30 Years After TiananmenMemory in the Era of Xi Jinping
The Chinese Communist Party allows no public commemoration of the protest movement that it violently crushed in the vicinity of Tiananmen Square in 1989, but its private reckoning with that tragedy has never mattered more. President Xi Jinping has quietly taken Tiananmen as a guiding light, reading it as a cautionary tale of regime decay and a playbook for revival. This view has inspired his campaigns to tackle corruption, restore ideological discipline, and reclaim control over history. And the most lasting contribution of all to Xi's tenure may be the selective rehabilitation of traditional Chinese culture as a source of political legitimacy.
No event in its modern history haunts the People's Republic of China (PRC) as deeply as the protest movement that swept the country during the spring of 1989. Around the world, millions witnessed a tragedy unfold that is now indelibly linked to the square that was its focal point, establishing Tiananmen as a metonym for a government's punitive war against a remonstrating citizenry.1 Not long after crushing the protests as a "counterrevolutionary rebellion," the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) imposed a cone of silence around the entire affair so complete that even to mention it is to touch the third rail of Chinese politics.2
Thirty years on, media and online references to the protests and their suppression are still banned in the PRC. Zhao Ziyang, the CCP general secretary ousted in the attendant leadership struggle, remains nearly unmentionable.3 Police harass or arrest those who persist in demanding that the government issue an honest accounting of what happened. Plainclothes officers, intent on forestalling any acts of remembrance, inundate the relevant sites on the relevant anniversaries, supported by ubiquitous cameras capable of facial recognition. The result is coerced public amnesia on an epic scale.4 With 40 percent of the Chinese population now too young to recollect it personally, this history, so searing to those who experienced it firsthand, risks slipping from the consciousness of a nation.5
But the CCP remembers, and the ramifications of that run deep. For the CCP, Tiananmen is the source of an inner trauma that has been triggered repeatedly by the fall of European communism, the Arab Spring, [End Page 38] and successive color revolutions. It brings those distant events home, makes them concrete, and imbues them with vicarious, unnerving significance. Tiananmen is also the subtext that sustains the Party's singular fixation on the demise and disintegration of the Soviet Union.6 Recalling the Soviet collapse is the oblique way the CCP reminds its rank-and-file of how narrowly it escaped the same fate, and cautions them that it may be tested yet again. President Xi Jinping is a notable devotee of this practice.
Xi assumed office in 2012 seemingly on a mission, and observers anxious for insights into his agenda puzzled over what the formative influences on him might have been. Taking their cues from state media, they have consulted his rural youth during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), the relatively liberal views espoused by his late father (a high-ranking CCP leader), and his early career as an official.7 They have even debated how much to read into his calculated evocations of Mao Zedong.8 But an essential guiding light has eluded them thus far, perhaps because none in China dare speak its name.
Tiananmen is Xi Jinping's hidden muse. Unlike his predecessors, who hastened to put it behind them, he is leaning in to it with vigor, reading it as a cautionary tale of regime decay and a playbook for renewal. Respectful of the taboos enveloping it, he nevertheless artfully conjures its ghosts when he warns of unforeseen shocks and turbulence ahead. He then adroitly capitalizes on the anxieties stirred by those forecasts to consolidate and aggrandize power. Likewise, he recalls Tiananmen's bitter lessons when he challenges a Party again grown slack to temper itself anew in the crucible of hardship and struggle. His campaigns to tackle corruption and restore ideological discipline, as well as his related escalation of the Party's battle to control history, borrow liberally from the precedents furnished by Tiananmen. On this thirtieth anniversary, the time is apt to reflect on those debts. They are defining features of Xi's tenure.
Xi's New Approach
Prior to 2012, the CCP managed challenges to its rule in a largely reactive fashion, with targeted repression and by steadily cracking down on restive corners of society. But Xi brought a more assertive approach to the table. The prevailing paradigm of stability maintenance (weiwen) was, in his view, no longer sufficient because China was headed toward disaster. Specifically, it was at a crossroads where unsuitable ideological concepts, corrupt practices, and entrenched vested interests had become stumbling blocks to progress and threats to social stability.9 Though many did not see it at the time, this understated framing in fact echoed the Party's verdict on how it had catastrophically misjudged the advent of the last such juncture: Tiananmen. A clear course of action flowed [End Page 39] from that because, in the Party's eyes, Tiananmen also stood for the proposition that a decisive leader could galvanize the CCP to determine its own fate against formidable odds by sheer force of will. Xi set out heroically to recapture that voluntarist spirit for a new generation. To avert a crisis, he shifted the government into an offensive posture, and boldly announced his intention to punch through China's difficulties and deliver the country into a bright new age.
Inspired by the immediate post-Tiananmen playbook, he has concentrated his attention on centralizing power and reversing years of atrophy in the Party's administrative and ideological controls. Shrewdly, he began in the same place Deng Xiaoping had in 1989, by "grasping reform and opening with one hand, and punishing corruption with the other."10 His anticorruption campaign aims to convert a weakness into a strength by conspicuously positioning his government on the side of the people. It has also smashed the post-Mao conventions of elite politics by taking down a succession of senior officials and military figures, thereby disrupting the powerful patronage networks to which they belonged. This eased the adoption of a constitutional amendment that allows Xi to remain president for life and has established him as the most dominant figure in China since Mao.11 The bold, personalistic style of rule he embodies and the modest cult surrounding it paint him as the man who will stay on to do what must be done.12
Next, Xi took to heart Deng's admission that in the run-up to the 1989 protests "our biggest mistake was … primarily in ideological and political education."13 Xi's tribute to that lesson appeared in 2013, when the Party adopted a "Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere." Known popularly as Document 9, it instructed Party members to oppose seven "false ideological trends" wherever they appear, and to "allow absolutely no opportunity or outlets for incorrect thinking or viewpoints to spread." The enumerated trends make up a revealing list: Western constitutional democracy, the concept of universal values, civil society, neoliberalism, free and independent media, questioning the authenticity of contemporary Chinese socialism, and historical nihilism.14 In many ways, these are throwbacks to the campaign against "bourgeois liberalization" and peaceful evolution that followed Tiananmen, and they exemplify what Deng then labeled pretexts "to establish a bourgeois republic, an out-and-out vassal of the West."15
Xi's administration has implemented Document 9 assiduously, and [End Page 40] as a consequence the climate for many forms of expression, social activism, teaching, and research has sharply regressed.16 A few areas stand out. For instance, Xi has drastically shortened the leash on state media, urging them to "take the Party as their surname," which is to say that they "must love the Party, protect the Party, and closely align with the Party leadership in thought, politics and action."17 While the media market brims with colorful, diverting content, censorship is deep and pervasive. Outspoken newspapers have been assigned new editorial teams, a once-vigorous corps of investigative reporters has been hemmed in, and coverage now generally parrots the official line on topics of any significance. The online space operates under functionally similar constraints.18
Like a host of other illiberal regimes around the world, Xi's administration has tightened regulatory control over civil society organizations (CSOs), raising new barriers to licensing and fundraising. Opportunities remain for CSOs that partner with the government and support its priorities, but work implicating civil and political rights has come under intense pressure. Official harassment and mass arrests have struck public-interest lawyers and labor and gender rights activists particularly hard. Their recorded confessions eerily recall the ritualized self-criticisms of the Mao era. The authorities have also detained a small number of foreign CSO workers, which has sent alarms through segments of that community. The outlook appears grim given that the minister of public security declared in early 2019 that preventing color revolutions and "infiltration and subversive activities by hostile domestic and foreign forces" was a top national priority.19
This priority shapes cultural policy as well. Since Tiananmen, Chinese analysts have increasingly described culture as a facet of national security and an arena of sharpening global contestation.20 In that time, conservatives looking to shore up the regime's defenses against liberalism have also increasingly championed elements of traditional Chinese culture in official political discourse. Thus, nativist pride in Chinese civilization now buoys the Marxist case against the conceit that Western conventions, including of course Western conceptions of rights, are universal or even appropriate to China.21 This awkward union features prominently, for example, in a sweeping National Security Law adopted in 2015 that commits the PRC government to
develop an advanced socialist culture, inherit and carry forward the fine traditional culture of the Chinese nation, cultivate and practice the core values of socialism, prevent and resist the impact of harmful culture, maintain its ideological domination, and enhance overall cultural strength and competitiveness.
The burdens of this mandate fall heavily on the education sector. Under Xi, the Ministry of Education has intensified its promotion of an [End Page 41] ethnonationalist curriculum of "patriotic education" that seeks to "teach the essential commonality of love for the country, love for the Party, and love for socialism."22 Cognizant of the role that students and faculty played in spearheading the 1989 protests, Xi has specifically called upon higher education to become a "stronghold of Party leadership." In 2017, teams from the CCP's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection evaluated Party management and ideological work at 29 top universities, citing many for deficiencies. Ideological and political performance are now leading criteria in the evaluation of faculty.23 Accordingly, some schools have issued formal lists of proscribed topics that elaborate on Document 9, and have instituted teacher-affairs departments to police compliance. These measures have chilled research and teaching, particularly in the social sciences and humanities. Local conditions vary, but in recent private conversations Chinese scholars lament that the current environment is the most restrictive in their lifetimes, and they genuinely fret that colleagues and students will secretly report them for disciplinary action if they express heterodox views.
The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) has been at the forefront of these developments. CASS is one of China's premier state-run academic and policy think tanks; it operates over ninety research centers and employs more than three-thousand scholars. In 2014, the head of its Party discipline inspection office made headlines by publicly accusing CASS of "infiltration by foreign forces." Several months later, its president atoned with a jarring paean to class struggle and the people's democratic dictatorship that reads as if it was ripped from another age.24 Over the next two years, CASS further demonstrated its fealty by issuing four volumes of turgid essays devoted to attacking some of the false ideological trends that Document 9 flagged.25 Not mincing any words, the preface common to three of the volumes declared that Western notions of neoliberalism, constitutional democracy, and universal values are "a negation of the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, a negation of the guiding status of Marxism, a negation of the state system of the people's democratic dictatorship, and a negation of the socialist system." Known as the "Four Big Critiques" (si da pipan), the doctrines set forth in these volumes have put Chinese from all walks of life on notice that affinity with the criticized ideas is tantamount to subversion.
The Assault on History
Finally, Tiananmen has supplied Xi with the conceptual armature for a sprawling assault on history. During the 1990s and 2000s, a wealth of new sources about the Chinese past came to light in the PRC, including memoirs, archival collections, and oral histories. Taking advantage of a more permissive political environment, research founded on these materials brought formerly taboo periods and topics, including some of the [End Page 42] darkest chapters in PRC history, into the mainstream of public discourse for the first time. Combined with new methodologies and interpretive perspectives, this activity chipped away at the Party's canonical version of events and gradually undermined its prerogative to define the master narrative that justifies its singular status in society. Xi's project to shore up the Party's ideological domination of China and burnish its political supremacy hinges on reversing that condition.
The epithet of "historical nihilism" was first used by a CCP general secretary in 1989, when Jiang Zemin listed it among the malign influences that had corrupted the Party from within.26 Xi Jinping, alert to the same pathology, has taken it up like no previous leader, making it a hallmark of his administration. As he defines it,
historical nihilism distorts modern Chinese revolutionary history, the history of the Communist Party and the history of the People's Republic. The crucial point of historical nihilism is to fundamentally negate the leading position of Marxism, the inevitability that China would take the socialist path, and the leadership of the CCP.27
In short, the term is used to label any account of the past that diminishes the prestige of the CCP, challenges its orthodox narratives, or undermines its policy positions. The inclusion of historical nihilism among both the seven false ideological trends listed in Document 9 and the Four Big Critiques issued by CASS has made the campaign against it unusually fierce.
That the term owes its currency to an episode the CCP itself will scarcely acknowledge is an ironic clue that Xi has more on his mind than truth-seeking. Fortunately, the Party has devised euphemisms for talking about such things, and a few weeks after assuming office, Xi invoked one of his favorites to explain why he was seized of this particular problem:
Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Soviet Communist Party fall from power? An important reason was that the struggle in the field of ideology was extremely intense, completely negating the history of the Soviet Union, negating the history of the Soviet Communist Party, negating Lenin, negating Stalin, creating historical nihilism and confused thinking. Party organs at all levels had lost their functions, the military was no longer under Party leadership. In the end, the Soviet Communist Party, a great party, was scattered, the Soviet Union, a great socialist country, disintegrated. This is a cautionary tale!28
Of course, it is a tale that matters to Xi and bears his retelling largely because of Tiananmen. Having survived that ordeal and the mass extinction of European communism that followed, the CCP remains hostage to Marxism's brittle teleology long after others have forsaken it, which means that the Party's legitimacy hinges not just on prosaic measures of good governance but also on the plausibility of its claim to vindicate the [End Page 43] Laws of History. Like the Mandate of Heaven once claimed by Chinese emperors, these Laws furnish the ideological justification for the Party's exclusive grip on power and the measures required to maintain it. Without this gilding, the CCP is simply an ordinary political party and, as Xi observed, ordinary parties can be scattered and replaced.
Important consequences flow from this. If History must bear out the correctness of CCP policy, then the CCP must, as a matter of survival, propound an airtight version of the past that satisfies this requirement. The enforced amnesia surrounding Tiananmen is one of the crudest outgrowths of this imperative, but there are countless others. For instance, by the end of this year the CCP will also have suppressed public commemorations of the sixtieth anniversary of a famine that killed thirty- to forty-million people during the Great Leap Forward (1958–62); the fiftieth anniversary of the army's violent reimposition of order and the banishment of millions to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution; and the fortieth anniversary of a fleeting liberalization remembered best for its Democracy Wall. In their place, it will have proudly substituted the two-hundredth anniversary of Karl Marx's birth, the hundredth anniversary of the May Fourth movement, the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the PRC, and the fortieth anniversary of Deng Xiaoping's policy of reform and opening. In China, the calendar is a war zone.
Xi is pressing his battle to recover mastery over history deep into the trenches. State archives are withdrawing access to formerly open documents, and historical maps, which were never easy to obtain, are now virtually impossible to come by, especially if they touch on disputed territorial boundaries. In 2016, a tipping point passed when cultural authorities staged a hostile takeover of Yanhuang Chunqiu, a magazine that had, with the support of Party liberals, long tested the boundaries of censorship through pioneering articles about sensitive topics from the CCP's past.29 The magazine's acclaimed former editor, Yang Jisheng, was then barred from exiting the country to accept an award at Harvard University.
As a result, China is turning inward. Academic exchanges and research affiliations in the country for foreign scholars are growing more difficult to arrange. Anecdotal reports are multiplying of Chinese authorities calling foreign scholars in for questioning about their research or intimidating them in other ways. Chinese professors have been told to limit their use of foreign articles and textbooks in the classroom. In early 2019, CASS established an Academy of History to unify the management of its various [End Page 44] historical-research institutes. Days later, the deputy managing editor of one of its flagship journals published an editorial urging Chinese scholars to retake control of the history of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) from the corrupting influence of "foreign historical nihilists" and to "put the correct political orientation at the forefront" of their work.30 With the pressure on them rising, Chinese historians are withdrawing from international projects and self-censoring their public output, while pressing on in private as best they can. In addition to the administrative or criminal penalties they risk for their research, a 2018 law exposes them to civil liability for "insulting, defaming or otherwise infringing on the names, likenesses, reputations, or honor of heroes and martyrs."
Much of this no doubt looks familiar to students of authoritarian regimes, but technology has added a pivotal new dimension to Xi's gathering inquisition. China has moved faster than most nations to digitize its knowledge base. Many documentary collections, archives, books, and periodicals are now delivered primarily online, which has made them available to scholars globally. The catch is that these sources are hosted on servers subject to the whims of the Chinese government, and the act of consolidating them there has greatly simplified the task of censorship. Censors are altering these digitized sources without ever leaving their desks, secure in the knowledge that the changes will propagate instantaneously around the world. Much like social media, these online knowledge platforms have become weapons of sharp power in a global information war, and China is showing illiberal regimes everywhere how best to wield them.31 Flexing its economic power, it has even persuaded Western academic presses to drop select titles from the Chinese market, or to block online access to them by Chinese users.32
This emerging paradigm of digital censorship opens the door to infinite edits of the historical record that can adapt the past dynamically to present needs without leaving any obvious fingerprints behind. Soon there will be programs using artificial intelligence that will be able to roam the breadth of an archive, endlessly reconstructing it according to pre-programmed templates updated regularly to suit the prevailing political winds. Such automated agents are capable of scaling up to colossal volumes of text that would crush any traditional, human-centered censorship apparatus, and they never tire. The distance is very short from the technologies that currently curate our newsfeeds to the nightmare of Orwell's memory hole, where reality is continually reinvented by those in power. China is striving to bridge that gap.
The Face of China's Fears
Tiananmen did not create the authoritarian CCP, but it has put a face on the CCP's fears. If, as David Shambaugh recently observed, "China is today more repressive than at any time since the post-Tiananmen [End Page 45] 1989–1992 period," then that is because Xi has made this period a cardinal reference point for his administration.33 The correspondences run across multiple issue areas, and the rapidity with which a coordinated package of robust policies appeared among these areas hints at this unifying thread. Just as generals are often accused of preparing to fight the last war, Xi has reached into and refreshed the toolkit of administrative and ideological controls bequeathed by the Party's last existential crisis in a bid to head off a new one.
Like his predecessors, Xi faces a vexing problem. Eventually, his campaign to tighten discipline in China will wind down, and experience counsels that when it does something deeper will be needed to sustain its gains or they will soon dissipate. Yet neither the Party's classic revolutionary formulas nor the bland additions that successive leaders have layered on top of them will suffice any longer for that purpose. Xi is therefore at a unique disadvantage. His promise to lead China into a bold new era demands an equally bold new dispensation that can revitalize the Party and anchor the country firmly behind it. His campaign against historical nihilism is surely a step in that direction. By controlling the past, he is reclaiming the right to monopolize the meaning that Chinese attach to the present and the intentions that they form about the future, in hopes of bridling their ability to formulate or even imagine alternatives to what he offers them.
But to judge from Xi's recent speeches, which read like a pageant of slogans pulled from the Party's closets, he is evidently still finding his way. A new dispensation has yet to coalesce in any but the broadest terms. At this point, having to stretch a coherent linear narrative over the tumultuous record of Chinese history—one that sustains the leading position of Marxism, the inevitability that China would take the socialist path, and the leadership of the CCP—may simply be too great a challenge for the Party to meet. It requires eliding so much that what remains seems tortuously contrived and paper thin. Emerging signs of a realignment in the Party's genealogy are in fact suggestive of this strain. For instance, Xi is politely pushing the Mao era (1949–76) to the background, and the commemoration of the 125th anniversary of Mao's birth last year was therefore an unusually muted affair. In its place, Xi is bringing to the fore the glories of China's imperial age, and increasingly pressing a nationalistic, civilizational case to replace the PRC's former revolutionary identity.
This is the space to watch. When Xi invokes Confucian-laced concepts [End Page 46] such as "the Great Unity under Heaven" (tianxia datong), identifies traditional culture as the soul (linghun) of the nation, and appears at state functions wearing a smartly updated version of the Zhongshan jacket favored by Mao, he is cultivating a nativist basis of legitimacy to supplement the Party's tired communist credentials. This turn to neotraditionalism, which is part of a global trend, may yet turn out to be the most lasting debt of all that his administration owes to Tiananmen.
Glenn Tiffert, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, is a historian of modern China. A specialist on the Chinese legal system, he has published on the judiciary, constitutionalism, and the genealogy of the rule of law in China. His current research probes the intersections between information technology and authoritarianism, and the ramifications of China's rise for U.S. interests.
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33. David Shambaugh, China's Future (Malden, Mass.: Polity, 2016), 118.