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35 Years Since Tiananmen: The Meaning of the Massacre

On 4 June 1989, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of peaceful pro-democracy protesters were killed when the Chinese military opened fire on them in Tiananmen Square. Students and workers demanding reforms had been occupying the area in central Beijing since April, and many more were demonstrating across the country. The standoff grinded on for weeks — until the government declared martial law and ordered in the tanks.

“No event in its modern history haunts the People’s Republic of China . . . as deeply as the protest movement that swept the country during the spring of 1989,” writes historian Glenn Tiffert.

In the immediate wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the Journal of Democracy reflected on the protesters’ bravery as well as the lasting effects the bloodshed would have on China, its people, and its prospects for a democratic future. The following are some of our most powerful essays on the meaning of the massacre.

China: From Tiananmen to Neo-Stalinism
To grasp why post-Mao China’s remarkable economic development has not aided democracy, we must look first at the policies of top Chinese leaders.
Minxin Pei

30 Years After Tiananmen: Dissent Is Not Dead
The Chinese Communist Party wields highly effective means to quash dissent, but Chinese intellectuals and interest groups continue to push for change.
Elizabeth Economy

30 Years After Tiananmen: Memory in the Era of Xi Jinping
Xi reads Tiananmen as a cautionary tale, and he has sought to centralize power and reverse years of ideological atrophy. By controlling the past, he is trying to determine how the Chinese will view their present and future.
Glenn Tiffert

30 Years After Tiananmen: The Meaning of June 4th
China’s 1989 democracy movement was brutally suppressed, but a former student leader argues that it also planted the seeds for the growth of Chinese civil society and for future democratization.
Wang Dan

30 Years After Tiananmen: Hong Kong Remembers
It was the impact of Tiananmen that made the democracy movement in Hong Kong a mass phenomenon. Today, the democratic cause in Hong Kong remains linked to the democratic cause in China as a whole.
Benny Tai

China Since Tiananmen: A New Rights Consciousness?
Despite the suppression of the Tiananmen Uprising of 1989, popular protest in China has by all accounts escalated steadily over the ensuing two decades.
Elizabeth J. Perry

China Since Tiananmen: The Massacre’s Long Shadow
In the two decades after the Tiananmen massacre, China enjoyed rapid economic growth and a measure of political stability. But various forms of popular protest began increasing. Could they have been a serious threat to CCP rule?
Jean-Philippe Béja

Tiananmen and Beyond: After the Massacre
Reflections on June 4 of exiled student leader Wuer Kaixi, who led the Beijing University Independent Student Union, the group at the center of the protests.
Wuer Kaixi

Tiananmen and Beyond: China’s Great Leap Backward
During the spring of 1989, the world looked on in wonder as millions filled the streets of Beijing and 80 other Chinese cities, defying the Communist regime and demanding democracy.
Merle Goldman

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