There were many factors that led to the Tiananmen Square protest in 1989, but a number of these causes can be traced back a decade prior to Deng Xiao Ping’s 1979 “opening” of China to major economic reforms.
In that era, a nation that had lived under Maoism and most recently, the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, suddenly experienced a taste of greater freedom. The Chinese Press began to report on issues they had never been able to cover before, students debated politics on college campuses and on the “Democracy Wall” – a long brick wall in Beijing where people posted political writings from 1978-1979.
Growing Economic Prosperity
The growing economic prosperity also meant increasing commercialism. Many business leaders willingly complied with Deng Xiao Ping’s famed expression, “To get rich is glorious.” In the countryside, decollectivization, which shifted farming practices from traditional communes to individual families, brought greater productivity – but it also contributed to an increasing gap between the rich and the poor.
High inflation levels also aggravated agricultural problems, China expert Lucian Pye has said that inflation, which was as high as 28%, led the government to give peasants IOUs instead of cash for grain. Elites and students may have thrived in this environment of increased market forces, but that wasn’t always the case for peasants and laborers.
By the late 1980s, many segments of society were frustrated with the corruption of the party leadership. Many party leaders, and their children, were vested in the joint-ventures that China had brokered with foreign companies. To many in the general public, it just seemed as if the powerful were only getting more powerful.
Death of Hu Yaobang
One of the few leaders who was viewed as incorruptible was Hu Yaobang. So when Hu died in April 1989, the mourning and subsequent protest against the government was genuine.
The protests by the students grew, but with increasing numbers came increasing disorganization. In many ways the student leadership mirrored the party it was bent on criticizing. Hardliner student leaders refused to negotiate and some moderates went back to school. At the same time, many segments of society that had experienced such disparity in the Cultural Revolution and earlier CCP policies, finally had a forum to vent their frustrations. Workers and peasants began to come to Tiananmen Square, which further concerned the Party leadership. Faced with the fear that the protest could escalate into revolution, the party cracked down.
Western media coverage often painted the protests too simplistically, as a cry for democracy against a Communist regime. Additionally, the students, who had grown up believing that the only protest that existed was a revolutionary one – via Party propaganda of their own revolution – saw their demonstration the same way.
In the end, though many of the elite youth protestors were arrested, still more ordinary citizens and workers were killed. In many ways, the students were bent on protecting the values they held dear -- a free press, free speech, the chance to get wealthy -- while the workers or farmers still remained disenfranchised and without a support system.