What Caused the Tiananmen Square Protests?

The Root of the Student Protests in Tiananmen Square

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 of these causes can be traced back a decade prior to Deng Xiao Ping’s 1979 “opening” of China to major economic reforms.

In that era, a nation that had lived under Maoism and the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution suddenly experienced a taste of greater freedom. The Chinese Press began to report on issues they had never been able to cover before, students debated politics on college campuses, and people posted political writings from 1978 to 1979 on a long brick wall in Beijing deemed the “Democracy Wall."

Western media coverage often painted the protests too simplistically, as a cry for democracy against a Communist regime. Offering a more nuanced understanding of this ultimately tragic event, here are 4 root causes of the Tiananmen Square protests.

Growing Economic Disparity 

Major economic reforms led to a growing economic prosperity, which also meant increasing commercialism. Many business leaders willingly complied with Deng Xiao Ping’s famed expression, “to get rich is glorious.”

In the countryside, decollectivization, which shifted farming practices from traditional communes to individual families, brought greater productivity. However, this change also contributed to an increasing gap between the rich and the poor.

Additionally, many segments of society that had experienced such 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 inflation levels aggravated agricultural problems. China expert Lucian Pye has said 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 that wasn’t always the case for peasants and laborers.

Party Corruption

By the late 1980s, many segments of society were frustrated with the party leadership's corruption. For example, many party leaders and their children were vested in the joint-ventures that China had brokered with foreign companies. To many in the general public, it looked like the powerful were only getting more powerful.

Death of Hu Yaobang

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

The protests by the students grew, but with increasing numbers came increasing disorganization. In many ways the student leadership mirrored the party it was bent on criticizing. The students, who had grown up believing that the only protest that existed was a revolutionary one – via Party propaganda of their own revolution – saw their demonstration the same way. While some moderates went back to school, hardliner student leaders refused to negotiate.

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, still more ordinary citizens and workers were killed. In many ways, the students were bent on protecting the values they held dear—free press, free speech, the chance to get wealthy—while the workers or farmers still remained disenfranchised and without a support system.

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Chiu, Lisa. "What Caused the Tiananmen Square Protests?" ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2017, thoughtco.com/root-of-the-tiananmen-square-protests-688411. Chiu, Lisa. (2017, July 31). What Caused the Tiananmen Square Protests? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/root-of-the-tiananmen-square-protests-688411 Chiu, Lisa. "What Caused the Tiananmen Square Protests?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/root-of-the-tiananmen-square-protests-688411 (accessed November 21, 2017).