1989, a ripple effect from Tiananmen to Checkpoint Charlie?

Foreign Policy offers an interesting if somewhat debatable book excerpt on the role the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations played in influencing soon-to-follow demonstrations in Europe, where less than six months after the crackdown in Beijing the Berlin Wall would crack as well, realigning the world’s long-entrenched geo-political structures in ways that we still can’t completley comprehend even today. The dust of the ripped-down wall, like that of the World Trade Center, has yet to fully settle.

In the eyes of the author, Chen Jian, the Michael J. Zak Chair of history for U.S.-China relations at Cornell University, the fact that the world’s foreign correspondents had congregated at the Square in May 1989 for Gorbachev’s visit helped ensure the students’ story would spread to all corners of Europe.

The events of Tiananmen Square shocked the whole world. Ironically, it was the rapprochement between Beijing and Moscow that exposed the crackdown to a global audience, as hundreds of journalists and cameramen who reported on Gorbachev’s visit stayed to cover the students’ demonstrations….

The effects of the Tiananmen tragedy ricocheted throughout the entire communist bloc, especially in the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc countries of Eastern Europe. In Moscow, Gorbachev, in spite of his disapproval of the CCP leadership’s behavior, tried to avoid criticizing Beijing directly (though the impact of the Tiananmen crackdown indirectly restricted his ability to influence and control developments in the Soviet Union, and he was even less willing and likely to resort to force in dealing with activities related to the disintegration of the Soviet Union).

In almost every East European country, the pro-democracy movements grew rapidly in the following summer and fall of 1989. These opposition movements took the opportunity of international Communism’s deepened legitimacy crisis to wage new offensives against the Communist authorities in their own countries. The Communist leaderships were all facing difficult dilemmas — they could neither afford to take a totally defensive attitude toward the pro-democracy movements nor dare resort to violent means.

During the following summer and fall, Eastern Europe experienced great unrest, eroding the political foundation and undermining legitimacy of every Communist regime there, culminating on Nov. 9 and 10, 1989. In Germany, the uprising masses brought down the Berlin Wall and with it the symbolic divide between the East and the West. By December — with the execution of Romania’s Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu — the communist bloc in East Europe had virtually collapsed.

Somehow, the Chinese Communist regime survived the shock waves of 1989. After a three-year period of stagnation, Deng used a dramatic tour of southern China in the spring of 1992 to regenerate the “reform and opening-up” project, initiated by Deng and the CCP leadership in the late 1970s. What has followed, as is well known today, is China’s rapid economic growth — despite continuous stagnation in the country’s political democratization — in the last decade of the 20th century and entering the 21st century.

The argument – that the TSM exacerbated the fissures that ultimately pushed the Soviet Bloc past the breaking point – isn’t easy to prove. Those fissures had been building for decades, and I believe that had their been no demonstrations in China in 1989, the Wall would still have fallen and the USSR would still have disintegrated. China’s political-economic fissures were worlds apart from Russia’s, and I’m afraid any effort to compare them has to be somewhat contrived.

Nothing could have stopped the fall of the USSR — except perhaps if there’d been a madman running the show and not Gorbachev, one of my personal heroes and the man who made the extraordinary decision – unbelievable, really – not to order the shooting of the demonstrators who stormed Checkpoint Charlie in 1989. Would that Deng had shown similar restraint (like, say, using tear gas and rubber bullets), maybe he, too, would enjoy Gorbachev-like status. His legacy is great; a pity about that one bright shining stain.

The Discussion: 23 Comments

Is Gorbachev A Hero? Gorbachev Is The Biggest Criminal Against the Russian People

Gorbachev destroyed his party, destroyed the Soviet Army, destroyed the USSR, destroyed the country’s own Great Wall, destroyed the country’s hope and strengths, capitulated to the West, and caused untold disasters to the Russian people. Russia’s annual GDP fell from world’s 2nd to the world’s 18th. Total economic losses surpassed what USSR suffered in WW2, surpassed what China suffered in the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. In the 10 years since USSR fell, life expectancy of a Rusisan male went down by 10 years. The Red Army that once pushed the Nazis all the way to Berlin, was unable to handle a few Chechen rebels. It is not hard to understand why Putin, who is despised by the West, is so popular in Russia. The entire Russian nation and society was broken down. No one knew what was good for the country, everyone was confused, the entire country was braindead for 10 years. Fortunately, Putin came to power and started turning things around, and saved the collapsing Russian empire at the last minute. In 8 years since he came to power, Russia went back from 18th in the world to 11th, reclaimed Chechnya. Putin promised the Russian people that, with another 8 years, Russia will return to 6th. Putin not only saved Russia materially, but spiritually as well. Recently, Putin announced formally that in the 70 years of Russian history, the greatest leader was Stalin, and this was consistent with polls done amongst the Russian population.

Without civil war, without external war, without even any sudden mass incidents, one of the two greatest superpowers in the world collapsed within minutes. This has never been witnessed in the last 500 years of human history. Of course, the “correct answer” today is that the Soviet political system was at fault, not Gorbachev. I of course disagree. North Korea, Vietnam, Cuba’s political system is not better than the Soviets, yet none of them has collapsed today. Not to mention Nepal’s Maoist rebels just won a victory recently, and established another red regime in the world. If China today gave power to a Gorbachev, the consequences are unimaginable. USSR was one of the two superpowers, and it had enough of an economic base, so even after it collapsed, it stil had an average of 3000 dollars of annual income for its citizens. China today is a poor third world nation, with average personal income of 1000 per year. If a Gorbachev rose in China, and China collapses, it’ll be the biggest tragedy to ever befall the Chinese nation. The rennasance of the Chinese nation will no longer be possible. It’ll instead be a picture of mass killings, blood overflowing into rivers. China definitely cannot afford a Gorbachev, cannot afford a Gorbachev-style democratization, a Gorbachev-style General

Now, let me ask those who think Gorbachev is a hero. Do you think a leader should send the ball into his own team’s goal? Do you wish China to have someone like Gorbachev and set China back another 50 years?

Of course I know Taiwan Separatists love that. If you read Lee Tung Hui’s book (former Taiwainese President) he makes it clear that China should be split into 8 different countries.

In fact, to judge whether someone is a hero, there are several standards:

1) If that person thinks he’s a hero himself. Well according to Gorbachev today, he admits in his book that he thinks he was fooled back then, and that he regret to have started the whole “glasnost” movement, or at least not in such a great rush, that led to the split of the USSR.

2) If the people of a country (in this case, Russia) thinks he’s a hero. Well it’s obvious today that Russians have completely abandoned Gorbachev. Otherwise, why didn’t they elect him to be the President of Russia rather than Putin (Putin looks a lot “iron-fist”-like, which is exactly the opposite of Gorbachev). Most Russians like Putin, and a lot of them like Yeltsin, but very few Russians like Gorbachev.

My honest opinion is that those so called Rightists on the Internet who praise Gorbachev, their intention is to collapse the Communist regime, to completely change China’s constitution. So if they get arrested and executed in China, I think they have no one to blame but themselves.

November 10, 2009 @ 10:48 am | Comment

Gorbachev knew the game was up. It takes true leadership and maturity to know that change is imminent, and that any attempt to fight it would only lead to needless death and destruction.

As I said, you can’t compare the TS demonstrations with Eastern Europe’s – at least not tidily. China had sounder economic foundations, and that was a decisive factor, and the sole factor that allowed Deng to shift the Chinese psyche away from the ghost of Tiananmen to focus instead on the new dream, to become rich.

November 10, 2009 @ 10:53 am | Comment

The Germans think Gorbachev is a hero. If it hadn’t been for his calmness, many many Germans would have lost their lives that night and even more would have been comdamned to continue living under this despisable regime.
It’s outright ridiculous to blame Gorbachev for the economic losses that followed the decline of the USSR. Following your logic, Germans should really hate the Allies since they brought down the flourishing Nazi-economy. In fact, we don’t hat them because we know what we have gained and that we had to pay a price to ultimately get peace, freedom and democracy. What went wrong in Russia is not Glasnost or the fall of the USSR, but that someone like Putin could come to power and stay there at his will, thereby destroying all changes of peaceful and just recovery. Russia might have made up some places in a ranking, but don’t tell me Russians are satisfied with the way things are going in their country.

November 10, 2009 @ 6:16 pm | Comment

I think there are quite a few people in the former Warsaw Pact countries, maybe even in some former SSRs, who think Gorbachev is a hero. It’s a bit strange to argue that Gorbachev should be despised because he did away with Russia’s colonial empire.

November 10, 2009 @ 11:29 pm | Comment

USSR’s empire went on the start of the slope of descent during the economic stagnation during mid 1970’s to mid 1980’s. Gorbachev’s Perestroika in failures in economic and political changes made sure that USSR empire went down.

Deng’s reform which started in 1978 was more gradual compared to USSR in terms of political and economic change. The adverse effects of economic and political reforms was the cause of the TSM 1989 incident and Deng was able to control it.

November 11, 2009 @ 6:47 am | Comment

Deng did not “control” the demonstrations – he crushed them because his attempts at control failed historically. He later controlled public opinion about the “incident” by making it glorious to get rich.

November 11, 2009 @ 6:51 am | Comment

I remember the last time Gorbachev stood for election in Russia. He got less than one percent of the votes.

The connection between TAM and the fall of Berlin wall was very tangential. The Soviet block
at that time had little interest in China, which was viewed as a US ally. This author is talking nonsense.

November 11, 2009 @ 9:30 am | Comment

I don’t want to be rude, but this Math person seems to have his responses prepared on a Rolodex or something. And I’ve never seen him make a response to anyone.

Is Math a robot?

November 11, 2009 @ 10:43 am | Comment

Yes, Math is a robot. He redefines the concept of Artificial Intelligence.

Who else but Math could refer to the Berlin Wall as the USSR’s “Great Wall”?

November 11, 2009 @ 10:54 am | Comment

Richard you are mentioned on Politico today


November 11, 2009 @ 1:47 pm | Comment

“not to order the shooting of the demonstrators who stormed Checkpoint Charlie in 1989”

Are you sure that all of those demonstrators were aggrieved DDR citizens? Are you sure that none of them were assigned by Gorbachev and Stasi bureaucrats, to do that task?

November 11, 2009 @ 10:32 pm | Comment

I was referring to the West Germans who walked through the wall. If the East Germans who did likewise were Stasi bureaucrats, it’s news to me though it’s not inconceivable.

Michael, thanks, I saw that – odd that they quoted “a recent post” of mine from last March. I was quite surprised at the mention.

November 11, 2009 @ 10:38 pm | Comment

I was in Berlin about a month ago and visited an interesting open-air exhibition in Alexander Platz about the political/economic developments and protests in East Germany leading up to the fall of the wall. Just to let you know that there was a section about Tiananmen and East German protestors’ solidarity for the Chinese students at the time. So I guess it is part of the story in some way.

November 12, 2009 @ 2:59 am | Comment


Finding beauty in chaos…

November 12, 2009 @ 4:36 am | Comment

mei mei to math: “Following your logic, Germans should really hate the Allies since they brought down the flourishing Nazi-economy.”

That IS definitely math’s logic, and you may be surprised to know that A LOT of Chinese people are convinced that it is ok to brutalize and dehumanize their own people during peace times, for god knows what excuses!!

November 12, 2009 @ 8:40 am | Comment

@ mei mei

“If it hadn’t been for his calmness, many many Germans would have lost their lives that night”

This is a point that has been largely overlooked by analysts: whether by accident or design, Berlin ’89 had the potential to be Communist Europe’s own Tiananmen. Instead it is rightly commemorated with overwhelming fondness as a time of momentous and positive change. This stands in stark contrast to the handling and subsequent remembrance (a wholly inappropriate term) of Beijing ’89 by China.

On a related note, as the news reflects on hands of friendship extending from both sides of the wall 20 years ago, it is difficult to imagine the people of Taiwan reaching out for reunification with such alacrity. This is something that China either doesn’t get, or fails to acknowledge as relevant: the will of people to decide how – and by whom – they wish to be governed.

November 12, 2009 @ 2:05 pm | Comment

It’s one thing to know that “the game was up” (very apt choice of phrase from Richard in comment #2). Letting Germany reunite, or letting the Baltic states leave the (Soviet) Union — that’s just recognizing reality.

But it’s quite another thing to lie down and let everyone walk all over you. Permitting German reunification was fine and well, but it should’ve been accompanied by Germany neutrality, or at the very least, security guarantees from NATO. By his inaction, Gorbachev negated centuries of Russian strategic doctrine. Today, NATO is right up to Russia’s borders.

Compare what Gorbachev did in 1989 to what Ataturk did in 1919. If anything, Ataturk was dealt an even worse hand than Gorbachev. Turkey had just lost a war — a real war, not a Cold War. All of its Allies had been defeated — Austria-Hungary had been carved into pieces, and even Germany had had to agree to humiliating conditions at Versailles.

The Treaty of Sevres envisioned handing over most of European Turkey to Greece, turning Istanbul into a free port, internationalizing the Dardanelles, and handing over large chunks of Anatolia as Franco/British/Italian spheres of influence.

Ataturk wasn’t going to have any of it. He was willing to give up Arabia, but he drew the line there. Three years later, he got exactly what he wanted. All the other territorial adjustments were cancelled in the Treaty of Lausanne.

The mark of a leader is the ability to play much better than the cards you were dealt. It’s no surprise that Ataturk is celebrated as the father of his country — from the depths of defeat, he recovered dignity. Gorbachev did the opposite, and is reviled in Russia today.humiliation.

November 12, 2009 @ 11:53 pm | Comment

Hi Richard – Thanks for the interesting post. Back in March, I attended the Oslo Freedom Forum, a global gathering of human rights defenders, and had the chance to meet Emil Constantinescu, the former president of Romania, who spoke very passionately about how the Tiananmen Square protesters had inspired him to redouble his efforts to push for democracy there. While I think the TSM wasn’t the sole reason why Communism fell in Europe, I do think that those images splashed across TV did provide a precipitating spark that inspired a generation of reformers. It’s amazing to me that 20 years later in China, the CCP seems stronger than ever. Anyway, I’m a big fan of your blog, and hope you’ll consider reading ours as well – it’s at http://www.laogai.org. Nicole Kempton, Washington Director, Laogai Research Foundation

November 14, 2009 @ 5:01 am | Comment

Thanks Nicole, I’ve visited your site many times. I agree that the events in TS inspired Eastern Europe, even if TS wasn’t the primary catalyst.

November 14, 2009 @ 10:59 am | Comment

One year before the fall of the wall I traveled by car with my work colleges from Nüremberg to Berlin. It was an experience!

My (west) German colleges warned us not to stop in the DDR, not even for tanking. Never exceed the speed limit (100 km/h if I remember well) and don’t talk with anybody on the way. It sounded scary but we decided to make the trip.

And off we went. First thing we met as we got closer to the border, was the German Federal Republic border control. Placed on a bucolic scenery, surrounded by green pastures and small forests. Just a small cabin with two border guards that didn’t pay much attention to us as we drove by.

Was this the fabled entry to the DDR? I thought, it look quite normal.

An uphill and downhill later….

We started to see fences, barb wired, menace looking casemates. More and more of them. As we approached the border control it looked more like an scene taken out of the scariest spy movie. Heavy controls, border guards all over the place.

We have to stop our car, wait on the line until we reached the first control. Give all our documentation, passports and car documetns. Declare any weapon we had inside the car.
I had a boomerang, so I declared it… just in case.

Once done, drive to the next control post 100 meter beyond. Our documents? Transfered by a conveyor belt from one side to the other. Road signs advised us to drive not faster than 5 km/h. My car pedometer could only indicate 10 km/h min speed!

The atmosphere was incredible stressful. It looked like an image from a nightmare. I got really nervous for a moment.

After all check were done, and being requested to buy a minimum amount of DDR marks we drove on.
(Very funny money. I liked it. All coins were made of Aluminium, and all bills same side an very small. As worth as Micky Mouse money outside the DDR, and not much more inside, but still very intelligent design. You could pack a lot of bills on your wallet, and the coins were very light, didn’t rip your pocket no matter how many you collected)

Nightfall already as we drove through the autobahn. Its surface was so damaged that it seemed that the last maintenance works were done in Mr Hitler’s time. I had to keep changing from one line to the other. If I tried to keep driving on the damaged side for too long my cars started to rumble too much.

Very very few cars on the way, a trabant here and there. Tank stations looked shabby and were completely empty.
Fortunately to need to stop, I could get more that 800km out of my car with just one fill.

One thing we noticed few distance after the border. Fetid air, for kilometers and kilometers. Smell like several pulp factories where on the area.

There were also few lights, like if all towns were hidden or without lights.

And…every 10 to 20 kilometers, we could see a big board telling us.


Funny, they keep drilling that on and on. Making a point about who owned Berlin..

Funny thing about these big boards and other traffic signals along the autobahn.They were difficult to see in the dark. No reflective paint. I had to put long lights and orient the car lights towards them to be able to read anything clearly.

After several more kilometers, we noticed yet something very strange. The distance to Berlin kept reducing very slowly. How long are the kilometers here? Definitely much longer than in West Germany.

Was it done on purpose?

After a long and dark travel we reached Berlin. Crossed the border, entered in the “American Sector” and drove to our rented rooms in a nice old house close. A former villa, reconstructed maybe, which rooms has been transformed in lodgings for tourist… with exceedingly high ceilings.

The Next day, on to checkpoint Charlie to visit East Berlin. An interesting experience too. Curious to see the wall from both sides…

I could tell more about that visit, but don’t want to beat Math posts length record.

November 15, 2009 @ 7:44 am | Comment

During the 80s I actively tunned short wave radio transmissions from East Europe, sometimes even from China.

The radio programs were In Spanish. A lot of those programs were directed to Latin America so I profited from it in Spain.

After sometime I could easily identify the country just for the way they reported news. Each one had an specific world view, of the so called socialist world but with each with its special variations. Russia, its allies and Tito’s Yugoslavia.
(Ceauşescu’s Rumania was sometimes as independently/revisionist minded as Yugoslavia)

I remember one day I was able to tune an station, also transmitting in Spanish. Definitely on the other side of the iron or bamboo curtain, but they were saying strange things. They have an strange world view. Difficult to identify them.

After some time they revealed themselves. Albania! Enver Hoxha’s Albania! One of the most closed regimes in East Europe.
Afterwards I used to tune then regularly. Very punctual, always on air at 12:00AM

Today, they do not longer transmit….

I always thought that North Korea regime would go into the dustbin of history sooner than Albania.
(In the 80s South Korean electronic products started to arrive in Europe. Still very much unknown but very well designed. Got a small TV in Germany that worked for long years, and had some advance features for the time. Samsung TV forefather?)

But going back to Albania and NK. I didn’t counted on China at that time.

Now I realize myself. What would be worst for the CCP regime than a reunification of NK and SK like in Germany? Too much of a pressure for the CCP regime, and too close to their borders. There was not interest then for that to happen, and even with all what that happened in the last 20 year, not interest whatsoever for that to happen today.

So better for them to prop up that regime, no matter what and no matter the suffering of NK people and the division of its people and families for years without end.

November 15, 2009 @ 8:13 am | Comment

I wonder sometimes what could had happened if the TIA incident had happened after the fall of the wall and not before.

I also remember, as I saw the images of the crackdown on TV. Man! They do not have any right anti-riot police.

It was something of the mythology of the leftist here. Anti-riot police? On a worker’s state? Than only happens on oppressive capitalist societies.

So they used tanks….

Things improved a bit lately nonetheless. Now there is anti-riot police. Tanks not needed, only for parades….. or in a real worst case scenario.

I may be a little unjust in the last lines, but I do not forget what I have seen with my own eyes, hear with my own ears and touched with my own hands.

Maybe I am getting inflexible with age.

November 15, 2009 @ 8:24 am | Comment

ecodelta — Fascinating recollections.

The East German autobahns were essentially not maintained at all. Why bother with the meticulous upkeep for high-speed automobiles when the pavement is perfectly adequate for the occasional lorry and for tractors around harvest season? It’s the same policy that has has been applied to large portions of America’s railway system.

About those riot police — you may be onto something there. Just one day prior, troops had attempted to use tear gas to disperse the crowd, but they were outnumbered and disorganized, and retreated. A “Western defense official” was even quoted saying, “What the hell did they expect? If they send soldiers in unarmed and unprepared, the students are going to block them.” (!!!) (LA Times, subtract one day.)

One month later, Li Peng was reported to have said that there was a shortage of tear gas, no rubber bullets at all, and no high-pressure hydrants in the vicinity. (New York Times, July 3.) Also, if you believe that the T Papers are real, the troops were ordered to clear the Square peacefully. Kristof says he witnessed, the morning afterwards, officers ordering their men to fire into the streets. Could blame really be laid on some heavy-handed officers?

Who knows? The result was bloodshed, and that’s what went into the history books. Extenuating circumstances don’t get remembered (Boston Massacre). Forcing the general to resign isn’t enough (Amritsar). Once blood has been spilled, that’s all that matters. The details fall by the wayside.

November 16, 2009 @ 9:36 am | Comment

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.