Pei: Signs of a new Tiananmen in China
April 4th, 2012
02:27 PM ET

Pei: Signs of a new Tiananmen in China

Editor's Note: Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. The following post was originally published in The Diplomat, a stellar international current-affairs magazine for the Asia-Pacific region. 

By Minxin PeiThe Diplomat

The Western media has largely missed the most significant development in Chinese politics these days.  It’s not the dramatic downfall of Bo Xilai, although the incident is one of the most important events in elite politics in post-Deng China.  Rather, it’s the stirrings that have revived contentious political issues banished from polite society in China since the Tiananmen crackdown more than two decades ago.

Of course, one is unlikely to find the discussion of such sensitive issues in most official publications (although some media outlets affiliated with official publications have been particularly adventurous in carrying articles on these topics in the past few months). The range of issues is wide and diverse. Despite disagreement among participants in this incipient post-1989 Chinese intellectual renaissance, the discussion is fast converging on three critical issues.

First, there appears to be a widely shared consensus among China’s thinking class that the country’s economic reform is either dead or mired in stagnation.

Second, those who believe that economic reform is dead or stuck argue that only political reform, specifically the kind that reduces the power of the state and makes the government accountable to its people, will resuscitate economic reform (some advocate for more radical, democratizing changes, although the consensus on this particular point has yet to emerge).

Third, the status quo, which can be characterized as a sclerotic authoritarian crony-capitalist order, isn’t sustainable and, without a fundamental shift in direction, a crisis is inevitable.

Read: Do China’s Communists Face a Yeltsin?

Such signs of an intellectual awakening are worth noting for many reasons. Its timing is certainly significant. Many people would connect this development with China’s pending leadership transition. In China, as in most other countries, pending changes in leadership usually stimulate discussions among the intelligentsia about the future of the country and the accomplishments or failures of the departing leadership. Chinese intellectuals, mostly liberals, may want to seize this once-in-a-decade opportunity to reignite a debate on whether the existing political system serves the country’s long-term needs of economic development, social justice, and national unity.

Another, perhaps more important reason, is that more than two decades after the Tiananmen crackdown (and after Deng Xiaoping famously admonished his colleagues there should be “no arguing,” essentially ending the ideological debate among the ruling elites over whether post-Mao China was embracing capitalism), members of China’s thinking class have come to realize that the post-Tiananmen consensus, which might be characterized as giving economic reform and development a chance to solve China’s political problems (one-party rule and poor governance), has basically broken down. In other words, the post-Tiananmen model, all but intellectually bankrupt, provides no useful guidance in the coming decades.

Read: China’s Revolutionary Hope?

One may be tempted to dismiss such discussions as idle chatter among marginalized Chinese intellectuals. This would be a mistake. Some of the participants in these discussions are influential opinion makers or advisors to the Chinese government. Their views reflect the thinking of at least some insiders of the Communist Party. So the frustrated tone and anxiety conveyed by their views could suggest that more open-minded elements in the party, some of whom may be in line to assume senior or important positions as a result of the leadership transition, share the same sense of crisis and urgency.

Another reason to take the emerging intellectual renaissance in China seriously is that the ruling party actually needs a modicum of ideological legitimacy, even though it chiefly relies on political repression and economic performance to hold on to its power. No Chinese leader can survive long if he is seen or labeled by the elite members of the intelligentsia universally as an obstacle to reform. If the majority of China’s most respected public intellectuals openly challenge Chinese leaders’ reformist credentials and cry loudly that “the emperor has no clothes,” the result isn’t just political embarrassment, but fatal loss of authority and credibility for these leaders among their colleagues.

Read: China’s Political Awakening?

Another significance of this intellectual re-awakening is the emergence of newly emboldened liberals, who have endured nearly two decades in China’s political wilderness. They’ve obviously sensed that the tide is turning against the post-Tiananmen neo-authoritarian regime. With soaring inequality, pervasive corruption, lawlessness among the ruling elites (as the Bo Xilai story has revealed), signs of division within the top hierarchy, and a sense of loss of direction permeating all levels of Chinese society, Chinese liberals, some of whom former political prisoners or blacklisted academics who can’t publish their works in the official media, may think that they have a new opportunity to push for democratic change.

If the track record of China’s pro-democracy movement in the 1980s provides any guidance, the party should be worried. In the 1980s, each episode of intellectual renaissance, such as the debate on political reform in 1986 and the “culture fever” of 1988, was followed by open confrontations between the regime and the pro-democracy movement. In the 1980s, the party was able to prevail during such confrontations, but paid a huge price (we all remember the purges of Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang and the bloody crackdown on June 4, 1989).

Tiananmen: The Crime of Silence

For now, of course, it’s too early to tell whether these intellectual stirrings are going anywhere beyond the elite publications and online forums. However, if I were a sitting member of the Politburo Standing Committee, I’d be very concerned. The voices of China’s liberal intelligentsia are now resonating among a public increasingly disenchanted with the party’s policies. In particular, such voices should appeal to China’s better-educated youths, whose numbers have increased several times since Tiananmen. Two decades of rapid economic growth, consumerism, and state-sponsored nationalism may have lulled them into political apathy. But as they experience the injustice, corruption, and incompetence of the current system in their daily lives, they’ll most likely feel increasingly swayed by voices urging a fundamental change of course.

Since the Tiananmen tragedy 23 years ago, a question on many people’s minds is whether another Tiananmen will happen. The Chinese government has done everything imaginable to ensure that it won’t. As China enters a more uncertain decade, what’s becoming increasingly apparent is that many of the social and political conditions for producing a Tiananmen-style crisis have re-emerged.  An intellectual renaissance is certainly one of them.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Minxin Pei.

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Topics: China

soundoff (59 Responses)
  1. china is evil

    cram nation , dont allow them to come here any more keep them in china if china is good and have money so why you bring them as immigrant, keep those immigrant to fight their stupid communist so they can get red of them, those fk chinks helping hiszboallah and iran along with evil syria. evil is helping evil

    April 4, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Good grief, you're obviously a fan of either Mitt Romney, John McCain, Sarah Palin or all three judging by your choice of words above. If you have to bash the Chinese, please do cut the filthy Tea Party lingo out. I myself am a fan of the Chinese and if it wasn't for them, our own economy would yet be far worse than it is right now!

      April 4, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Reply
      • Pete

        @McCarthy,right in a sense but real wrong in others.We now have only Chinese junk imports because our elustreous leader Bush and his henchmen.Bush not only let companies go overseas,but gave them tax brakes,startup money as well.Now there's factories empty,people can't work where the factories are overseas.China helps train slave labor at below poverty level wages,also housing them in military like barracks for housing.Keeping them working at unheard of hours because of the communist state run regime.Their human right violations mount up ,they don't care,their communist goons keep them producing like plow horses,if one dies,another takes their place.Suicides in corporate China are rising at alarming rates.So much so ,suicide consulting personnel are on hand 24/7 to help employees with physiological concerns.So do some research and you'll see China is ready to implode in the near future,economicly...

        April 5, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
      • Tron coolooc

        中共賣國 –


        April 6, 2012 at 8:24 am |
      • silly

        Thanks. there are number of great people here.

        April 8, 2012 at 3:09 am |
      • Leroy

        Very well said. The Chinese are determined to succeed and become the next superpower, along with the United States. It's very healthy for the world to have two superpowers, not just one. The Chinese cannot afford to unravel; it would lead to a million more U.S. bases on their land and Americans thumbing their noses at them.

        April 8, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
    • Sowhat

      & you're an idiot, stay within whatever state you're in. Ignorant trolls are not welcomed anywhere in the world.

      April 4, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Reply
    • jimmy cracorn

      Are you really that ignorant of how the worlds political process works? China is by no means the only nation to support bad governments or act unethically. Remember every time you point a finger at someone else there are three pointing back at you.

      April 5, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Reply
    • Steve

      Wow! What a P.O.S. You are! who else do ya hate? get it all out, ya freak

      April 5, 2012 at 10:19 pm | Reply
    • marc

      At least he's honest about how he feels... the worst is when we pretend to care, which is all the time. More people feel the way he does than we'd like to admit, but we disguise it under virtuous pretext like the promotion of democracy, human rights, liberalization of capitalism and free trade etc. If what we say we want them to do is really good for them then they may pass us economically and god-forbid we wouldn't want that! So deep down we are grateful they are commies and that they are poorer and backwards. Only problem is that they still seem to be growing.

      April 6, 2012 at 1:38 am | Reply
      • Patrick

        Deep, really deep.

        April 7, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • peace maker

      SOUNDOFF, you're a sick animal. You should stick your head in the toilet and stay there until year 2020.

      April 8, 2012 at 1:15 am | Reply
    • silly

      real evil love to blame other. take your head out of US and see who is evil in the world.

      April 8, 2012 at 3:08 am | Reply
    • Gwendolyn

      You have a major problem. Seek some help because you certainly need it. Why else would you espouse such stupid ideas.

      April 8, 2012 at 11:18 am | Reply
  2. Chris Chi

    Wow Prof. Pei, as the "evil" comment demonstrates, thank you so much for fanning America's rising anti-Chinese sentiment.

    April 4, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Reply
    • John

      Yes, anybody that is a scholar about china that discusses how things aren't going well MUST also be on the CIA payroll, eh? Dude, people in china talk more critically about their own country than this guy is doing in america. stop being lame.

      April 5, 2012 at 12:16 am | Reply
      • Gwendolyn

        And how do you know this. Gee I have spent time in China and I don't hear what you are saying.

        April 8, 2012 at 11:19 am |
      • Jane

        hahaha 那么多姓 闫的。。好!but I have one question, do you nctioe after MVP awards, most experts tend to go missing in action only few still hang around in newsgroups.

        April 23, 2012 at 11:06 pm |
  3. shambala

    Israel is a proven terrorist state, that has carried out aggressive actions against their own allies, not to mention innocent civillians.

    White phosphorous...

    Bomblets in lebannon..

    And AIPACS enourmous influence in American politics.

    That is the face of true terrorism.


    April 4, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Reply
    • Really

      I think you're lost bro...this article is about China...Im sure you can find an article somewhere about the Middle East that could possibly be relevant to your brainwashed nonsense

      April 9, 2012 at 12:41 am | Reply
  4. Sowhat

    Wow, can't believe that CNN is wishing for it. Sorry but the same mistake won't be made twice, the results were felt the first time. There's soo much trouble in the US within its borders why not focus on that? Do America need a better rebel force rather than just the Occupy movement?
    PS. US Republican party NEEDS an earth shatter reform, take care of that first before throwing stones in glass houses....for the 50+ articles.

    April 4, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Reply
    • John

      Totally agreed. America should crawl into an isolationist hole and never think about anything that happens elsewhere. But if we do, it must be stories about gumdrops and lollipops and nothing bad happens anywhere! (massive sarcasm there in case you didn't catch it)

      April 5, 2012 at 12:19 am | Reply
    • Caroline

      Its like you read my mind! You seem to know so much about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you could do with a few pics to drive the asgemse home a little bit, but instead of that, this is fantastic blog. A great read. I'll definitely be back.

      April 21, 2012 at 10:56 am | Reply
  5. j. von hettlingen

    The central government in Beijing is preoccupied with the political intrigue that has brought unwelcome attention to the burgeoning wealth of some apparatchiks and the inability of the authorities to interact with the public. Factional fights and power struggle within the party are fierce. It's about reaching the very top and control the vast resources, patronage and access to wealth. The party has been using this "rule and divide" tactic in the same, secretive way for years, while the Chinese society has been changing fast around it. Yes, China has been transformed. Hundreds of millions of Chinese are now urbanised, educated and opinionated thanks to information technology. A revisit of the Tienanmen would be a stab in the country's back.

    April 4, 2012 at 6:26 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Had those so-called "students" succeeded in their endeavor on Tienanmen Square back in 1989, China's economy today would not be in very good shape plus there would be much instability in the government to say the least. Yes, hard times would have ensued there and as a direct result, our own economy would be in far worse shape as a consequence.

      April 4, 2012 at 7:11 pm | Reply
      • John

        Alot of speculation there dude. Let's consider if America didn't give its entire manufacturing base to China, lock stock and barrel.... maybe we wouldn't have such high unemployment. Not sure you can really say everything worked out for the best. Its easy for you to say this living in someplace that is not china. Are you familiar with Zhao ziyang, i think he'd disagree with you. Theres no way to prove that executing people to suppress political reform was the only way to make things better in China.

        April 5, 2012 at 12:24 am |
      • Gwendolyn

        "So Called Students" Just where do you get your information because its wrong. Those were students and I bet you do not realize what started it all. It's a shame people don't learn a topic before they start making such asinine comments.

        April 8, 2012 at 11:25 am |
    • M Houston

      Until China, by utilizing whatever methods it can, develops a recognizably
      "reasonable" penal code along with a truly independent judiciary, and a political
      mind-set that allows for (and accepts) a variety of political positions, there will
      always be the anxiety about the possibility of another/more "TianAnMens". Mao's
      ideologues and officially promoted nationalism have taken China about as for as
      is possible without civil unrest becoming a certainty..

      April 5, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Reply
      • Maersk

        M Houston the kwok head, you sound exactly like a spoiled brat who's trying to teach his parents how to make love, do you realize you could have been flushed down the toilet along with tissue had your mother not insisted that your father leave you inside of her.
        What the Chinese need to do is penalize kwok heads like you by cutting off your limply kwok and feed it to pigs.

        April 8, 2012 at 11:51 pm |
  6. Benedict

    Fact:China is the world‘s fastest growing economy and the country has been communist for decades. Their determination to keep a system that has united a mini-continent is all well and go for a time. However,the Chinese ecocnomy has been expriencing dislocations and the wide spread cases of corruption will resonate with the youth who use YouTube and Facebook to see other nations deal with such problems. May the new generation prove the impetus for change in China,amen!

    April 5, 2012 at 4:03 am | Reply
  7. krm1007

    China is just a diversion ..... the real problem is the imminent demise of "experimental democracy" in India and the possibility of an army coup d'etat as reported in the media. The pullout of USA from Afghanistan is gonna lead to the emergence of independent states in India along the lines of USSR. Only then can peace and prosperity be unleashed in that region.

    April 5, 2012 at 11:52 am | Reply
  8. jimmy cracorn

    Replace China with America and the article would be just as accurate.

    April 5, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Reply
    • Patrick

      Please explain!
      We would love to hear your comparisons.

      April 7, 2012 at 6:22 pm | Reply
  9. jj

    China is a great country. When the 1 party system finally comes down, I think we will be great allies. Let them be...they will come to it all by themselves. Democracy in China will not be like it is in the middle east. The middle east doesn't have real democracy...they wouldn't know what to do with it. But the great Chinese culture will.

    April 5, 2012 at 1:55 pm | Reply
    • Pete

      NJ,never happen,not when there's only two economic levels,the haves and have Bora.Haves, have a voice and the have nots are sentenced to the gallows .No rags to richs stories there.Born poor,die poor.That's why only one child per family,permits for birthright,permits for health after birth,permit to die.Conception without permit is a jailable offense.It's been that way for thousands of years.So don't speak about a third world mentality in a democratic sense,it ain't gonna happen,sorry,to many holes in that statement for me or anyone else intelligent to swallow,thanks....

      April 5, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Reply
    • silly

      No developing country is perfect. I believe chinese has a way to correct theirselve instead of bombing other.

      April 8, 2012 at 3:17 am | Reply
    • Gwendolyn

      I agree with you completely.

      April 8, 2012 at 11:29 am | Reply
  10. Pete

    JJ,sorry for some miskeys.Also a Chinese activist just recently recieved the Nobel Peace Prize,but Beijing wouldn't let him attend.Oslo,Norway put the activists picture on display with his prize.China in retaliation refused to import any more salmon ,a Norway fish.Norway laughed saying its only 2% of their entire export,they didn't care,they don't get any financial aid from anyone anyway..But now China wants to join the Artic Allience ,a group that has influence in Artic research and developement for oil and other minerals.But for China to join with the other 8 ,they need an unanimous vote for them,Norway said we'll thing about it,bye bye.Nothing like karma ,an ancient Asian saying,ta bite ya in the butt...

    April 5, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Reply
    • silly

      Nobel Peace Prize? funny! US bomb other also got Nobel Peace Prize. who care the **prize which made by west mind.

      April 8, 2012 at 3:19 am | Reply
    • Maersk

      Pete the kwok head, you forgot to mention Oba Mao (not related to Chairman Mao) received his Nobel prize for his continuation of sending U.S. soldiers to commit crimes against humanity in Iraq and Afghanistan, Dalying Lama, came up with a theory and supposed to have proved that there was such thing as reincarnation, as a result, he also was awarded a Nobel prize. I personally would nominate the Nobel committee the BS artist award.

      April 8, 2012 at 11:47 pm | Reply
  11. usa sucks


    April 5, 2012 at 11:30 pm | Reply
    • um eff the usa?

      f the us!

      April 5, 2012 at 11:32 pm | Reply
    • lol fail troll

      hum.. seem like us has been censoring freedom of speech.

      April 5, 2012 at 11:32 pm | Reply
    • USMC Forever

      You are so right, usa sucks! After all, we're didn't become the most hated country in the world for nothing!!!

      April 6, 2012 at 9:15 am | Reply
  12. mike

    China, unlike the United States which is founded on the true principles of Freedom and Equality, is run by a power structure whose longevity is attributable to economic prowess and fear. With a government whose power base is so thusly built, it is only a matter of time before the people rise. We will see the implosion of China soon and though the end result will be a new world order where numerous new Asian countries will emerge, I believe that the process will not be as peaceful as the Berlin Wall and Gorbachev's acknowledgement of the need to disintegrate the Soviet Union.

    April 6, 2012 at 4:20 am | Reply
    • George Patton

      If and when the Chinese economy implodes mike, ours will too. Quit all the right-wing bla-bla-bla about the U.S. being founded on "Freedom and Equality, too!!! The U.S. today is being ruled by the M.I.C. who owns both the White House and the majority in Congress!!!

      April 6, 2012 at 9:21 am | Reply
      • Clinton

        A tinfoil hat wearing nutjob on a CNN message board.... NO WAY! ........ lol do you even read what you write "George Patton" You've got to know you're crazy right? You sound like a guy that should be on a street corner holding a sign that says the end is near... get a life... you read too many science fiction novels.

        April 6, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
      • silly

        great point!

        April 8, 2012 at 3:21 am |
      • Leroy

        Well said, and true.

        April 9, 2012 at 11:11 am |
      • Lery


        April 9, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • Maersk

      mike the kwok head, you must have been zucking on your uncle's kwok and swallowing his kum. What you don't realize is that you are full of it. Contrary to your BS, United States is founded on slavery and robbing of the native American land.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:33 am | Reply
  13. Joy

    US and the west got many rich Chinese shoppers and many Chinese overseas students spending their money on University courses and living in the countries think about it dont take on the cheap labour and cheap goods all that are agreed to exchange and what you pay is what you get ....take your own responsibility first donot blame others for your shortcoming please..

    April 7, 2012 at 4:49 pm | Reply

    April 7, 2012 at 5:23 pm | Reply
  15. Andrey

    My thanks to Chinese Communist party for keeping the situation in check! I do not care much about internal Chinese politics as long as the country stays stable. Would not really like to see another "Spring" there with people dying in thousands or millions for nothing! Let the liberals (dems, reps and EU) and other democracy proliferates grit their teeth powerlessly. I hope their scheming fails for once! I hope Chinese people just keeps to its own path!

    April 8, 2012 at 2:36 am | Reply
    • silly

      chinese have been fighting for. education and open-door are chinese family looking for. they are willing to pay expense of education and look for better future in next generation.

      April 8, 2012 at 3:24 am | Reply
  16. Raammson

    I personally applaud China, They're a capitalist country with no equal now no regulations or anything. Isn't this where the repubs wanted to take our country?
    As for Human Rights its a country of a billion people finding an abused person is easy someone who will make and Iphone for 60$ less then it would take in the states is something truly intresting.
    They probably will be forced to have some reforms soon though they're leadership is under some pressure from below.

    April 8, 2012 at 7:59 pm | Reply
  17. PeterP


    April 9, 2012 at 11:24 am | Reply
  18. Jordan

    Really liked what you had to say in your post, Pei: Signs of a new Tiananmen in China – Global Public Square – Blogs, thanks for the good read!
    - Jordan

    January 20, 2013 at 5:11 am | Reply
  19. King Dissinger

    Hi, I've paid for 2 months of letters and have not received any yet. How do I get that fixed?thanks

    February 9, 2014 at 9:38 am | Reply

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