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.

Wrecking the global economy's hopes for a relaxing late-August Friday, China and the US have taken fresh shots at each other in their deepening trade war.

First, China announced new tariffs on US goods in response to US levies on China's exports that are set to take effect next month.

Trump responded with a vintage tweet storm, lashing out at China and demanding that US firms stop doing business there. The Dow plunged as markets waited for the next shoe to drop. And drop it did: later in the day Trump announced higher tariffs on nearly everything that China exports to the United States.

Why now? Bear in mind, all of this comes right as Trump is leaving for this weekend's G7 summit in France. That gathering already promised to be a testy one – but with the global economy slowing, the impact of Trump's increasingly nasty trade war with China will add fresh tensions to the occasion.

So where are we in the trade war now? Here is an updated list of what measures each side has imposed to date, and what's next. Both sides have a lot at stake, but from the looks of it, the list isn't going to get shorter any time soon.

When Donald Trump first started talking about buying Greenland last week, we figured it was a weird story with less legs than a Harp seal.

Signal readers, we were wrong. President Trump was so serious about purchasing the autonomous Danish territory that this week he abruptly cancelled a trip to Denmark after the country's prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, labelled the idea "absurd."

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The Amazon in flames – More than 70,000 forest fires are burning in Brazil right now, most of them in the Amazon. That's up 84% over the same period last year, and it's the highest number on record. This is the dry season when farmers burn certain amounts of forest legally to clear farmland. But critics say Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro's efforts to loosen conservation rules have encouraged farmers, loggers, and miners to set more fires, many of them illegally. Bolsonaro – a science skeptic who recently fired the head of the agency that tracks deforestation – says, without proof, that NGOs are setting the fires to embarrass his government. Meanwhile, the EU is holding up a major trade deal with Brazil unless Bolsonaro commits to higher environmental protection standards, including those that affect the Amazon.

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Over the past fifty years, the Amazon rainforest has shrunk by an area equal to the size of Turkey. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Brazilian government supported settlement of the sparsely populated region for security reasons. Since then, huge swaths of the forest -- which is crucial for limiting the world's greenhouse gasses -- have been cleared for farmland used to feed Brazil's population and support its massive agricultural exports. Greater awareness of the environmental impacts in the 1990s produced tighter conservation regulations, though plenty of illegal clearing continues. In recent years, the annual deforestation rate has begun to rise again, and Brazil's new president Jair Bolsonaro has pledged to weaken regulations further in order to support businesses.