In 1989, a million Chinese gathered in the spiritual heart of their country, Tiananmen Square, in defiance of the Communist party. Deng Xiaoping, then China’s paramount leader, ordered the vicious 27th Army to shoot its way through the streets of Beijing on the night of June 3. By the morning of the 4th, soldiers had reclaimed the Square after hundreds, and perhaps thousands, had been killed.
What is the most important legacy of the tragedy that many this day mourn? It is, in my view, China’s modernity. The party, after Tiananmen, had no real choice but to permit the Chinese people to continue to remake their nation, and the most far-reaching change was the undoing of Mao Zedong’s extreme social engineering. Mao had consolidated the power of the Communist party by dividing up the Chinese people into small units and isolating each of those units from others. In the countryside, he created self-contained communes. In the city, he built state-owned enterprises. Separated from one another, the Chinese people had no real way to challenge Mao’s one-party state.
Now, however, the Chinese people are building businesses and organizations that span the country, and they are getting in touch with each other as China modernizes. And today on the internet and in other forums, the Chinese are having national conversations. As a result, citizens with common grievances are beginning to act in unison, and this poses a challenge of the first order to the regime. China at this moment may be changing faster than any other nation. And it is not the party that is leading change; it is the Chinese people demanding it.
The Communist party has slowly evolved since Tiananmen, but the society it leads is remaking itself at great speed. The consequence of this dynamic is uncontrollable change, and uncontrollable change means that one day China will be free.
— Gordon G. Chang is the author of Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World. He lived and worked in China and Hong Kong for almost two decades.