The events of 4 June 1989 are remembered in the Western imagination as the violent climax of an outpouring of democratic fervour among young Chinese people. Their demands for greater freedoms posed an existential threat to the Chinese Communist Party, which decided to neutralise that threat with the use of force, resulting in thousands of deaths by some estimates. The bloodshed epitomized a crisis of legitimacy that Beijing eventually resolved through years of political-economic reform and strict censorship of the June Fourth Incident that persists to this day.

While there is some truth to this narrative arc, it oversimplifies a much more complex series of events that brought about the Tiananmen Square catastrophe. Elite politics, macroeconomics and international dynamics all converged to create the conditions for an existential crisis of governance. I subject that these various root causes and their collective destabilising power continue to preoccupy Beijing, perhaps more so than the memory of civil unrest quelled by state violence.

A coalescing of dual political crises

In the analysis of political scientist Lowell Dittmer writing in 1990, two distinct crises had coalesced in Beijing at the turn of the decade. One was a crisis of partial systemic reform. The other was a crisis of leadership succession. “In both cases,” wrote Dittmer, “difficulties in the context of a change in decision-making parameters crop up, bringing underlying problems to the surface and shifting the focus from one set of issues to another. The situation becomes doubly complicated if these two crises happen to coincide – as they did in China in 1989.”

It is worth reflecting momentarily on what Dittmer meant by these two coinciding crises, and to what extent there may be parallels for China’s present-day political stability. First, the crisis of incomplete reform refers to the confused state of the Chinese political-economic system in the late 1980s, which found itself stuck somewhere between socialist planning and a market economy. It had been barely a decade since the start of Reform and Opening, a period in which there had been intense transformation and debate over the direction that China would take after Mao Zedong.

As Richard Baum and others have documented, the 1980s in China saw oscillations of reform and retrenchment along political and economic lines, whereby the CCP repeatedly let go (fàng) with one hand, before tightening up (shōu) with the other. The result was a distorted commodity pricing structure that incorporated both fixed and market-based rates. Reformists like Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang had pursued deeper liberalisation but found their power checked by conservative rivals like Li Peng, elders like Peng Zhen and the remants of a Maoist military establishment, notably the Yang generals. As Baum wrote, “what had begun as a non-antagonistic discussion over the level and speed of reform escalated into an acute struggle for survival among mutually antagonistic political forces.”

Towards the end of the decade, this factional tension had increasingly paralysed Chinese politics and inflamed a precarious macro-economic situation. By mid-1988, commodity prices had skyrocketed more than 20% in many places, yet Zhao and Deng Xiaoping continued to promote decentralisation, causing an inflationary crisis. According to Victor Shih, planners had deliberately allowed the liberals to make this mistake, knowing that it would force another round of retrenchment and enable the conservatives to regain control.

It was out of this first crisis of partial reform and the associated economic fallout that the other major crisis of the late 1980s emerged: a succession crisis at the leadership level. Despite his advancing years, Deng remained paramount leader of a party-state that had been divided ideologically since the death of Mao. The fàng-shōu cycles reflected not just intraparty division over the scale and speed of reform, but also a divergence of leadership styles and factional relations among the political elite. And as protests intensified in Beijing and other cities in the spring of 1989, the leadership became further polarised between those urging a crackdown (such as Li) and those favouring a more conciliatory stance (notably Zhao). While Deng had designated his protégés Hu and Zhao to succeed him, they each fell in quick succession, threatening the possibility of a post-Deng power vacuum.

On top of these dual domestic crises, the June Fourth Incident was also heavily characterised by concurrent international events. In 1989, similar anti-Communist movements were taking place in Eastern Europe and influenced not just the protestors at Tiananmen, but also China’s senior leadership, who feared for the survival of CCP rule. Mikhail Gorbachev's inopportune visit to Beijing brought an international audience to China’s democracy movement and caused significant embarrassment for the regime. The ensuing foreign criticism of the crackdown provided a pretext for Beijing to limit cultural and information exchange with Western “bourgeois liberal” countries.

Could history repeat itself?

Some people wonder whether China today is similarly pursuing international isolationism, on the pretext of COVID-19. Tiananmen was blamed on “hostile” foreign forces and specifically the US, in much the same language that was used amid the 2019-2020 Hong Kong protests, and which is now being used by the Chinese party-state to justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. At present, the Russo-Ukrainian war does not pose an international threat to CCP power of the kind that was feared in 1989, though a military or political defeat for Vladimir Putin would be unsettling for Xi. In any case, Beijing finds itself in a far from ideal position, awkwardly caught between seemingly irreconcilable geopolitical ties to Russia and economic interests in the West.

This conflicted international position can be seen as just one dimension of a new crisis of incomplete reform that China is potentially facing. After several decades of the “socialist market economy” that emerged out of June Fourth, Xi Jinping has been trying to redraw China’s economic system, by increasing state oversight and attempting to refocus investment on areas of strategic national interest. While still paying lip service to opening up internationally, Xi’s China has turned inward and appears to be pursuing economic self-sufficiency in a vein not seen since Mao.

But this economic counter-reform remains an incomplete project that has been significantly challenged by a slowing economy, war in Ukraine and disruption from Xi’s zero-COVID policy. With striking similarities to the 1980s, China is muddling through a transition that has involved some fàng and shōu oscillations. For example, last year’s regulatory assault on the technology sector and “common prosperity” redistributive agenda both appear to have been significantly pared back this year. There are also indications of 1980s-style tensions among China’s political elite, especially between Xi and Li Keqiang, who have publicly diverged on their political-economic priorities.

Importantly, though, today’s incomplete reforms have not yet reached a crisis point, and there is no concurrent succession crisis like that which plagued Chinese elite politics in 1989. As “core leader”, Xi remains singularly powerful and has been wise to avoid naming successors, given that he intends to remain in power beyond two terms. Relative to the liberal leaders of the 1980s, he appears to enjoy much less interference from elders and rival factions. However, as time goes on, the urgency for Xi to install a successor will grow. And the lack of a secure candidate could ultimately create a vacuum of the sort that followed Mao and brought about the paralysing intraparty division of the 1980s.

It remains too early to predict whether such dual crises of incomplete reform and leadership succession may once again coalesce in the way that happened with such tragic results in the late 1980s. But as Tiananmen showed, China’s political-economic contradictions have a habit of eventually coming to a head. And while that point is not yet visible on the immediate horizon, the threat of such a prospect will continue to haunt Chinese politics.

Header image: Zhao Ziyang and Wen Jiabao among protestors at Tiananmen in 1989 (AFP / Xinhua)