The Unredeemed Promise of Tiananmen

Written by Joseph A. Bosco.

Image credit: Never forget June 4th Massacre by Edwin Lee/Flickr, license CC BY-ND 2.0

The 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre reminds us of what remains unchanged in China’s authoritarian government despite decades of Western engagement. The “China dream” espoused by President Xi Jinping is not the same as what the Chinese people dream for their country.

On June 4, 1989, millions of Chinese students, workers, peasants, and professionals converged on Beijing and other cities calling for political reform to match Deng Xiaoping’s economic opening.

Deng’s economic policy triumph over entrenched Communist Party hardliners inspired the Chinese population to believe a new day was dawning in China as it had in Eastern Europe. Deng was the Paramount Leader in name and in fact and the entire nation was poised to take the next historic step with him.

But when it came to accepting the idea of an alternative to Communist one-party rule, Deng grievously flinched. At Tiananmen Square, and in other cities, he ordered the People’s Liberation Army to attack the Chinese people, killing thousands, and depriving subsequent generations of the chance for equal citizenship in the world community. (The hope and the tragedy of those events are poignantly captured in a two-minute musical video produced by Radio Free Asia).

At a recent United States Institute of Peace conference, it was noted that there have been ten Chinese recipients of Nobel Prizes in physics and the sciences—but they are all citizens of the United States. However, two Chinese citizens have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize—for their work on human rights in China—the Dalai Lama, in exile from Tibet, and Liu Xiabo, who languished in a Chinese prison before passing away in 2017.

The ruling communist party has long promised the Chinese people and the international community that it would eventually provide the human rights and democratic reform enshrined in China’s constitution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which Beijing signed, and in the commitments China made as a condition to being awarded the 2008 Olympics.

No matter how successful China’s economy or powerful its military, the Chinese people know they will never earn genuine international respect as long as their government remains in the unsavoury company of the world’s worst dictatorships and pariah nations.

South Korea made the transition and joined the ranks of democratic nations, but Chinese leaders need only look across the Taiwan Strait for the solution to the dilemma they have created for themselves.

The Kuomintang (KMT) dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek, which fled to Taiwan after losing China’s civil war, initially shared the communists’ lust for power. It was quite willing to use brute force to crush those who sought greater freedom, including a Tiananmen-like massacre of protesting civilians on February 28, 1947.

But the Taiwanese people courageously persisted in demanding their political rights. They were supported by elements within the American government and media establishment, especially after Washington broke diplomatic and defence ties with Taipei in 1979.

Recognizing that Taiwan’s future depended on the friendship of the American people and the support of the U.S. Congress, the KMT authorities resolved to forge bonds of shared democratic values. In 1987, Chiang Ching-kuo, head of the government and son of Generalissimo Chiang, announced the end of martial law and lifted the ban on political opposition.

Over the next decade, Taiwan moved methodically to open the political system to multi-party competition at the local, then the provincial, levels, culminating in Taiwan’s first democratic presidential election in 1996—which China opposed by firing missiles across the Taiwan Strait. In 2000 and 2004, the KMT finally lost its six-decades hold on political power through the decision of the voters, the risk that Chiang Ching-kuo willingly took in 1987.

But in true democratic fashion, Taiwan’s voters returned his party to office in 2008 and 2012. Then in 2016, the Democratic Progressive Party again won the presidency as well as a legislative majority. No one died in any of those peaceful transfers of political power—which did not flow from the barrel of a gun as Mao Zedong instructed the Chinese people.

With their penchant for five-year plans, surely China’s rulers can manage the same phased peaceful progression to vigorous democratic competition. The elected leaders will then be able to govern with popular legitimacy and will not need aggressive nationalism as a rallying cry. Not only will the people of China benefit, but a democratic China will be a more peaceful neighbour and the region will enjoy the stability that is lacking under China’s not-so-peaceful rise. The promise of Tiananmen waits to be redeemed.

Joseph A. Bosco is a former China country desk officer in the office of the secretary of defense, fellow at Institute for Taiwan-American Studies, and member of board of advisors at Global Taiwan Institute.

Reflecting on the 30th anniversary of the massacre in Beijing in 1989, this article is part of a special issue looking at the connexions between this event and the social, political and cultural life in Taiwan.


  1. “… what remains unchanged in China’s authoritarian government despite decades of Western engagement.”

    That’s interesting. Western relations are characterised as engagement when talking about Xi Jinping’s China. What about British relations to Hitler’s Germany before World War II. Aren’t they characterised as appeasement?

    Up till now the Chinese government killed a few thousands of its own dissidents receiving only lame censure from the West. Up till now the Chinese government annexed some uninhabited rocks in the South China Sea receiving only lame opposition. Up till now the Chinese government severely curtailed the cultural expression and basic freedoms of millions from China’s ethnic minorities receiving hardly any official censure.

    Please consider, Hitler’s government started to engage in war and started to kill millions only after appeasement policy convinced them that they will meet no serious opposition from the great powers. Ultimately, they were proved wrong but then the ensuing bloody mayhem had gotten out of control already.

    Does it really need an erratic narcissist to end the appeasement of the Chinese Communist Party? Will he? Or is his administration just posturing and will back down once the conflict over Taiwan gets hot?


  2. “The ‘China dream’ espoused by President Xi Jinping is not the same as what the Chinese people dream for their country.”

    I have not met any Chinese yet who opposed or disparaged his China Dream, nor did they present any dream of their own for their country. At best they appear to feel lukewarm towards nationalistic ideas. However, there are a few noisy zealots who feel that Xi Jinping’s ‘China dream’ is not aggressive and nationalistic enough. They might gain widespread support soon if the wholesale assault on China continues. Specific censures on the CCP and its policies are the right approach to avoid this.


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