Written by Vladimir Moss



     One of the most important events in recent political history was the Tiananmen Massacre of June 4-5, 1989. Only a few months later, the Berlin wall fell, and then communism fell in the Soviet Union and throughout Eastern Europe. But the first major anti-communist revolution in that period took place in Peking…

     Or rather, the torch had been lit in Poland in the early 1980s. And this led to a new Chinese policy that led directly to Tiananmen. For in China, as Naomi Klein writes, the government, “then led by Deng Xiaoping, was obsessed with avoiding a repeat of what had just happened in Poland, where workers had been allowed to form an independent movement that challenged the party’s monopoly hold on power. It was not that China’s leaders were committed to protecting the state-owned factories and farm communes that formed the foundation of the Communist state. In fact, Deng was enthusiastically committed to a corporate-based economy – so committed that, in 1980, his government invited [the radical Chicago economist] Milton Friedman to come to China and tutor hundreds of top-level civil servants, professors and party economists in the fundamentals of free-market theory. ‘All were invited guests, who had to show a ticket of invitation to attend,’ Friedman recalled of his audiences in Beijing and Shanghai. His central message was ‘how much better ordinary people lived in capitalist than in communist countries’. The example he held up was Hong King, a zeon of pure capitalism that Friedman had long admired for its ‘dynamic, innovative character that has been produced by personal liberty, free trade, low taxes, and minimal government intervention.’ He claimed that Hong Kong, despite having no democracy, was freer than the United States, since its government participated less in the economy.

     “Friedman’s definition of freedom, in which political freedoms were incidental, even unnecessary, compared with the freedom of unrestricted commerce, conformed nicely with the vision taking shape in the Chinese Politburo. The party wanted to open the economy to private ownership and consumerism while maintaining its own grip on power – a plan that ensured that once the assets of the state were auctioned off, party officials and their relatives would snap up the best deals and be first in line for the biggest profits. According to this version of ‘transition’, the same people who controlled the state under Communism would control it under capitalism, while enjoying a substantial upgrade in lifestyle. The model the Chinese government intended to emulate was not the United States but something much closer to Chile under Pinochet: free markets combined with authoritarian political control, enforced by iron-fisted repression.

     “From the start Deng clearly understood that repression would be crucial. Under Mao, the Chinese state had exerted brutal control over the people, dispensing with opponents and sending dissidents for re-education. But Mao’s repression took place in the name of the workers and against the bourgeoisie; now the party was going to launch its own counterrevolution and ask workers to give up many of their benefits and security so that a minority could collect huge profits. It was not going to be an easy task. So, in 1983, as Deng opened up the country to foreign investment and reduced protections for workers, he also ordered the creation of the 400,000-strong People’s Armed Police, a new, roving riot squad charged with quashing all signs of ‘economic crimes’ (i.e., strikes and protests). According to the China historian Maurice Meisner, ‘The People’s Armed Police kept American helicopters and electric cattle prods in its arsenal.’ And ‘several units were sent to Poland for anti-riot training’ – where they studied the tactics that had been used against Solidarity during Poland’s period of martial law.

     “Many of Deng’s reforms were successful and popular – farmers had more control over their lives,[1] and commerce returned to the cities. But in the late eighties, Deng began introducing measures that were distinctly unpopular, particularly among workers in the cities – price controls were lifted, sending prices soaring; job security was eliminated, creating waves of unemployment; and deep inequalities were opening up between the winners and losers in the new China. By 1988, the party was confronting a powerful backlash and was forced to reverse some of its price deregulation. Outrage was also mounting in the face of the party’s defiant corruption and nepotism. Many Chinese citizens wanted more freedom in the market, but ‘reform’ increasingly looked like code for party officials turning into business tycoons, as many illegally took possession of the assets they had previously managed as bureaucrats.

     “With the free-market experiment in peril, Milton Friedman was once again invited to pay a visit to China – much as the Chicago Boys and the piranhas had enlisted his help in 1973, when their program had sparked an internal revolt in Chile. A high-profile visit from the world-famous guru of capitalism was just the boost China’s ‘reformers’ needed.

     “When Friedman and his wife, Rose, arrived in Shanghai in September 1988, they were dazzled by how quickly mainland China was beginning to look and feel like Hong Kong. Despite the rage simmering at the grass roots, everything they saw served to confirm ‘out faith in the power of free markets’. Friedman described this moment as ‘the most hopeful period of the Chinese experiment’.

     “In the presence of official state media, Friedman met for two hours with Zhao Ziyang, general secretary of the Communist Party, as well as with Jiang Zemin, then party secretary of the Shanghai Committee and the future Chinese president. Friedman’s message to Jiang echoed the advice he had given to Pinochet when the Chilean project was on the skids: don’t bow to the pressure and don’t blink. ‘I emphasized the importance of privatization and free markets, and of liberalizing at one fell stroke,’ Friedman recalled. In a memo to the general secretary of the Communist Party, Friedman stressed that more, not less, shock therapy was needed. ‘China’s initial steps of reform have been dramatically successful. China can make further dramatic progress by placing still further reliance on free private markets.’…

     “Friedman’s trip did not have the desired results. The pictures in the official papers of the professor offering his blessing to party bureaucrats did not succeed in bringing the public onside. In subsequent months, protests grew more determined and radical. The most visible symbols of the opposition were the demonstrations by student strikers in Tiananmen Square. Thse historic protests were almost universally portrayed in the international media as a clash between modern, idealistic students who wanted Western-style democratic freedoms and old-guard authoritarians who wanted to protect the Communist state. Recently, another analysis of the meaning of Tiananmen has emerged, one that challenges the mainstream version while putting Friedmanism at the heart of the story. This alternative narrative is being advanced by, among others, Wang Hui, one of the organizers of the 1989 protests, and now a leading Chinese intellectual of what is known as China’s ‘New Left’. In his 2003 book, China’s New Order, Wang explains that the protesters spanned a huge range of Chinese society – not just elite university students by also factory workers, small entrepreneurs and teachers. What ignited the protests, he recalls, was popular discontent in the face of Deng’s ‘revolutionary’ economic changes which were lowering wages, raising prices and causing ‘a crisis of layoffs and unemployment’. According to Wang, ‘These changes were the catalyst for the 1989 social mobilization’.

     “The demonstrations were not against economic reform per se; they were against the specific Friedmanite nature of the reforms – their speed, ruthlessness and the fact that the process was highly antidemocratic. Wang says that the protesters’ call for elections and free speech were intimately connected to this economic dissent. What drove the demand for democracy was the fact that the party was pushing through changes that were revolutionary in scope, entirely without popular consent. There was, he writes, ‘a general request for democratic means to supervise the fairness of the reform process and the reorganization of social benefits.’”[2]

     J.M. Roberts takes up the story: “Posters and rallies began to champion calls for greater ‘democracy’. The regime’s leadership was alarmed, refusing to recognize the [newly formed and unofficial Student] Union which, it was feared, might be the harbinger of a new Red Guards movement. There were demonstrations in many cities and as the seventieth anniversary of the May 4th Movement approached the student activists invoked its memory so as to give a broad patriotic colour to their campaign. They were not able to arouse much support in the countryside, or in the southern cities, but, encouraged by the obviously sympathetic attitude of the general secretary of the CCP, Zhao Ziyang, began a mass hunger strike. It won widespread popular sympathy and support in Peking. It started only shortly before Mr. Gorbachev arrived in the capital; his state visit, instead of providing further reassuring evidence of China’s international standing, only served to remind people of what was going on in the USSR as a result of policies of liberalization. This cut both ways, encouraging the would-be reformers and frightening the conservatives. By this time the most senior members of the government, including Deng Xiaoping, seem to have been thoroughly alarmed. Widespread disorder might be in the offing; they believed China faced a major crisis. Some feared a new cultural revolution if things got out of control (and Deng Xiaoping’s own son, they could have remarked, was still a cripple as a result of the injuries inflicted on him by Red Guards). On 20 May martial law was declared.

     “There were signs for a moment that the government might not be able to impose its will, but the army’s reliability was soon assured. The repression which followed was ruthless. The student leaders had moved the focus of their efforts to an encampment in Peking in Tiananmen Square, where, thirty years before, Mao had proclaimed the foundation of the People’s Republic. From one of the gates of the old Forbidden City a huge portrait of him looked down on the symbol of the protesters: a plastic figure of a ‘Goddess of Democracy’, deliberately evocative of New York’s Statue of Liberty. On 2 June the first military units entered the suburbs of Peking on their way to the square. There was resistance with extemporized weapons and barricades. They forced their way through. On 4 June the students and a few sympathizers were overcome by rifle-fire, teargas, and a brutal crushing of the encampment under the treads of tanks which swept into the square. Killing went on for some days, mass arrests followed (perhaps as many as ten thousand in all). Much of what happened took place before the eyes of the world, thanks to the presence of film-crews in Peking which had for days familiarized television audiences with the demonstrators’ encampment. Foreign disapproval was almost universal…”[3]

     Although the Chinese authorities saw to it that very little news seeped out to the West, it is known that there were similar demonstrations elsewhere. About 2000 were killed in Peking, unknown numbers in other cities. The people’s counter-revolution was crushed 

     Paradoxically, writes Klein, “For Deng and the rest of the Politburo, the free-market possibilities were now limitless. Just as Pinochet’s terror had cleared the streets for revolutionary change, so Tiananmen paved the way for a radical transformation free from fear of rebellion. If life grew harder for peasants and workers, they would either have to accept it quietly or face the wrath of the army and the secret police. And so, with the public in a state of raw terror, Deng rammed through his most sweeping reforms yet.

     “Before Tiananmen, he had been forced to ease off some of the more painful measures: three months after the massacre, he brought them back; and he implemented several of Friedman’s other recommendations, including price deregulation. For Wang Hui, there is an obvious reason why ‘market reforms that had failed to be implemented in the late 1980s just happened to have been completed in the post-1989 environment’; the reason, he writes, ‘is that the violence of 1989 served to check the social upheaval brought about by this process, and the new pricing system finally took shape.’ The shock of the massacre, in other words, made shock therapy possible.

     “In the three years immediately following the bloodbath, China was cracked open to foreign investment, with special export zones constructed throughout the country. As he announced these new initiatives, Deng reminded the country that ‘if necessary, every possible means will be adopted to eliminate any turmoil in the future as soon as it has appeared. Martial law, or even more severe methods, may be introduced.’

     “It was the wave of reforms that turned China into the sweatshop of the world, the preferred location for contract factories for virtually every multinational on the planet. No country offered more lucrative conditions than China: low taxes and tariffs, corruptible officials and, most of all, a plentiful low-wage workforce that, for many years, would be unwilling to risk demanding decent salaries or the most basic workplace protections for fear of the most violent reprisals.

     “For foreign investors and the party, it has been a win-win arrangement. According to a 2006 study, 80 percent of China’s billionaires (calculated in Chinese yuan) are the children of Communist Party officials. Roughly twenty-nine hundred of these party scions – known as ‘the princelings’ – control $260 billion. It is a mirror of the corporatist state first pioneered in Chile under Pinochet: a revolving door between corporate and political elites who combine their power to eliminate workers as an organised political force. Today, the collaborative arrangement can be seen in the way that foreign multinational media and technology companies help the Chinese state to spy on its citizens, and to make sure that when students do Web searches or phrases like ‘Tiananmen Square Massacre’, or even ‘democracy’, no documents turn up.‘The creation of today’s market society was not the result of a sequence of spontaneous events,’ writes Wang Hui, ‘but rather of state interference and violence’.”[4] 

     “Chinese society,” writes Andrew J. Nathan, “fell into a deep anomie after June 4. Numbed, people everywhere turned away from politics. The sensitive intellectual class, and especially the young students with their exuberant idealism, entered the 1990s with nothing like the admirable social engagement they had shown in the 1980s. The campuses were tranquil, and China seemed shrouded in a dour mist that harboured a spiritual emptiness. Money ruled everything, morals died, corruption burgeoned, bribes were bartered, and when all this became known on the campuses it turned students thoroughly off politics...”[5]

     The impact abroad was even greater. As Misha Glenny writes, “The world economy has never experienced a change comparable to the release of 1.25 billion people’s energy that followed China’s renewed reforms in 1991. From accounting for less than 1 per cent of global trade in 1990, China had become the world’s third-largest trader by 2004, outstripping Japan and only lagging behind the entire European Union and the United States. Analysts at the World Trade Organization predicted that its 6.7 per cent of global trade in that year would top 10 per cent within a decade. In its 2007 Trade Policy Review of China, it also pointed out that in the course this ten-year expansion, the country would need to create yet another 100 million jobs. China’s economies of scale mean that it can already compete in any industrial sector, and before long in most service sectors, too.”[6]

     Today, in 2018, China is the world’s second largest economy after the USA.


     The Tiananmen massacre had another importance consequence: a turn in government rhetoric towards nationalist modes of expression. Thus even before the final decision to clear the Square, Deng Xiaoping expressed a typically Communist, but at the same time characteristically Chinese nationalist approach to the situation, going back to the Opium war of 1842: “The causes of this incident have to do with the global context. The Western world, especially the United States, has thrown its entire propaganda machine into agitation work and has given a lot of encouragement and assistance to the so-called democrats or opposition in China – people who are in fact the scum of the Chinese nation. This is the root of the chaotic situation we face today… Some Western countries use things like ‘human rights’, or like saying the socialist system is irrational or illegal, to criticize us, but what they’re really after is our sovereignty. Those Western countries that play power politics have no right at all to talk about human rights!”

     Deng goes on to show how much the philosophy of human rights had penetrated the Communist world, displaying a defensiveness and a China-centred vision that implicitly renounced world revolution. He also displayed an unusual – for a Communist – concern for the welfare of the Capitalist countries of Pacific Asia, with which he tied China’s own prosperity: “Look how many people around the world they’ve robbed of human rights! And look how many Chinese people they’ve hurt the human rights of since they invaded China during the Opium war!...

     “Two conditions are indispensable for our developmental goals: a stable environment at home and a peaceful environment abroad. We don’t care what others say about us. The only thing we really care about is a good environment for developing ourselves. So long as history eventually proves the superiority of the Chinese socialist system, that’s enough. We can’t bother about the social systems of other countries. Imagine for a moment what could happen if China falls into turmoil. If it happens now, it’d be far worse than the Cultural Revolution.

     “Once civil war got started, blood would flow like a river, and where would human rights be then? In a civil war, each power would dominate a locality, production would fall, communications would be cut off, and refugees would flow out of China not in millions or tens of millions but in hundreds of millions.

     “First hit by this flood of refugees would be Pacific Asia, which is currently the most promising region of the world. This would be disaster on a global scale. So China mustn’t make a mess of itself. And this is not just to be responsible to ourselves, but to consider the whole world and all of humanity as well…”

     Then he expressed his determination, on the one hand, to continue the Friedmanite economic revolution, and on the other, to preserve the Communist Party’s monopoly of power: “No one can keep China’s reform and opening from going forward. Why is that? It’s simple. Without reform and opening our development stops and our economy slides downhill. Living standards decline if we turn back. The momentum of reform cannot be stopped. We must insist on this point at all times.

     “Some people say we allow only economic reform and not political reform, but that’s not true. We do allow political reform, but on one condition: that the Four Basic Principles are upheld. [The Four Basic Principles are Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong thought, socialism, the people’s democratic dictatorship, and leadership by the Chinese Communist Party.]…

     “We can’t handle chaos while we’re busy with construction. If today we have a big demonstration and tomorrow a great airing of views and a bunch of wall posters, we won’t have any energy left to get anything done. That’s why we have to insist on clearing the Square.”[7]

     Deng complained to a visiting dignitary that Western talk of “human rights, freedom, and democracy is designed only to safeguard the interests of the strong, rich countries, which take advantage of their strength to bully weak countries, and which pursue hegemony and practice power politics…”[8]

     “In the aftermath of the massacre,” as Maria Chang writes, “the government sought to regain control by instigating a campaign of national unity in which young people were singled out for ‘patriotic education’. Calling the democracy movement a ‘counter-revolutionary rebellion’ that had the ‘black hands’ of foreign enemies behind it, the party urged the people to unite under its leadership or China would descend into chaos. In September 1994, the Patriotic Education Campaign was expanded to include the entire populace, followed by the publication in November 1995 of Selected Words for Instruction in Patriotic Education containing the writings and speeches of Mao, Deng, and Jiang Zemin on patriotism. The official People’s Daily admitted that the book was meant ‘to fill an ideological vacuum’ in the Chinese people, who were enjoined to ‘love their country’. Spearheading the campaign was Jiang, who instructed his party to rebuild itself ‘under the new banner of nationalism’ and urged that the masses, especially the youth, be ‘deeply inculcated’ with the values of ‘patriotism’.

     “Although the Tiananmen incident was the catalyst, Beijing’s turn to patriotic nationalism has deeper roots and can be better understood in the larger context of the Communist Party’s need to relegitimate its rule. Deng’s market reforms had managed to salvage his party’s tattered legitimacy from the ruination wrought by Mao and rebuild it upon a pragmatic basis of economic performance. But China’s ideocratic political system demands more than pragmatic letitimacy, requiring instead doctrinal legitimation provided by some overarching ideology. Jiang Zemin admitted as much when he said in a speech in 1996 that ‘Only with resolute theory can our politics be steadfast.’ And the Communist Party seems to have found its new doctrinal legitimation in Deng’s developmental nationalism.

     “Franz Schurmann once observed that the CCP divides its ideology into two parts: The first is ‘theory’ (lilun) comprised of ideas that are claimed to be universally applicable and for all time; the second is ‘thought’ (sixiang), the practical application of universal theory to concrete circumstances of a particular time and place. For much of its history, the CCP considered Marxism-Leninism to be its guiding theory, while the ideas of Mao Zedong served as its thought. In March 1999, however, the party elevated the reformist ideas of Deng to the level of theory when it incorporated ‘Deng Xiaoping theory’ into the preamble of its constitution. In so doing, the Communist Party appeared to signal its formal adoption of developmental nationalism as its ideology. As observed by The Economist, with communism discredited and democracy distrusted, China’s leaders have turned to ‘a new ideology’ of ‘visceral nationalism’ to justify their power…”[9]


     By a remarkable coincidence, only a few years after the Tiananmen Massacre, the other Communist superpower, Russia, moved in a very similar direction: after the fall of Communism and a decade of Friedmanite economic shock therapy under Yeltsin, Putin has moved to a new ideology of “visceral nationalism”…

     However, this “new” ideology was not really new: it was in fact a return to ancient Chinese exceptionalism and nationalism.

     As Allison writes: “’The [Chinese] empire saw itself as the center of the civilized universe,’ the historian Harry Gelber wrote in his 2001 book, Nations out of Empires. During the imperial era, ‘The Chinese scholar-bureaucrat did not think of a ‘China’ or a ‘Chinese civilization’ in the modern sense at all. For him, there were the Han people and, beyond that, only barbarism. Whatever was not civilized was, by definition, barbaric.

     “To this day, the Chinese take great pride in their civilizational achievements. ‘Our nation is a great nation,’ Chinese President Xi Jinping declared in a 2012 speech. ‘During the civilization and development process of more than 5,000 years, the Chinese nation has made an invaluable contribution to the civilization and advancement of mankind.’ Indeed, Xi claimed in his 2014 book, The Government of China, that ‘China’s continuous civilization is not equal to anything on earth, but a unique achievement in world history.’”[10]

     What is really unique about contemporary China is its information control. Most of the population uses the internet and has smart phones. But the government has successfully blocked access to Facebook and Google – with the astonishing result that the Tiananmen massacre of 1989 is more or less completely unknown to the younger generation…[11]


     What was the impact of these events on religion? After the death of Mao, China’s main object of worship, in 1976, writes Ian Johnson, “the country went into shock. Some people were thrilled – finally the tyrant was gone – but many were crushed. Tears flowed, and the country ground to a halt. With traditional religion decimated and Mao dead, people were unsure how to channel their hopes and fears.

     “The party responded by trying to turn the clock back to the early 1950s. In 1982, as part of a more general accounting of the destruction wrought by the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese Communist Party issued a 20-page paper titled ‘The Basic Viewpoint and Policy on the Religious Question During Out Country’s Socialist Period’. Better known as Document 19, it featured an astoundingly candid analysis of China’s religious crisis – and provided the legal basis for the religious revival now under way. The document stated that for 19 of Mao’s 27 years in power, ‘leftist errors’ took hold – a surprising admission of how badly the party had fumbled religious policy during its first three decades in power. It conceded that Maoist radicals had ‘forbidden normal religious activities’, ‘fabricated a host of wrongs and injustices that they pinned upon these religious personages’, and ‘used violent measures against religion that forced religious movements underground’. The document went on to describe religion in sympathetic language, arguing forcefully that it would disappear – but only very gradually. In the meantime, the party’s policy would be ‘respect for and protection of the freedom of religious belief’. Places of worship could reopen, and a new generation of clergy could receive training.

     “The approach described in Document 19 has more or less guided the party ever since. As a result, China is no longer the bastion of godless communism that many foreigners still imagine. However, that hardly means that religion is not a source of severe tension in Chinese society. People of faith intensely resent the government’s control of major temples, churches, and mosques, and many have turned to underground places of worship. It is all but banned from the media; religious leaders, for example, almost never comment on the great issues of the day, or even interact with one another. Interreligious dialogue is all but unknown…”[12]

     In 2018 we read that poor Christians in China are being forced to replace portraits of the Lord Jesus Christ with portraits of the Chinese leader Xi. Nevertheless, Christianity is spreading. According to unofficial figures, there are now 100 million Christians in China as opposed to 90 million members of the Communist Party…[13] Perhaps the spirit of Tiananmen is not dead. And perhaps another, Holy Spirit is about to bring about a true resurrection of the Chinese people…


May 22 / June 4, 2018.


[1] According to J.M. Roberts, China’s rulers “were helped by the persistence of the old Chinese social disciplines, by the relief felt by millions that the cultural revolution had been left behind, and by the policy (contrary to that of Marxism as still expounded in Moscow until 1980) that economic rewards should flow through the system to the peasant. This built up rural purchasing power, and made for contentment in the countryside. There was a major swing of power away from the rural communes, which in many places practically ceased to be relevant, and by 1985 the family farm was back as the dominant form of rural production over much of China.” (History of the World, Oxford: Helicon, 1992, p. 911). (V.M.)

[2] Klein, The Shock Doctrine, London: Penguin, 2007, pp. 184-188.

[3] Roberts, History of the World, pp. 911-912.

[4] Klein, op. cit., pp. 189-190.

[5] Nathan, “The Tiananmen Papers”, Foreign Affairs, January / February, 2001, p. 48.

[6] Glenny, McMafia, London: Vintage, 2009, p. 380.

[7] Deng, in Nathan, op. cit., pp. 32, 33.

[8] Graham Allison, “China vs. America”, Foreign Affairs, September/October, 2017, p. 85.

[9] Chang, Return of the Dragon, Boulder, Co.: Westview Press, 2001, pp. 177-178.

[10] Allison, “China vs. America”, Foreign Affairs, September/October, 2017, pp. 82-83.

[11]“Today, any discussion of the Tiananmen Square protests is still banned in China. Films, books, newspapers and even whole publishing companies have been suppressed and shut down for breaking this rule. Chinese authorities have also attempted to censor the internet when it comes to the protestes, but with less success. Search terms such as ‘June 4’ are blocked, but increasingly, social media have turned to more oblique code names.” (“Tiananmen Square Massacres”, All About History, No. 043, p. 77) (V.M.)

[12] Johnson, “China’s Great Awakening”, Foreign Affairs, March/April, 2017, p. 89.

[13]ВКитаебедныххристианпринуждаютзаменитьИисусанаСиЦзиньпина” (In China poor Christians are being forced to replace Jesus with Xi Tsinpin),

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