Unlike Cixi, Sun Yat-sen or Mao, Deng Xiaoping left no grand mausoleum behind. Deng's "monument" was China's restoration to wealth and power. But the stability this wealth required to flourish was dearly bought on the flagstones of Tiananmen Square.
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1984 From Rural Reform to Urban Unrest
In the first few years under Deng’s leadership China’s rural areas made great strides, but rising prices led to unrest in urban areas. Corruption, primarily in the form of bribes, became an increasing part of everyday life.
A new face of Chinese dissidence emerged in the mid 1980s in Beijing, an Astrophysics professor named Fang Lizhi. With his physics background, the Western press dubbed Fang, “China’s Sakharov.”
At a speech at Beijing University in November 1985, Fang urged the students in the audience to:
“…be open to different ways of thinking…and willing to adopt the elements of those cultures that are clearly superior. A great diversity of thought should be allowed in colleges and universities. For if all thought is narrow and simplistic, creativity will die. At present there are certainly some people in power who still insist on dictating to others according to their own narrow principles…We must not be afraid to speak openly about these things. In fact, it is our duty.” (Wealth and Power, page 300)
Fang became the voice of a growing student movement that would culminate in the events of June 4, 1989. When Fang passed away suddenly in Arizona in 2012 at age 76, translator and scholar Perry Link penned this tribute in the New York Review of Books, detailing Fang’s importance and legacy.
Student unrest followed Fang Lizhi around the country, but after ousting his chosen successor Hu Yaobang for being slow to respond, Deng clamped down.
But tensions lingered under the surface. The controversial documentary River Elegy, aired on Chinese TV in 1988, encapsulated some of the difficult questions China continued to face. What role would traditional culture have on China’s reform? What difficulties lay ahead for a modernizing China? After two airings, the central government decided the documentary’s critiques were too thinly veiled and pulled it from the airwaves.
Tiananmen Square already had a long history as a staging ground for political unrest.
Hu Yaobang’s sudden death in April 1989 began another chapter in that history. In a scene similar to the one that followed Zhou Enlai’s death in 1976, mourners flocked to the square to honor the liberal Hu. Deng tripped up when he challenged the protestors’ patriotism in a People’s Daily editorial, causing tempers in the square to flare.
The protests could not have happened at a more complicated time for China’s leadership. Soviet leader Gorbachev was expected in Beijing on May 14th, and the cameras and satellites of the world were trained on the Chinese capital. After a hunger strike and an awkward televised meeting between students and the leadership, Zhao Ziyang entered the square to make one last plea with students to back down. For his actions, Zhao Ziyang was deposed by Deng Xiaoping, and spent the rest of his life confined to his home, No. 6 Fuqiang Alley.
Footage from the meeting between Premier Li Peng and the students is included in the documentary, Gate of Heavenly Peace, available here for now.
This clip from Taiwan shows the scene in Tiananmen in May, and Zhao Ziyang interacting with hospitalized protesters.
In impugning their patriotism, Deng seemed to have forgotten the nature of protest movements in modern Chinese history. Since their first outrage over the Treaty of Shimonoseki, hypersensitive patriotism invariably lay at the radioactive core of youth disaffection. PAGE 307
1989 June 3rd and 4th, Tiananmen Boils Over
Having removed all remaining liberal voices in the party, Deng moved to crush the protests in the square. Beginning on May 20, troops shut down the square and began to arrest students. On the night of June 3rd, a second wave of troops worked their way from the outskirts to the center of the city, fighting their way through citizen-erected barricades as they went. Hundreds or thousands of protesters were killed by the advancing troops, although most of the bloodshed occurred outside the square.
Deng showed little remorse that the public approval he had enjoyed at the start of the Democracy Wall movement had turned to scorn. Stability had been preserved, whatever the cost, a pattern that would be common in the years to come.
Here former U.S. Ambassador to China Winston Lord discusses the factors that may have driven Deng to his violent choice:
An atmosphere of unalloyed spontaneity and jubilance prevailed as wave after wave of protesters spilled chaotically down both sides of the Avenue of Eternal Peace...Like two turbulent rivers meeting in a vast lake, the twin currents of demonstrators...swirled and eddied in ever-changing kaleidoscopic configurations. So many people filled the vastness of Mao's great square that the din of this ecstatic multitute coul be heard even in the surrounding hurons alleyways of Beijing, like the roar of some distant cataract. Page 306
1991 The Southern Tour: Deng in Retreat
With the legitimacy of the party in free fall after 1989, Deng watched with trepidation as communist regimes collapsed in Eastern Europe. With Deng losing influence to conservatives like Li Peng and Chen Yun, he found a new ally in the mayor of Shanghai, Zhu Rongji.
With Zhu’s help, Deng made a play to regain standing in the party and return the country’s focus to the economy, embarking on a tour of the Special Economic Zones in Shenzhen and Zhuhai.
Ex-journalist James McGregor remembers the mood in south China when Deng Xiaoping announced his Southern Tour:
Deng passed away in 1997 and arranged to have his ashes scattered over the ocean. His legacy, like Mao’s, was mixed. Although never reaching the scale of Mao’s atrocities, Deng oversaw brutal crackdowns on students and dissidents. Unlike Mao, however, Deng could claim credit for launching an economic boom of unprecedented proportions.
Under Deng Xiaoping the idealistic search for democracy ended tragically with the Tiananmen massacre, even as the quest for prosperity opened up one of the most explosive and sustained bursts of economic growth in all of history. PAGE 321