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China: Two Decades after Tiananmen

Gunjan Singh is Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • June 19, 2009

    It is obvious today that realpolitik is shaping the relationship between the world powers and China. There was hardly any debate on the Tiananmen Square Incident barring a few newspaper articles. It appears is that the world order has accepted the way China behaves and is also ready to make concessions on the Human Rights issues as seen during the Tibetan Uprising last year. The question is why is the world ready to make so many compromises when it comes to China?

    The most prominent incident challenging the Chinese Communist Regime took place twenty years ago on June 4, 1989, when thousands of students and workers gathered in protest at the Tiananmen Square. The People’s Republic violently crushed these peaceful protests. The primary thoughts for the protests were ‘democracy and liberty’. This was also an outcome of the economic policies adopted by the PRC a decade earlier which led to an increase in unemployment and increase in the gap between rich and poor. From a closed economy China had embarked on the journey of opening up. After the crackdown China was faced with a number of international sanctions and there was a general belief that the party will not survive this incident.

    Much has changed in China in these twenty years, even if the party is still the only ruling entity. Today China is seen as the economic powerhouse of the world. It proved its maturity during the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and today the United States is looking at China to help the world economy emerge out of the current financial crisis. China has emerged as one of the largest trading partners for the United States as for well as India. It is difficult to escape the tag ‘Made in China’.

    There has been a huge change in the domestic set up as well. Society has moved from one that was closed and completely dominated by the party to one which enjoys telephony. The introduction of Internet and mobiles (though still restricted) has changed the level of interaction among the Chinese populace. Today’s Chinese youth are more concerned about the international status of China. They want the party to keep the economy on the growth path so that, Chinese are respected internationally. It is no surprise that the party is now talking about moving towards Confucianism in order to look for a model of growth. In addition one cannot also ignore the level of success which China showed during the Beijing Olympics in addition to the successful ASAT test and the Space Walk. With these China has come to believe that it has gained its rightful place in the international order.

    Despite all this success there is still an underlying insecurity in the PRC. Even today a large number of youth is not aware of the exact events in Tiananmen Square. There is still a huge effort by the PRC to control the flow of information in this regard. This was quite obvious given the level of security that the government had set up during the anniversary of the incident. Tiananmen Square had also led to a debate about the loyalty of the army to the party. The increase in the amount of the army budget clearly highlights the Party’s efforts to keep the Army in good humor. The government is investing heavily in modernization of the army and a lot of effort is being made to patronize the army.

    On the diplomatic level too much has changed. After the crackdown China faced general isolation which in the international arena. Western countries completely isolated China and imposed sanctions. India did whatever it could at that time to not antagonize China fully as this incident took place only a few months after the famous handshake between Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Deng Xiaoping. Pakistan stayed close to China even after the international sanctions. Today China is making its presence felt in the whole of the South Asian region. In addition to Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar are under Chinese influence. China has also successfully exploited the vacuum created by the lack of Indian action in the region and has firmly established itself as an important player. No doubt we can call it a Rising Asian Power. It has also been successful in gaining its energy requirements from Africa.

    These developments show that China of 2009 is completely different from what it was in 1989. But the question which lingers is that with the issue of Tibet and Xinjiang being alive, a large economic gap between the rich and the poor, an increase in the level of connectivity within the population, with some level of freedom of the press and with a decrease in the level of control by the Party on the Army, will China be able to successfully curb another Tiananmen Square? And what will international reactions be to a future crackdown? In 1989 the talks were of Human Rights but China was not an economic powerhouse whose isolation could affect the world economy but what about today? Will the world dare to again isolate and antagonize China?