June 17, 2024
Decades of Being Wrong About China Should Teach Us Something
As a final act of protest, students erected a statue called the Goddess of Democracy in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989.
As a final act of protest, students erected a statue called the Goddess of Democracy in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Thirty years ago this week, I watched the news from Beijing and started shredding my bedding. It was the night before my college graduation, I had been studying Chinese politics, and news had broken that college students just like us had been gunned down in Tiananmen Square after weeks of peaceful and exhilarating democracy protests—carried on international TV. In the iconic square where Mao Zedong had proclaimed the People’s Republic decades before, bespectacled students from China’s best universities had camped out, putting up posters with slogans of freedom in Chinese and English. A “goddess of democracy” figure modeled after the Statue of Liberty embodied their hopes—and ours—for political liberation in China.

On my campus back then were just a handful of students majoring in East Asian studies. Learning of the brutal crackdown in Beijing, we somehow found one another, gathered our friends, and stayed up making hundreds of white armbands for classmates to wear at commencement the next day. Grappling with the cold realities of the “real world” we were about to enter, we didn’t know what else to do. So we tore sheets and cried for what might have been.

The June 4, 1989, massacre was a horrifying spectacle that the Chinese government has sought to erase from national memory ever since. But, 30 years later, contemplating what might have been is more important than ever. In hindsight, Tiananmen Square serves as a continuing reminder about just how much China has defied, and continues to defy, the odds and predictions of experts. The fact is that generations of American policy makers, political scientists, and economists have gotten China wrong more often than they’ve gotten China right. In domestic politics, economic development, and foreign policy, China has charted a surprising path that flies in the face of professional prognostications, general theories about anything, and the experience of other nations.