What were the Four Modernizations? What happened at Tiananmen Square, and how was it connected to what was happening in China in the 1980s?

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China under Communist Party revolutionary leader Mao Zedong was devastated by political purges and ill-considered economic policies that led to millions of deaths by starvation. A country or enormous size and resources continued to lag well-behind the industrialized nations of Europe and North America and was even falling behind the neighboring Soviet Union, its fellow Communist “worker’s state.” Mao’s death precipitated a brief but intense struggle for power between the deceased revolutionary’s most ardent and orthodox followers and those who sought a more pragmatic and less brutal environment in which to grow the nation’s economy. The former, known as “the Gang of Four,” failed in their attempt at succeeding Mao and continuing his practice of emphasizing agrarian policies and extremely repressive political campaigns aimed at targeting anyone suspected of insufficient fealty to Mao’s legacy. Triumphant was the reform-minded Party members led by Deng Xiaoping, who emerged atop the political system in 1978.

New Communist Party leader Deng wasted no time setting China on a radically different path than that pursued by his predecessor, Mao. Deng established the political and economic system that exists today—a system that emphasizes economic growth while ensuring the continued survival of Communist Party supremacy. In short, economic liberalization would be the path to the future, but political dominance by the communists would continue. Ideological orthodoxy was subordinated to economic (and, later, military) growth, a strong economy being the sine qua non of a modernized military capable of protecting against the Soviet Union while expanding Chinese influence throughout Asia.

Deng was a very different leader than Mao. Where the latter never wavered from his commitment to agrarian and peasant imagery and the repeated and protracted campaigns intended to root out remnants of opposition to his policies, Deng openly proclaimed the wisdom of making money and modernizing Chinese society. This is where the “Four Modernizations” comes into play. A policy emphasizing modernization of four key sectors of the economy (agriculture, industry, defense, and science and technology) preceded Mao’s death and Deng’s rise to power but was never realized due to Mao’s repeated practice of destabilizing and weakening his own country. Mao’s death and the defeat of the Gang of Four enabled the emergence of those who had discreetly and/or surreptitiously disagreed with the dictator’s policies, including Mao’s long-time compatriot Zhou Enlai, often credited as the original father of the Four Modernizations.

Tiananmen Square is a historically important location in Beijing, China’s capital. Situated in the center of the city and named for “the Gate of Heavenly Peace,” it is a highly symbolic location for any kind of political demonstration. In the late 1980s, Deng’s policies had the unfortunate (from the Communist Party’s perspective) effect of leading the population to believe that economic freedom meant political freedom. In mid-April 1989, large gatherings in the Square, led by students, formed to push for increased political freedom. In the following months, a stand-off developed between the protestors and the authorities, with the latter uncertain how to respond. The primacy of Communist Party control usurps any other consideration to most Party leaders and the protests represented a direct affront to their authority and to the system they represented. Yet some of the leaders opposed measures to forcibly suppress demonstrations that had captured the attention of much of the world. Ultimately, as we know, the priority of repression and unquestioned Party rule triumphed with the army’s violent suppression of the protests. The lessons for the Chinese government were that too much liberalization on the economic front galvanizes calls for increased liberalization on the political front. Current leader Xi Jinping learned that lesson and has emphasized Party supremacy and the rise of China as a military and political rival to the United States.

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