China Under Deng Xiaoping, Political Changes And Their Limits, Culminating In The Demonstrations In Tiananmen Square

2.3.1 Political Changes and their Limits

Political Changes 

  • With economic development came a wish for political change
  • Political opinions where expressed which varied from those previously
  • The economic changes led to conflicts within the Party
  • There were three main power bases which were Deng (pragmatists), Hua and Ye (military leader and the balancer)
  • The leftist members worried that China's socialist goals would be lost by the new economic changes and the trade with the West
  • The difficulty of the leadership was to keep their own culture while taking on board Western technology and managerial methods
  • Deng made it clear that China would remain socialist even though some of the new policies allowed more freedom, China was certainly not capitalist, instead Deng described it as a Chinese-style socialism
  • China was going through a time of relative freedom
  • Many of those who had been sent to prison or to the country side during the Cultural Revolution where freed 
  • Deng was rehabilitated and so were a number of Party Officials
  • On a brick wall in Beijing in 1978 posters and characters were put up
  • This wall became known as the Democracy Wall
  • It became a place where people took up the government's movement to "seek truth from facts", expressing their opinion 
  • These people were former Red Guards and people who had missed out on education due to the Cultural Revolution 
  • Their militant expertise meant that they had good skills in organisation and collaboration which made the movement gain support and gave a voice to those that had been repressed during the Cultural Revolution 
  • They criticised Mao and the Gang of Four
  • Deng supported this criticism as it came at a time when there was conflict within the Party
  • Deng saw these people as potential allies for his principles 

Pro-democracy Groups

  • In 1978 and 1979 many pro-democratic supporters published pamphlets and started underground magazines in which they put forward the need for reform in the country
  • They wanted freedom and political self-determination
  • They spoke about human rights which had previously been taboo in China
  • The most famous of the pamphlets was the Fifth Modernisation by Wei Jingsheng 
  • The Fifth Modernisation which Wei thought was vital was democracy
  • Wei criticised Deng in articles and stated that Deng was becoming a fascist dictator 
  • Wei was arrested in March 1979 and was later sentenced to 15 year imprisonment for treason
  • This was a warning for all other pro-democracy groups
  • The wall was closed down in December and it became illegal to put up posters
  • The pro-democracy groups were once again suppressed but they would resurface from time to time

China Opening Up

  • Deng at the time was looking to increase his power within the politburo and the Central Committee 
  • His focus was on economic growth and the Four Modernizations 
  • He spent much of his time abroad trying to find new markets and aligning China with developing countries
  • Japan was China's main investor and the US was starting to increase its investment in China as well
  • China was starting to open up to the outside world


  • In the 1980's there were disagreements between the Party and the government due to contradictions
  • Political liberalisation was supported however there was no place for bourgeois values
  • The government allowed more freedom within the media
  • Stories could be published which portrayed the negative aspects of Chinese life
  • Many Party members criticised the corruption that was taking place within the Party however maintained that they were loyal to the Party

Student Demonstrations

  • In 1986 there were demonstrations that encouraged students to get involved in local government
  • The demonstrators were also looking for improved living conditions and more freedom 
  • The government sought to disperse the demonstrations instead of arresting people
  • In 1987 Hu Yaobang who was the General secretary of the Part and had been an advocate for political liberalisation resigned from his post as he declared that he had made uncorrectable mistakes 
  • The students demonstrations were not joined by workers and so when exams came around the demonstrations faded 
  • Deng was starting to worry about another power struggle within the Party, he was getting old but had no intentions of handing over his leadership 

2.3.2 Tiananmen Square 1989

  • Hu died in April 1989 and this lead to a number of rallies
  • These rallies where mainly in Beijing and Shanghai 
  • They were in favour of social change 
  • All kinds of people joined in and this led to demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in front of the Communist Party headquarters
  • Zhao Ziyang who was Hu's successor tried to prevent violence from the governments side by working with the pro-democracy groups
  • However this did not work as the demonstrators went on a hunger strike and created the Goddess of Democracy as symbol for their movement
  • More and more of the population started to take sides with the demonstrators
  • Martial law was announced but not carried out
  • In Beijing the people were disarming the PLA as the soldiers were sympathetic and did not want to cause violence
  • The government tried to wait out the demonstration
  • At the time Gorbachev was visiting China and so the media was there to cover his visit, this made the demonstrations public to the world
  • Deng then ordered the military to take all necessary measures to seize control of the square
  • Troops and tanks were sent to the square on the 3rd and 4th of June 1989
  • They were ordered to end the demonstrators by clearing the square and arresting those who protested 
  • Some demonstrators tried to fight back and the ones who remained in the square were shot 
  • Hundreds of demonstrators were killed although the government denied killing any civilians 
  • The problem was that the demonstrators had not stated any clear objectives and had no real leadership
  • They desired freedom and the Party to reform however they were unsure of what else they desired
  • Zhao was then replaced by Jiang Zemin who was loyal to Deng
  • Deng gave up his position as chair of the Central Military Commission in 1989 but remained as the leader for Chinese policies until his death in 1997
  • The outside world had supported the demonstrators and China was put forward as a human rights abuser by organisations such as Amnesty International 
  • However democratic countries kept trading with China