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Tiananmen Square 25 Years Later

Has Anything Changed in China?


A quarter of a century has passed since the student-led demonstrations occurred in Tiananmen Square in Beijing that came to a head on June 4, 1989. The resulting massacre is forever etched in history as the government’s response to the largest movement against corruption, nepotism, and censorship in China. At the 25-year anniversary of Tiananmen Square, the question is, have any real changes occurred in China?

I would argue that the answer is no, at least in terms of real, substantial change regarding governance, politics, and censorship.

Anyone who has visited China or read about the country’s meteoric economic progress over the past decade may be inclined to argue otherwise. It is certainly true that the China of today is vastly different from that of 25 years ago. China has experienced roughly 10 percent annual GDP growth over the past two decades, is currently ranked third in the world by number of millionaires, and made 29 percent of the global purchases in luxury goods in 2013.

I believe that these numbers are a representation of the superficial changes that have occurred in China and do not characterize the true progress the demonstrators in Tiananmen Square had hoped for. Chinese families are wealthier than they were 25 years ago, close to 50 percent of the population now have access to the Internet, and approximately 15 percent of the Chinese population owns a car. It is important, however, to distinguish financial progress from social progress.

Censorship, corruption, and nepotism remain pervasive problems in China. Among the numerous websites that are banned in China, social media such as Facebook and Twitter remain inaccessible to Chinese users. Though Chinese versions of both have emerged (RenRen and Weibo, respectively), Chinese users remain cut off from the rest of the world.

Citizens who find more public ways to speak out against the government often find themselves and their families in danger. Liu Xiaobo, Nobel Peace laureate of 2010, is currently serving an 11-year sentence for advocating freedom of speech and press in China.

Similarly, little headway has been made in terms of corruption within China. The Bo Xilai scandal showcased that political corruption and bribery remain rampant in the Chinese political sphere. (That case unraveled the tangled tale of Bo’s wife, accused of killing a British businessman, and the resulting cover-up and Bo’s conviction for bribery, embezzlement, and abuse of power.) The current and ongoing anti-corruption campaign headed by the Chinese government has been considered by some as a method to remove political rivals against the current administration.

Going hand in hand with corruption is nepotism, or in Chinese guanxi, which literally means “connections.” Being well connected and using one’s connections is a way of life in China. People use their connections anywhere from getting their child into the right high school or college to landing a job. Studies have shown guanxi is essential to conducting business in China.

So has anything really changed 25 years after the Tiananmen Square massacre? On the surface, a definitive yes. At the root of it all? No.

China has not moved any closer to the type of society that so many people gave their lives for.

A million people gathered at Tiananmen to protest against the government’s use of censorship, corruption, and nepotism. Twenty-five years later, real change remains elusive.

Born in Harbin, China, Xueying Han moved to the U.S. with her parents when she was 6. With degrees in Applied Statistics, and Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology, she is currently a post-doc at the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at UCSB.

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