Tiananmen Square 30th Anniversary: How Has China Changed Politically Since the Iconic Student Protests?

It has been 30 years since the events surrounding Tiananmen Square, a brutal Chinese government crackdown on demonstrators in June 1989. The Chinese government's count of those killed in the incident was 241, including soldiers, and 7,000 wounded. However, other estimates have put the death toll much higher.

It has served as a symbol for political unrest in China ever since. The events also produced the iconic "Tank Man" image of a lone protester facing down a column of tanks.

But how has the country changed politically and economically since the protests? Newsweek spoke to academics and activists on what they have seen happen in the decades since.

What is China like 30 years on?

Jared Hall, Dean of Academic Life at the Hotchkiss School, described the events of 1989 as "firming up the marriage of economic and cultural liberalization with political authoritarianism."

"There's good evidence that [Chairman Mao Zedong's successor] Deng Xiaoping had been committed to [the aforementioned] framework from the 1970s onward, but there were also forces in and outside the party that had been pushing political liberalization as well—particularly in the realm of civil liberties," he told Newsweek. "The events of June 1989 created a remarkably stable political settlement that largely endures today."

Tank Man 30 Year Anniversary
Protester Blocking Tanks Approaching Tiananmen Square. A Beijing demonstrator blocks the path of a tank convoy along the Avenue of Eternal Peace near Tiananmen Square. For weeks, people have been protesting for freedom of speech and of press from the Chinese government. Getty/Bettmann

Teng Biao, President of China Against the Death Penalty, co-founder of the Open Constitution Initiative, and a visiting scholar for the U.S.-Asia Law Institute in New York University told Newsweek that Tiananmen Square changed everything for China: "The Tiananmen massacre changed the political imagination and even the dominant ethos of China. It has strengthened the 'China Model' which should be described as 'market totalitarianism plus kleptocracy.'"

In an essay he wrote for Law and Liberty, Teng said that the incident at Tiananmen Square changed China economically in what he calls the "Chinese miracle."

"What is most ironic is that the economic reforms of elite privatization that China carried out after June 4 were undoubtedly the most shameless and deplorable in moral terms, but also probably the most effective and likely to succeed," he wrote. "The Tiananmen massacre completely deprived people of their right to speak, and the lack of public participation and supervision in China's privatization process allowed a minority of officials to treat public assets as their personal property."

This view is shared by analyst Francisco Bencosme, Asia advocacy manager at Amnesty International USA. He wrote for Newsweek: "[Since June 4, 1989], you'd be hard pressed to find any serious analysts who still believe economic prosperity has led to a more liberated China. Instead, China has been emboldened to infringe on the rights of its own people at home and abroad, cracking down on burgeoning civil society and activists, and undermining international human rights institutions as a means of subjugating its people under its control."

Tiananmen Square 30 Year Anniversary Student Protests
A dissident student asks soldiers to go back home as crowds flooded into the central Beijing on June 3, 1989. On the night of June 3 - 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square sheltered the last pro-democracy supporters as Chinese troops marched on the square to end a weeks-long occupation by student protestors, using lethal force to remove opposition it encountered along the way. Hundreds of demonstrators were killed in the crackdown as tanks rolled into the environs of the square. AFP / Getty Images/Catherine Henriette

In 2019, the CCP undertook a major overhaul of the central government, creating a new government body called the National Supervisory Commission. According to Human Rights Watch, it is empowered to "detain incommunicado anyone exercising public authority for up to six months without fair trial procedures."

It also stepped up abuses against Turkic Muslims in the country's northwestern Xinjiang region. This includes detention, torture and mistreatment. Human Rights Watch also notes that there are new regulations in Tibet that criminalize traditional forms of social action, even "community mediation."

The government also controls the internet, mass media and academia, and have downplayed the actions that took place in Tiananmen Square in 1989. This includes the death toll and blocking its mention on the internet. It is also reported that the government has ordered blockades around Tiananmen Square during the time of the 30th anniversary.

Students China Communist Party
College students wave national flags as they watch the opening of the 19th Communist Party Congress in Huaibei in China's eastern Anhui province on October 18, 2017. Named the "iPhone Generation", students in China have not followed in the footsteps of their predecessors in the 1980s. STR/AFP/Getty Images

"China's GDP per capita in 2017 was 28 times larger than it was in 1989; that economic growth has led to massive poverty alleviation, and, in its place, much greater opportunities for ordinary Chinese," Hall told Newsweek.

"Life is simply better at every stage of the life cycle: Infant mortality has plummeted, more educational opportunities are available (last year, for example, there were 363,341 Chinese students studying abroad in the United States), there are more jobs today that are more dynamic and fulfilling, and people are living longer and healthier lives.

"These successes have come at the cost of continued authoritarianism, and it is ultimately impossible to know what the public feels about that trade-off. I worry that the term 'human rights' conflates the system as a whole—one that has arguably shown some results from a developmental perspective—and the more egregious excesses: the mass incarceration of Uyghurs [Muslims] is particularly troubling to me," Hall said.

Tiananmen Square 30 Year Anniversary May 1989
Raising a banner which reads "Lift Martial Law and Protect the Capital", journalists from the Communist party's official newspaper, the "People's Daily" lead a march towards Tiananmen Square May 22, 1989, in an authorized demonstration in support of pro-democracy students. In a show of force on June 4, China leaders vented their fury and frustration on student dissidents and their pro-democracy supporters. Several hundred people have been killed and thousands wounded when soldiers moved on Tiananmen Square during a violent military crackdown ending six weeks of student demonstrations. AFP / Getty Images/Catherine Henriette

Angellica Aribam, an Indian political activist, lived in China for a year and studied at Peking University, which she describes as the hub of Tiananmen activities in 1989. However, now the students are the polar opposite of the demonstrators in the 1980s.

"The youth is more interested in having a good life and going abroad," Aribam told Newsweek. "They feel the government has done a lot in improving the standard of living for the Chinese citizenry. There is an absolute lack of political consciousness amongst the youth. The older generation calls them the iPhone generation because of their nonchalance towards the interest of the country.

"However, the older generation, people who were in their teens-twenties during the Tiananmen movement, still harbor the hope of democracy. This older generation often talk about the hardships they endured, the stories of unfortunate incident, how they mobilized youth during those days. All in the hope that the youth would take interest. Perhaps the silver lining in a rather disappointing scenario," Aribam said.