In 1989, China Chose a Future That We Are Now Living In

In 1989, China Chose a Future That We Are Now Living In

Thirty years ago today, the Chinese government ordered soldiers to open fire on students and blue-collar workers who had taken over Tiananmen square in central Beijing to demand more political freedom and less corruption. Nobody knows how many people were killed, but estimates run into the thousands.


It wasn't a foregone conclusion that things would end in bloodshed. In the years leading up to Tiananmen, as China's planned economy flagged, the country's leadership was divided between a faction that viewed political liberalization as a prerequisite for needed economic reforms, and a group of stodgier party elders who saw any political concessions as suicidal for the regime.

Across the border in the Soviet Union, of course, Mikhail Gorbachev was struggling with the same questions. But while Gorbachev chose to liberalize the political system to try to force the Soviet bureaucracy to enact economic reform, China's Deng Xiaoping chose differently.

By ordering the massacre of Tiananmen protesters and their sympathizers in hundreds of other cities, Deng solidified a gamble that has shaped China ever since: that a repressive one-party state could co-exist with an increasingly open economy that integrated with the world.

Deng's gamble paid off. While we can't know whether a different outcome in Tiananmen would have yielded a different economic result, we do know that China's achievements since then are astounding. In 1990, China accounted for less than 4 percent of the global economy – today that figure is closer to 20 percent. Around the time of Tiananmen Square, two-thirds of China's population lived in poverty, according to the World Bank. Now it's less than 1 percent. An economy that was just a bit larger than Italy's then is the world's second largest today.

China didn't do this alone, of course. Beijing both rode, and shaped, the wave of globalization that swept the world in the 1990s. At first, China became the world's factory as hundreds of millions of people moved from the countryside into the cities providing low-cost labor for factories. Those people then became the world's largest consumer class, fueling global growth.

But the party's success in maintaining political power and economic growth has generated a backlash that shapes the world we live in today.

On one level, you see it in the rise of populist-nationalist politics in Europe and the United States, where studies have shown that regions that lost jobs to Chinese competition during the 2000s tend to vote for Donald Trump, Brexit, or other anti-establishment parties today. Here's a recent one. But more broadly, the soaring success of China's model has also produced a backlash from the US and European governments, which increasingly view Beijing as a rival that champions a competing (government-dominated) political and economic system. That's a growing contest for global power that will shape the coming decades.

"June Fourth," the China scholar Andrew Nathan has written, "was a clash between alternative futures." The decisions that China's leaders made about what to do with all those protesting students set China on a path toward the central international role it plays today.

In short, we're now living in the future that Deng Xiaoping chose for all of us 30 years ago.

Jon Lieber, Managing Director of the United States for Eurasia Group, shares updates on recent COVID-19 policy developments:

The Biden administration extended an eviction moratorium even after the Supreme Court said they couldn't, what's next?

Well, the CDC imposed a nationwide eviction moratorium in light of increased risk from evicted people because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Supreme Court in June ruled that they (CDC) overextended their authority in doing so and mandated that the moratorium expire on schedule in July. A group of progressive activists weren't happy about this and raised a huge stink in Congress, but Congress recessed for their August vacation before they could solve the problem, putting big pressure on President Biden to extend the moratorium even though he said he didn't think that it would pass constitutional muster. The CDC did it anyway, extending the moratorium until October 3rd, which is a time that's short enough to probably avoid it being overturned by lawsuits, but long enough that Congress has time to figure out how to either extend it on a bipartisan basis or put more money into a rental assistance fund that few people have taken advantage of so far. This whole incident shows the power of progressive activists in the Biden administration who were able to elevate the profile of this issue and potentially prevent millions of people from losing their homes this summer.

More Show less

This week, the market value of Tencent, China's biggest video game company, nosedived after a state media outlet suggested that online gaming was as addictive and destructive as opium. Tencent immediately pledged to cap the number of hours people can play, and to keep minors off its platforms.

It's the latest example of a months-long crackdown on major Chinese technology firms that until recently were viewed as some of the world's most powerful and successful companies, as well as a source of national pride. Beijing's about-face on its own tech titans could have big implications for China, and beyond.

More Show less

Iran was involved in two naval incidents in the Gulf of Oman in recent days. The US, UK, and Israel have blamed Iran for a drone attack that killed two European nationals. Iran has rejected the accusations. Iran is also suspected in the "potential hijack" of a tanker off the coast of the United Arab Emirates.

These provocations are happening just as Iran inaugurates a new president, Ebrahim Raisi, and as talks continue over the possible US re-entry into the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. What's the connection between these events? We asked Henry Rome, Eurasia Group's deputy head of research and a director covering global macro politics and the Middle East.

More Show less

Whenever Burkina Faso is in the news, it's often about how the crisis-ridden country has got caught up in the crosshairs of horrific jihadist violence plaguing the Sahel.

But this week, the nation of 20 million was celebrating because Hugues Fabrice Zango won its first-ever Olympic medal after finishing third in the men's triple jump in Tokyo.

More Show less

Should people get COVID vaccine booster shots? Not yet, says the World Health Organization, which is pushing for rich nations or those with access to jabs to hold off until at least the end of September so all countries get to fully vaccinate at least 10 percent of their populations before some jump ahead with boosters. But the WHO's call has fallen on deaf ears in nations like Israel, France, Germany and Russia, which are already planning to offer boosters, in part to better protect people against the more contagious delta variant. What's more, mRNA vaccine makers Pfizer and Moderna are recommending supplemental doses for the same reason. The problem is that, beyond the obvious moral imperative for equal access to vaccines, if the rich continue hoarding jabs while vaccination rates stay low elsewhere, the virus will continue to thrive — and mutate into new, potentially even more infectious variants that sooner or later will reach every corner of the planet.

More Show less

80: If polar ice caps continue to melt at their current pace due to climate change, 80 percent of all emperor penguins will be wiped out by the end of the century because they need the ice for breeding and keeping their offspring safe. American authorities want to list emperor penguins, which only live in Antarctica, as an endangered species so that US fishing vessels will be required to protect them when operating in their habitat.

More Show less

On GZERO World, Ian Bremmer takes a look at the yin and the yang of alcohol's role in high-level diplomacy and society at large. Alcohol can bring people together just as easily as it can tear them apart. From a 1995 Clinton/Yeltsin Summit where a drunk Yeltsin almost derailed Bosnian peace talks, to Obama's Beer Summit and the recent G7 Summit, booze plays a part in how world leaders interact. Globally, alcohol consumption has been steadily increasing, by over 70 percent between 1990 and 2017, according to one report. . Low and middle-income nations like Vietnam, India, and China are a driving force behind that trend, with drinking in Southeast Asia rising by over 34 percent between 2010 and 2017. And yet, amidst this global booze boom, the world has only grown more and more divided.

Watch the episode: The (political) power of alcohol

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter, Signal

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal

Does alcohol help bring the world together?

GZERO World Clips

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal