cartoonish view of China and life in China. 

One of the reasons it is important not to rely solely on mass media new reports for one’s understanding of China, is that reporters naturally focus mainly on the problems—in all countries. I know plenty of really smart Americans who hold remarkably simplistic views, positive and negative, of China. It is too important a country for the U.S. and the world for so many to remain uninformed, or to settle for cartoonish views. It would be great if more people could read books about or take courses on China or visit China and do more than go the Great Wall. But that is almost certainly an unrealistic wish from someone whose job makes it easier— it’s never easy—to follow what’s happening in China.

The anniversary comes at a touchy time for U.S.-China relations, with talk of a major trade war. What are you hearing? Do the Chinese take President Trump's threats seriously?

Another huge topic. In some respects, the trade war has become a gift to the regime. Its response that has relied on appeals to patriotism to stand up to foreign bullying and threats, including lots of TV programming on the Korean War, focused attention on something other than the Tiananmen anniversary. 

The regime definitely takes the economic and technology conflicts seriously. They are prepared to wait until the U.S. comes up with a way forward that the Chinese side doesn’t think is humiliating. They seem to understand that the standoff will hurt China more than the U.S., even if both sides will be hurt. They seem to be willing to bet that China is better able to take the pain than is the U.S. 

In any case, both President Trump and President Xi need a face-saving way to work out a truce because a full-blown trade war looks like it will be very costly, potentially resulting in a fundamental reworking of the international economic order into an American and a Chinese bloc, disrupting global supply chains, reducing efficiency, and hampering technological progress, and perhaps fostering a global recession.

Arguably of greater long-term significance is that President Trump’s approach has already convinced China’s leaders that they cannot remain as dependent on the U.S. as they have been for critical technological inputs, because of the Huawei experience, or other commodities, because of the soybean experience. Agreement or no agreement, they will double down on improving their ability to provide for themselves. 

Whether they can succeed or not is an open question. But in light of the massive government resources being devoted to the effort, and in light of China’s successes over the past two decades at moving up the value chain while growing, I wouldn’t bet against it. Unless the U.S. gets serious about dealing with its own shortcomings in education, infrastructure, and R&D in areas other than in the biomedical/health sectors, as Zeke Emanuel has written, this could be bad news for the U.S. 

It is possible that we’ll look back at this experience one day and conclude the U.S. won the battle but China won the war. 

Avery Goldstein is the David M. Knott Professor of Global Politics and International Relations in the political science department in the School of Arts and Sciences, director of the Center for the Study of Contemporary China, and associate director of the Christopher H. Browne Center for International Politics at the University of Pennsylvania.