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Opinion

Tiananmen and the end of Chinese enlightenment

Thirty years on, Beijing's leaders will struggle to suppress liberal ideas if economy runs into trouble

What might China look like had the enlightenment movement of the 1980s not been cut short?   © LightRocket/Getty Images

When the tanks of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) rolled into Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, the crackdown not only ended the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators, but it also cut short a decade of Chinese political enlightenment.

If this enlightenment movement, which provided inspiration for many political leaders, thinkers and young college students, had not been suppressed, China would have become a different country.

Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the intellectual fervor and diversity of the 1980s when we look at today's China, where ideological re-indoctrination, censorship, and persecution of outspoken thinkers have turned the country into an intellectual wasteland.

For those who still remember, the enlightenment movement showed what China could have become had the hard-liners not engineered the bloody crackdown three decades ago.

By all accounts, the enlightenment movement that made the 1980s the freest decade in the history of the People's Republic was the product of coincidences.

First, after nearly thirty years of self-imposed isolation, Chinese society was seized with an insatiable curiosity about the West (I still recall standing room only lectures given by foreign professors and sold-out classical music concerts). Meanwhile, Mao Zedong's blood-soaked rule and the impoverishment of a hardworking and entrepreneurial people forced the survivors of Maoism, including Deng Xiaoping and many of fellow leaders, to reflect on the deeper causes of the national tragedy that was the Mao period.

Also, the appointment of liberal leaders such as Communist party general secretary Hu Yaobang (whose death on April 15, 1989 sparked the pro-democracy protest on Tiananmen Square) created a permissive political atmosphere in which exploration of new ideas and critical debate about sensitive topics could take place. Above all, China's shocking economic backwardness at that time raised an inescapable question: why.

The enlightenment that emerged was not homogeneous or coherent. It was exploratory in nature. But, taken as a whole, it did constitute a systematic and mostly bottom-up effort to reject China's tradition of autocratic rule and isolationism and embrace humanism, liberalism, and openness.

In retrospect, we can identify three components. First, this movement sought to discover the root causes of Maoism and establish a truthful accounting of Chinese history during the Maoist period, especially the Cultural Revolution. In literature, a special genre, called "scar literature" (shanghen wenxue), emerged and resonated with the public because it exposed, often in excruciating detail, the brutality of Maoism and the unspeakable suffering of its victims. To be sure, Deng himself was uncomfortable with an honest accounting of history because he knew well that this process could discredit both Maoism and the rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Often he sided with conservatives to crack down on the movement. But thanks to the protection of liberal leaders like Hu and Zhao Ziyang (who was purged in May 1989 for refusing to support martial law), there was enough space for those urging China to confront its dark history.

The second component of the movement was a critical examination of China's long history, in particular its autocratic tradition and mindset of self-glorification and isolationism. This aspect of the enlightenment movement manifested itself in a lively debate on whether China should fully "westernize" or pursue a more instrumental approach to modernization (emulating Western technological superiorities but not its values or institutions).

This vigorous debate, although inconclusive, culminated in the airing of a six-part television series, "River Elegy," in mid-1988. Despite its weighty intellectual nature, the series was a national sensation. The authors of the show, who later fled China after the June 4 crackdown, wanted to show that China's only viable path to modernity was to reject its autocratic and isolationist past and open itself to the outside world completely.

The last component of this movement was an earnest exploration of ideological and political alternatives. In philosophy, existentialism represented by the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre became suddenly fashionable (mainly because the values of individualism it championed appealed to Chinese young people).

In politics, an embryonic pro-democracy movement began to take shape on college campuses as idealistic young people searched for a better system. Even within the regime, top leaders were exploring alternatives. Attracted to the idea of a hybrid regime that could marry a market economy with one-party rule, Deng even tasked Zhao Ziyang to produce a plan of political reforms that could accelerate economic development -- the first and only time a top Chinese leader seriously contemplated systemic political reform. Unfortunately, the blueprint drawn by Zhao and his reformist colleagues in 1987 was not implemented because Deng feared that it could lead to the end of one-party rule.

No one knows what China would look like had the enlightenment movement of the 1980s not been cut short by what has become widely known as the Tiananmen Massacre. But one thing is sure. In the aftermath of the crackdown, the CCP launched a systematic campaign of anti-enlightenment to eradicate the movement's influence.

The first thing the party did was to cultivate Chinese nationalism. The CCP implemented a comprehensive "patriotic education campaign" targeting the younger generation. It highlighted China's humiliating encounters with the West and constructed a powerful narrative of victimhood. Historical facts were distorted or fabricated to portray the party as the only political force capable of defending Chinese independence and dignity.

On the ideological front, besides maintaining tight control in the media and on college campuses, the party has aggressively countered the appeal of liberalism by denouncing Western universal values, such as democracy, constitutionalism, and human rights. It has invested enormous resources in promoting the so-called "China model" -- economic modernization under one-party rule -- as antidote to capitalist-liberal democracy.

In the post-Tiananmen era, consumerism rules Chinese society.   © LightRocket/Getty Images

Perhaps the party's most cynical approach to eradicate the enlightenment of the 1980s was the modern version of the "bread and circus" strategy. In the post-Tiananmen era, consumerism and apolitical popular mass entertainment ruled Chinese society. Mindless fads were tolerated but serious intellectual discussions were forbidden. Over time, political apathy, cynicism, and careerism have become the key elements of the dominant ethos in Chinese society.

The party's anti-enlightenment campaign since Tiananmen owes its success mainly to the country's immense economic achievements in the last thirty years. This campaign could not have been as effective without this unique economic context.

Now that the Chinese economic miracle, buffeted by structural slowdown at home and a looming economic cold war with the U.S., is fading, the party will find it increasingly hard to sustain its anti-enlightenment project. As only the catastrophe of Maoism could have given rise to the enlightenment movement in the 1980s, it is a reasonable hope that the next enlightenment movement will emerge also only from the unraveling of the "China model."

Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and currently holds the Chair in U.S.-China Relations at the Kluge Center of the Library of Congress.

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