The Tiananmen Square Movement

The Tiananmen Square protest of 1989 is one of the most popular uprisings ever stage in contemporary China. Students from leading Chinese universities had made up their minds and were ready to march on Beijing and bring forth the changes they wished to see in China. Firstly, basic human right was a topical issue at the time. The Communist-led Chinese government was known for its brutality to anyone who tried to oppose its rule. It was a tactic that had been borrowed from the strongman leadership that was popular in Russia which had made it possible for leaders such as Joseph Stalin to wield immense power (Cheng, 2009, p. 67).

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The Communist-led government was, therefore, fully determined to borrow a leaf from their international ally and apply these methods with pinpoint accuracy. The idea behind this form of leadership was to establish a system where the government had unprecedented powers that allowed it to act without being challenged by the electorates. Secondly, there was an urgent need for press freedom in mainland China. The Communist-led Chinese government had always viewed the press as an enemy and a force that needed to be controlled. The primary reason for this perspective was a way of ensuring the government controlled the narrative at all times. Given that human rights abuses were occurring at an alarming rate in China, censure was the best option at the time since it would ensure that such news would not reach the international community as intended.  The students soon managed to galvanize support from the public which led to the inception of the “89 Democracy Movement whose main intention was to introduce radical changes in China. Nevertheless, the protest ended in failure, leading to the suppression of liberal voices and limits on political expression in the country. An in-depth assessment of the reasons why it failed is, thus, critical to establish actions by the student-led movement and the government that led to its ultimate failure.

Background the Buildup to the Protest

China’s Communist Party had previously been involved in a campaign of collectivization and rapid industrial development. These two areas were considered the most viable spheres of influence that would fulfill Mao Zedong’s dream of a new China. Nevertheless, the reality of the ground was quite different. Maoist policies had failed to bring to fruition the changes that had initially been projected in the “Great Leap Forward” campaign which fomented dissent in its citizens (Cheng, 2009). Government projects were run by ruthless party officials who demanded absolute respect and adoration from the people in rural China. Typically, anyone who went against party tenets was immediately viewed as a counterrevolutionary who was deemed unfit to participate in political issues. Millions would, later on, be killed by this government through a systematic starvation campaign. Furthermore, the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) had created a wedge between the government and its citizenry. Terror was the order of the day, as the Red Guards sought transform traditional Chinese culture which was deemed harmful to the greater society. Leaders in the Communist Party were aware that changes were necessary if they were to remain at the helm of power. However, they did not quite agree on how these changes were to be introduced. One camp advocated for a complete overhaul of the current system while the other favored a move towards greater personal freedoms for the citizens. In the meantime, the Chinese people affected by these policies remained in a state of uncertainty, which was fodder for revolution. Even so, a number of key events were directly responsible for the protests that were witnessed in Tiananmen Square.

Hu Yaobang’s Memorial Service.

Hu Yaobang was an ardent reformer and a top official in the Communist Party of China. In fact, he served as its Secretary General for seven years before being hounded out by conservatives. Yaobang was aware of the changing global tide and wanted China to on board when societal advancements were made across the world. For instance, he proposed the introduction of laws assuring every citizen of their unalienable rights and the rehabilitation of individuals who were psychologically scarred during the Cultural Revolution. Yaobang also believed that dissent was necessary for China if its Communist ideology was to mature and promote the wellbeing of its citizens. Sadly, Yaobang died a disgraced man in 1989 owing to his unwavering views and was about to be relegated to the periphery of Chinese political greats. The Communist-led government viewed him as a threat to their dogma and was not willing to accord him a heroes’ send-off. Pro-reformers soon found out about these plans and arrived at Tiananmen Square chanting slogans of solidarity while demanding a state funeral for their late comrade (Chua, 2014, p. 23). The government bowed to this pressure, but went on to ignore these same students when they approached government officials at the Great Hall of the People. These two groups would later meet at Yaobang’s memorial service, which immediately led to protests. By this time, the students were acutely aware of the government’s attitude towards reformers and their efforts to transform the Chinese society. The government was determined to maintain its grip on power through all available means, even if it meant tainting the reputation of fellow leaders who were against the suppression of protests. The simple act of refusing to receive the student’s petition revealed to them that the government was not interested in conciliatory talks but only interested in retaining power. It was at this point that the first seeds of rebellion were sown.

Economic Disparities

The mounting gap between China’s rich and poor was another reason why the students were quickly hurtling towards protests and social disobedience. The rich consisted of political elites with high status in the Communist Party of China. These individuals had access to government resources that allowed them to live a comfortable life. A system of patronage ensured that they held secure positions with handsome salaries (Langley, 2009). Moreover, their privileged positions also meant that they could easily lead a life of luxury while enjoying protection from the highest echelons of power. It was widely known that such individuals could not be touched or threatened by other members of society due to their economic status. They had access to unparalleled luxuries that often included high-end cars and palatial homes the likes that had never been seen before in China. In addition to this, most of their financial wealth was banked in foreign financial institutions to avoid any scrutiny back at home. Essentially, they were getting rich and prosperous while the rest of China languished in sheer poverty (Chua, 2014). The economic disparity was also worsened by the fact that commoners had a difficult time securing jobs even if it was proven that they were qualified for the job. Conversely, those with connections to the ruling party had an easier time securing these positions. All the while, rural farmers were still grappling with a failed de-collectivization policy that had left them despondent and without hope for the future. Productivity in individual farms was at an all-time low which meant that they had a difficult time providing for their families and others who depended on them. Those who suffered the most were those with students in university since they would soon get to a point where they would be unable to pay the tuition fees. It is, therefore, no wonder that peasant farmers and wage workers were the first group of individuals to stand in solidarity with the students who planned to protest.

Party Corruption

Corruption was a hallmark of the Communist Chinese party and the main reason why many officials sought to be associated with it. The party’s leadership always consisted of persons with a questionable track record in as far as integrity was concerned and who were malleable to a point where they would redirect funds meant for development. Self-aggrandizement soon became the order of the day in a country where peasants still suffered from simple curable diseases. Party leaders always made sure that they brokered ventures that would see them liaise with foreign companies and make financial gains from this new-found relationship (Liao, 2009, p. 45). This issue was further worsened by the fact it was only these individuals and their family members who benefitted from the arrangement. Huge sums of money would be deposited into their accounts, with the general expectation being that part of this money would go towards helping the local communities where these companies operated. Nevertheless, things were often not so since these sums would be pocketed by party officials would then use it for their personal enterprises. More money also meant an increase in power for party leaders. It was relatively easy for them to buy the loyalty of other party members to sway opinions whenever their integrity was put into questions. Funds intended for government projects were always redirected to off-shore accounts which diminished the country’s potential for a long while (Li, Li, & Mark, 2011, p. 22). Furthermore, corruption bred inequality in the society since certain individuals were more financially endowed than others. Generational poverty was a common phenomenon during the time and was mostly attributed to an unequal distribution of resources by party leaders. Corruption also allowed these same individuals to cheat the system and use underhand methods to achieve their objectives. Judges and witnesses were commonly bribed to put a lid on damning evidence with the potential of causing serious damage.

Party’s Hard Stance on Protests

Since its inception, the Communist Party had made it clear that it sought to transform the Chinese society which would lead to the country soaring to new economic heights. Part of this policy included the wielding unquestioned power and executive orders. The country was centralized and controlled by the party, which always made sure that it considered any requests made by loyal supporters. These individuals would often be rewarded for their loyalty and were placed in positions where they were very likely to make financial gains due to this symbiotic relationship (Liao, 2009). It was easy to control such persons, which also made it possible for party leaders to control various resources that were under their management. They were also against student unions and such-like movements that were popular across the country among the youth. These were likeminded individuals who had a certain independence of thought that allowed them to voice their concerns without any fear. This presented a challenge for the ruling party since such individuals could not be bought or compromised. The Communist Party, thus, had to make a quick decision regarding this matter to avoid losing control of their power and the narrative that they had peddled regarding their position on the state of the nation.

 Powerful party leaders such as Li Peng and Deng Xiaoping were the first to express their position on the nationwide protests and why they were a threat to stability. Their positions at the helm of party politics made it possible for them to denounce protesters and the changes that they were clamoring for. The student’s threat soon became a topic of interest, mostly centering on them being a threat to unity. Peng even went as far as claiming that they posed a direct threat to him and his family and requested an immediate evacuation of his kin to a safer location. These and other fabricated accusations appeared in the local dailies in an attempt to sway popular opinion in China and draw the public from those he aptly termed a “tiny” minority (Li, Li, & Mark, 2011). These comments did not help quell the situation but worsened it further. The students were now more determined than ever to prove that the voices of dissenting were not from a tiny minority but a group that enjoyed support from an entire spectrum of individuals in society. On the other hand, the Communist Party was preparing itself for any eventuality. The students were viewed as direct threats to their political power and had to be controlled within the shortest time possible. Failure to do so would present leadership challenges that would introduce anarchy in the entire Chinese mainland.

Main Reasons for the Tiananmen Square Movement’s Failure

Even though the protestors at Tiananmen Square had put up a brave fight against the powers that be, they ultimately failed to achieve their goal of instituting immediate reforms. The government had always viewed the students as a direct threat and was well prepared to confront them. In typical communist fashion, the student-led demonstrations were forcibly suppressed to the sheer dismay of many reform activists. It was a reality that they now had to contend with as they piece their lives together and resort to a life they loathed. The government responded by instituting widespread arrests across the country and sentencing anyone associated with these groups (Langley, 2009). In addition to this, foreign journalists were expelled immediately since a majority of the news stations they worked for seemed sympathetic to the protestor’s cause. The government now had a unique opportunity to control the coverage of the event and present a picture that painted its party leaders in positive light. It also saw it fit to conduct a purge that would remove disloyal party officials who played an active role in promoting the protestor’s agenda. The Tiananmen Square movements had ended as a disastrous failure and stringent laws that made life challenging for recalcitrant voices. There were a number of factors that were to blame for this unexpected turn of events.

A Strong Centralized System of Governance

One of the primary reasons why the Tiananmen Square protests ended in failure was because of the central government that was in place at the time. Such a government presented challenges for anyone with the intention of overthrowing it since all its arms were under the control one leader who understood their inner workings. For instance, the National People’s Congress was the first government organ to acknowledge the threat posed by the student and communicated this information through the chain of command through the Standing Committee. In addition to this, it was also instrumental in offering feasible options that could be applied by the Communist Party to regain control of the square. The office of the President and Vice-President, were also at the center of the conflict. Their power made it possible to pass decrees on the next course of action that was to be undertaken to end the stalemate that was beginning to become apparent and in bringing the country back to normalcy (Link & He, 2014, p. 12). The State Council also played a central role in this conflict since it only took orders from the Premier. Any resolution that was applied, with regard to the best action in this particular circumstance, entailed an outline of decisions made by persons sitting in the highest offices of power. The centralized government also had complete control of the Central Military Commission and the People’s Liberation Army which are, essentially, the most important armed wings in the country. Their swift action at the square made it possible for them to clear the area within the shortest time possible, thus enabling the country to slowly revert back to regularity. It is also vital to acknowledge that the Communist Party has supreme political authority and cannot be challenged. The state is controlled by the party’s policies and agenda that seek to implement the Communist dogma in all spheres of life. Unlike in Western countries where the government is run my multiple parties, China has a single player that directs all organs when carrying out their mandate (Link & He, 2014). The head of state, who in most occasions is also the General Secretary of the party, manages all government organs to work effectively in case of a desperate situation. It was this system that made it possible for Li Peng and his contemporaries harnessed in order to regain control of the country, avoiding anarchy.

The Declaration of Martial Law

The Chinese Communist Party’s decision to declare martial across the mainland was one of the key decisions that changed the course of history and led to the failure of the “89 Democracy Movement. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army was tasked with enforcing this decree and making sure that the government regains control of the streets.  The use of force was allowed as a last resort when seeking to uphold the party’s leadership. Boots were soon put on the ground to intimidate the protestors to disperse and clear the area. The mobilization witnessed here was at a scale that had never been seen before in the history of China in a domestic event. It was also an indicator that the Communist Party was not about to give up its power but maintain it no matter the price.  200,000 troops arrived at Tiananmen Square with orders to use any means in their disposal to clear it (Fewsmith, n.d., p. 33).  Deng Xiaoping had arrived on this decision since many of the hardliners around him had also suggested the use of lethal force as way of intimidating the protestors into giving up and ending their stay at the square. The Communist Party had already deliberate and came to a conclusion about the type of response that would suit this particular situation. Firstly, the students were viewed as arrogant and unreasonable individuals.  Party leaders suggested that, if given the chance, these individuals would use their new found power to purge the country and render it unstable. Secondly, concessions were completely out of the questions since the student-led movement only wanted to have its way in the matter at hand. It was a classic case of struggle for power the Communist Party was not ready to lose it. A political solution was out of the question since it was becoming clear to the Chinese government that the movement was enjoying immense support from the public, thus endangering its position (Lüsted, 2010, p. 49). Martial law was applied as per Article 89 of the constitution and was projected to cover the eight problematic urban districts where most of the protests were taking place. Military units entered Beijing from all directions, after which the military was allowed to use deadly force when confronting protestors trying to impede their advance. The ensuing confrontation resulted in the death of more than 10,000 individuals, bringing the Tiananmen Square Movement to a grinding halt.

Disunity Among Idealistic Leaders of the Tiananmen Square Movement

The initial days of protests across Beijing painted a picture of a united front to the whole world. Demonstrators were seen walking together, holding hands and chanting slogans about the regime’s end. A large majority of those present at the square were young students with parochial feelings that ultimately pushed them to join hands with like-minded individuals in the hope that their actions would introduce reforms in the country. Yet, the movement was constantly plagued by disunity which was among the main reasons why their efforts ended in failure. Factionalism was a hallmark of the Tiananmen Square Movement. Leaders would band together against those they were not particularly fond off and try their level best to frustrate their efforts. The idea behind this fighting was to establish hierarchy within the organization and present some members as the accredited representatives. One of the primary reason why this is the case is related to their inexperience in matters related to appropriate actions of political activists. Most of these so-called liberal leaders found themselves in an awkward position where they had an outlet to express their grievances but without any experience on how to go on about the matter.

Within a short period, political rookies soon found themselves at the helm of a nascent organization and with the ability to make demands regarding their well-being and the state of the nation. Additionally, the leaders wanted an end to the one-party system popular in China yet a foundation for democracy was virtually non-existent in the country.  By the time the movement caught momentum, there was no civil society that would have been instrumental in guiding the organization’s leaders. Accusations were rife that some of the student leaders were as autocratic and ruthless as the Communist Party leaders who they sought to replace. The earliest sign of division was evident after the declaration of martial law. Proactive leaders knew that this type of situation posed mortal danger to the protestors but others refused to accept this truth and, instead chose to remain in the strike zone. For instance, Wuer Kaixi and Wang Dan had suggested that all protestors leave the square but were ignored by fellow leaders (Lüsted, 2010, p. 25). The students were also torn by this decision and could not settle on a definite option. The involvement of workers in the protest had escalated the situation. Young intellectuals did not particularly take orders from the old guard, many who had not attended university.  Disunity became a reality as a result of this condescending attitude, therefore, hindering any chance of success.

Inadequate Support from the International Community

The international community was established by the world’s greatest powers as a way of ensuring that there are checks and balances global. It also actively seeks to remind rogue regimes that they have a responsibility to their citizens and regimes can be replaced if they do not adhere to international standards. These countries use the Foreign-Imposed Regime Change (FIRA) to change governments in target states (Lim, 2014). An outright invasion is unacceptable by international standards, which is why the international community waits for the opportune moment to put boots on the ground. Activists may receive funding to facilitate their subversive activities. The funds may be channeled into the purchase of weapons or logistical purposes that will go a long way in promoting the cause. In other instances, blatant disregard of international law where a government abuses its own people and fails to follow the ascribed rules may prompt an invasion. A resolution by the United Nations Security Council may recommend boots on the ground to keep the pace and reduce the violence. It is through this form of involvement that countries such as Libya and Iraq have managed to remove autocratic leaders and replace them with liberal ones with a blueprint for the future.

The Tiananmen Square Movement received no such support from the international. The students were left to their own devices by international players who would have been instrumental in helping them achieve their goal.  There are a number of reasons why this was the case. Firstly, China had proved itself in the international arena. It had managed to industrialize and improve its status around the world after participating in the Korean War (1950-53). China shocked the whole world when decided to enter the conflict and support communist North Korea.  It had done so out of security concern since the United States Military was nearing its border as the days went by and would soon influence its citizens with capitalistic tendencies.  China was, thus, determined to push the Americans to the 38th parallel in order to maintain a safe distance with this perceived enemy (Liao, 2009, p. 75). Bearing this incident in mind, the international community had no choice but to sit by the sidelines and watch the Tiananmen Square protest without offering to help. The Cold War was ongoing during this period, which is why the international community decided to tread light on this matter. Criticisms were presented through various media channels, although none dared to invade China and institute regime change. The student-led protest, thus, had a solitary existence devoid of key powers that would have helped them achieve their goals.

Aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Movement

The authorities reacted ruthlessly after the failure of the Tiananmen Square movement. Anyone who was involved either directly or indirectly was arrested immediately. These mass arrests would be followed by summary trails after which one was either jailed for an indefinite amount of time or summarily executed.  A generation of university students was jailed en masse and permanently stigmatized in the community. Leadership changes also occurred within the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC). Zhao Ziyang was forced to step down and pave way for other leaders who were not sympathetic to the student’s cause (Lim, 2014). Conservative members of the CPC now controlled the party from within and all its activities. The protest’s failure also saw the Chinese government suppress freedoms of speech and press. The Communist Party did not want a return to the chaos witnessed during the protest and severely punished those media outlets that stood in solidarity with the students. International trade was also severely affected as a result of a tainted international image. Commitments to invest in China were soon terminated with sanctions and an arms embargo looming over it.


The Tiananmen Square movement represents one of the boldest political endeavors ever undertaken by Chinese citizen. Angst at Hu Yaobang’s memorial service, economic disparities, party corruption and a stern stance on protests were factors that fanned the movement. Still, it failed due to the presence of a strong system of governance, the declaration of martial law, disunity among the leaders and inadequate international support. The adverse effects of its failure are still felt in China where the Communist Party monitors the public closely for any signs of discordance so as to unite the country according to the national ideology.

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