News / Asia

Experts: Tiananmen Discontent Still Persists

A blood-covered protester holds a Chinese soldier's helmet following violent clashes with military forces during pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, June 4, 1989.
A blood-covered protester holds a Chinese soldier's helmet following violent clashes with military forces during pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, June 4, 1989.
Sarah Williams
The 25th anniversary of the bloody government crackdown on protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square will not be marked publically in China, but the event is being remembered elsewhere, both for its extensive loss of life and the potential for political reforms that time represented.

In the spring of 1989, mass demonstrations erupted in Beijing and other Chinese cities. The protesters, most of them university students, were calling for change. 

“They were tapping into a lot of long-buried feelings around the country, so the students didn’t really organize much,” said Andrew Nathan, political science professor at Columbia University, and one of the editors of The Tiananmen Papers, a compilation of secret Chinese government documents concerning the crackdown.

“But once they started showing up asking for a fight against corruption, and for the memory of the leader who had just passed way, Hu Yaobang, to be honored, and for what they called democracy, then a lot of people came pouring out to support those ideas,” he said.
Hu had been a reformist and worked to build China’s market economy. He was purged during the Cultural Revolution and was known as a critic of Chairman Mao Zedong.

Another prominent China scholar, Jeffrey Wasserstrom, professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of China in the 21st Century, said the protests followed earlier unrest.

“I was there in the 1986-1987 academic year, and there was a wave of protest then, and that grew quite large in cities such as Shanghai, and then were tamped down quite quickly, but the grievances didn’t go away,” he said.

Wasserstrom says high inflation and other economic concerns, including resentment against unethical practices and nepotism of the Communist Party elite, also fueled the unrest.

“[It's] still a simmering cause of discontent in China now,” he said.

The Tiananmen Square protests began in mid-April and lasted until the june 4 crackdown. Nathan believes officials allowed demonstrations to continue because they were unsure how to handle them.

“They were divided, they couldn’t decide what to do,” he said.

The liberal faction, headed by Communist Party leader Zhao Ziyang, who agreed with the need for reform, and the conservatives, who wanted a crackdown, consulted with paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.

According to Nathan, Deng was unwilling to get involved until Premier Li Peng warned Deng that the students wanted his downfall as well. 

Chinese officials retaliated by first publishing an editorial threatening the students, then imposed martial law, and finally launched the crackdown.

“What seems surprising is how long it took, for the government to take decisive action, and I think that division at the top is a key part of things,” said Wasserstrom.

“A series of moves that the government made that they thought would tamp down the protests actually served to rev them up.”

The government’s campaign to suppress any mention of its brutal crackdown has been called "forced amnesia": public references to the Tiananmen protests or June 4 crackdown are prohibited. In early May, several activists were detained after attending a meeting examining the 1989 crackdown.

“There are people, including younger Chinese, certainly who know that something happened then,” said Wasserstrom. “What the Communist Party keeps saying is, ‘look how far we’ve come; look at how strong China is in the world; look at the booming economy; look at the spectacle of the Olympics.’”

Nathan, who is banned from China because of his involvement with The Tiananmen Papers, believes Beijing remains very insecure. “I still feel as though the Chinese regime, although it’s strong and economically prosperous, isn’t the last word for China,” he said.

Wasserstrom agrees.

“The desire to change things has never disappeared from within China, and the lack of confidence, despite all the things that the country has accomplished materially, the Communist Party, as shown by the repression of the memory of 1989, is still fundamentally insecure in many ways.”

You May Like

Video In US, Columbus Day Still Generates Controversy

Holiday marks date Columbus discovered Americas, but some are offended by legacy because he enslaved many natives he encountered More

Video Through Sports, Austria Tries to Give Migrants Traction

With 85,000 people expected to claim asylum in Austria this year, its government has made integration through joint physical activities a key objective More

Video Kickboxing Champion Shares Sport With Young Migrants

Pouring into Europe by hundreds of thousands, some migrants, especially youngsters, are finding sports a way to integrate into new host countries More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Wangchuk from: NYC
June 03, 2014 12:25 PM
There is already widespread discontent in China b/c of corrupt CCP officials and abuse of authority. Chinese people are not free to express their views and many have been arrested/imprisoned for what they say or write. Meanwhile CCP officials become fat & live a grand lifestyle off of public funds. The CCP doesn't want the Chinese people to learn the truth of the Tiananmen Massacre b/c they are afraid of the Chinese people and want to preserve their monopoly on power. The USSR tried to do the same thing but eventually failed. The CCP cannot avoid its fate. Like all one-party states it cannot both maintain a strong economy & oppress its people at the same time. Eventually, Chinese people will be fed up and demand reform and an end to the CCP's monopoly of power.

by: Jonathan huang from: Canada
May 31, 2014 7:04 PM
I am glad CCP did the right thing! Or China would be like Ukraine being in a civil war!
I am confident that The communist will lead China to become a superpower!

by: A from: China
May 31, 2014 5:14 AM
Many of my classmates just don't know this event.The government still show weakness and never want to public it.Hope all the people from China will notice this incident.

by: An from: Seattle
May 31, 2014 2:57 AM
I'm shocked. Article about VN and China conflict got so much Chinese comments (defending China) but none here. Could it be that Chinese gov't censored this article or nothing to dispute of this facts.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Amnesty Accuses Saudi Coalition of ‘War Crimes’ in Yemeni
Henry Ridgwell
October 12, 2015 4:03 PM
The human rights group Amnesty International has accused the Saudi-led coalition of war crimes in airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Henry Ridgwell reports the group says hundreds of civilians have been killed in strikes on residential areas.

Video Amnesty Accuses Saudi Coalition of ‘War Crimes’ in Yemen

The human rights group Amnesty International has accused the Saudi-led coalition of war crimes in airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Henry Ridgwell reports the group says hundreds of civilians have been killed in strikes on residential areas.

Video No Resolution in Sight to US House Speaker Drama

Uncertainty grips the U.S. Congress, where no consensus replacement has emerged to succeed Republican House Speaker John Boehner after his surprise resignation announcement. Half of Congress is effectively leaderless weeks before America risks defaulting on its national debt and enduring another partial government shutdown.

Video New Art Exhibit Focuses on Hope

Out of struggle and despair often comes hope. That idea is behind a new art exhibit at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. "The Big Hope Show" features 25 artists, some of whom overcame trauma and loss. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Columbus Day Still Generates Controversy as US Holiday

The second Monday of October is Columbus Day in the United States, honoring explorer Christopher Columbus and his discovery of the Americas. The achievement is a source of pride for many, but for some the holiday is marked by controversy. Adrianna Zhang has more.

Video Anger Simmers as Turks Begin to Bury Blast Victims

The Turkish army carried out new air strikes on Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) targets on Sunday, a day after the banned group announced a unilateral cease fire. The air raids apparently are in retaliation for the Saturday bombing in Turkey's capital Ankara that killed at least 95 people and wounded more than 200 others. But as Zlatica Hoke reports, there are suspicions that Islamic State is involved.

Video Bombings a Sign of Turkey’s Deep Troubles

Turkey has begun a three-day period of mourning following Saturday’s bomb attacks in the capital, Ankara, that killed nearly 100 people. With contentious parliamentary elections three weeks away, the attacks highlight the challenges Turkey is facing as it struggles with ethnic friction, an ongoing migrant crisis, and growing tensions with Russia. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Afghanistan’s Progress Aided by US Academic Center

Recent combat in Afghanistan has shifted world attention back to the central Asian nation’s continuing civil war and economic challenges. But, while there are many vexing problems facing Afghanistan’s government and people, a group of academics in Omaha, Nebraska has kept a strong faith in the nation’s future through programs to improve education. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Omaha, Nebraska.

Video House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdraws

The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video German, US Officials Investigate Volkswagen

German officials have taken steps to restore some of the reputation their car industry has lost after a recent Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal. Authorities have searched Volkswagen headquarters and other locations in an effort to identify the culprits in the creation of software that helps cheat on emission tests. Meanwhile, a group of lawmakers in Washington held a hearing to get to the bottom of the cheating strategy that was first discovered in the United States. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Why Are Gun Laws So Hard for Congress to Tackle?

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has spoken out or issued statements about 15 mass shootings. The most recent shooting, in which 10 people were killed at a community college, sparked outrage over the nation's gun laws. But changing those laws isn't as easy as many think. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.

Video In 'He Named Me Malala,' Guggenheim Finds Normal in Extraordinary

Davis Guggenheim’s documentary "He Named Me Malala" offers a probing look into the life of 18-year-old Malala Yousafsai, the Pakistani teenager who, in 2012, was shot in the head by the Taliban for standing up for her right to education in her hometown in Pakistan's Swat Valley. Guggenheim shows how, since then, Malala has become a symbol not as a victim of brutal violence, but as an advocate for girls’ education throughout the world. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.

Video Paintable Solar Cells May Someday Replace Silicon-Based Panels

Solar panels today are still factory-manufactured, with the use of some highly toxic substances such as cadmium chloride. But a researcher at St. Mary’s College, Maryland, says we are close to being able to create solar panels by painting them on a suitable surface, using nontoxic solutions. VOA’s George Putic reports.

VOA Blogs