The twenty-second anniversary of the start of the Beijing Spring protests arrived this month on April 16. Twenty-two years ago, in the Chinese capital, in Shanghai, and about 370 other cities, Chinese citizens poured into the streets to mourn the death of reformist leader Hu Yaobang and plead with Chinese leaders for change. The Communist Party, after internal disputes as to how to respond to popular discontent, ordered the People’s Liberation Army to kill unarmed demonstrators.
In Beijing, the vicious 27th Army fought its way to the center of the capital, killing hundreds, perhaps thousands of residents as well as workers and students. Chinese people know that horrific event by the code “64,” shorthand for the carnage that occurred on the fourth of June, 1989. Foreigners use a different term: “the Tiananmen massacre.”
“We are not afraid to shed a little blood,” leader Deng Xiaoping said at the time. He ordered the murderous crackdown to teach the Chinese people a lesson in obedience, but his technocratic successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, have taken a different approach.
China’s current leaders, when they are absolutely forced to talk about Tiananmen, refer to the bloodbath as “that 1989 affair” and for the most part have been able to prevent national discussions of the matter. Textbooks don’t mention it, teachers don’t teach it, and state media ignores that horrible night. Websites are scrubbed of references to the slaughter, and domestic search engines block Tiananmen articles.
As a result of the government’s obsessive efforts, younger Chinese have not learned Deng’s lesson. In 1996, one of our Shanghainese friends, Min, a woman then in her mid-20s, expressed disbelief when she first learned of the Tiananmen massacre. The tragedy came up in a casual dinner conversation my wife and I were having with her and Chris, her American boyfriend. We were astonished that anyone could have lived in a major city in China in 1989 and not heard about the country-wide protests or the massacre in Beijing that followed.
At the same time, older Chinese are forgetting the horror of “64.” In the spring of 2009, I was talking to a prominent businessman in his office in a Shanghai tower, and he mentioned how much China had changed in the preceding two decades. “No one fears the government any more,” he noted.
Beijing now has a critical dilemma. Its leaders want to appear modern, but to do so they have had to cover up Tiananmen. Yet covering up Tiananmen is far more dangerous to their regime than boasting about its brutality.
Why? The Chinese don’t take to the streets when they are angry notes New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof who, along with his wife, Sheryl Wu Dunn won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of Tianamen . They do so when they think they can get away with it. The continual erosion of fear means that Deng’s essential lesson of Tiananmen—that the Communist Party will use deadly violence on a mass scale—has been largely lost.
So the populace is moving beyond the Communist Party. Senior leaders are certainly trying to be more coercive and coercion limits political discourse, but repression in China’s forward-looking society is losing its effectiveness. And as it loses its effectiveness, an important change in the thinking of Chinese people is occurring: they are becoming defiant.
In 2009, according to Perry Link of the University of California at Riverside, there were more than 230,000 demonstrations in China. That figure is well up from the 127,500 reported for 2008 and the 80,000 to 90,000 a year for the earlier part of the last decade. Figures for protests can be unreliable, but it is evident that Chinese society, in the last half decade, has become more turbulent.
The upswing in protest in the last several years is not because conditions are worse—in many ways they are much better—but because fear is receding while thinking inside the country is changing—as it has in every modernizing society. As the great political scientist Samuel Huntington once wrote, “In fact, modernity breeds stability, but modernization breeds instability.”
So it’s no wonder the Chinese social order is beginning to fray, and by now the evidence of disintegration is unmistakable. Many analysts say the April 3 detention (http://www.thedaily.com/page/2011/04/11/041111-opinions-column-artist-chang-1-2/) of artist, architect, and critic Ai Weiwei is counterproductive for the Communist Party as it is creating even more opposition to its rule, and they are correct. But China’s leaders evidently felt they had no choice, for if they had not jailed Ai they would no longer be able to contain dissent in society. And they are right as well.
In short, the Communist Party no longer has room to maneuver. Just like Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, Hu Jintao no longer has good options. Nothing he is doing to keep order is working because most Chinese sense that a one-party system is no longer appropriate for their country’s modernizing society. We may think that Beijing’s leaders are overreacting to people like Ai Weiwei, but they know how volatile their country can be.
At this moment, like 1989, almost any event can trigger massive protests in China. And this time, unlike 1989, a weakened political system will not be able to use massive deadly force to keep itself in place. The current leaders do not have the standing to order wide-scale murder, and the army would not carry out such a grim task.
We will, 22 years after Tiananmen, witness great change in China.
Gordon G. Chang is the author of "The Coming Collapse of China." He writes a weekly column at Forbes.com. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.