What Caused the Tiananmen Square Protests?

Find out about the root causes behind the student unrest

Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tian An Men) the main entrance of Forbidden City.

Bruce Yuanyue Bi/Getty Images

There were many factors that led to the Tiananmen Square protest in 1989, but a number can be traced directly back a decade earlier to Deng Xiao Ping’s 1979 “opening” of China to major economic reforms. A nation that had long lived under the strictures of Maoism and the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution was suddenly exposed to a heady taste of freedom. Members of the Chinese press began to report on once-forbidden issues they'd never dared to cover in previous eras. Students openly debated politics on college campuses, and from 1978 to 1979, people posted political writings on a long brick wall in Beijing dubbed the “Democracy Wall."

Setting the Stage for Unrest

Western media coverage often painted the Tiananmen Square protests (known in China as the "June Fourth Incident") in the simplistic terms of a cry for democracy in the face of oppressive Communist rule. However, a more nuanced understanding of this ultimately tragic event reveals four root causes that led up to the fateful confrontation.

Growing Economic Disparity Meets Rapid Culture Shift

Major economic reforms in China resulted in growing economic prosperity, which in turn, led to increasing commercialism. Many business leaders willingly embraced Deng Xiao Ping’s “to get rich is glorious” philosophy.

In the countryside, the de-collectivization that shifted farming practices from traditional communes back to individual family farming concerns—reversing the mandates of China's original Five-Year Plan—brought greater productivity and prosperity. However, the subsequent shift in wealth became a contributing factor to an increasingly contentious gap between the rich and the poor.

Additionally, many segments of society that had experienced extreme disenfranchisement during the Cultural Revolution and earlier CCP policies finally had a forum to vent their frustrations. Workers and peasants began to come to Tiananmen Square, which further concerned the Party leadership.

Inflation

High levels of inflation aggravated agricultural problems, adding fuel to the fire of escalating unrest. In a lecture that was part of the Independent Activities Period series, "Communism in Crisis," China expert Professor Lucian W. Pye of M.I.T.'s Department of Political Science noted that inflation, which was as high as 28%, led the government to give peasants IOUs instead of cash for grain. Elites and students may have thrived in this environment of increased market forces, but unfortunately, that wasn’t the case for peasants and laborers.

Party Corruption

By the late 1980s, many Chinese were growing frustrated with the corruption they saw within the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. One example of systemic abuse that particularly rankled was the numerous party leaders—and their children—who'd been vested in joint-ventures that China had brokered with foreign companies. To many in the general populace, it looked as if the rich and powerful were only getting more rich and powerful while the common man was being locked out of the economic boom.

Death of Hu Yaobang

One of the few leaders viewed as incorruptible was Hu Yaobang. His death in April 1989 was the last straw that galvanized the Tiananmen Square protests. Genuine mourning turned into protesting against the government.

The protests by the students grew. Unfortunately, with increasing numbers came increasing disorganization. In many ways, the student leadership seemed no better than the party it was determined to bring down.

The students, who'd grown up believing that the only viable form of protest was a revolutionary one—ironically, via the very Party propaganda of CCP's own revolution—viewed their demonstration through the same lens. While some moderate students returned to classes, hardline student leaders refused to negotiate.

The Tide Turns

Faced with the fear that the protest could escalate into revolution, the Party cracked down. In the end, though many of the elite youth protestors were arrested, it was ordinary citizens and workers who were killed.

In the aftermath of events, the allegory was clear: The students who'd championed the values they held dear—a free press, free speech, and the chance to make their own financial fortunes—survived; the disenfranchised workers and farmers with no viable means of being integrated into a changing society perished.

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