As we know, the Communist Party survived intact. And it has done so, remarkably, without making the major political reforms once thought necessary to preserve its grip on the social order. In political terms, contemporary China looks almost identical to the country so convulsed by student protests in the 1980s.
In 1989, Chinese citizens lacked the right to vote, could not freely criticize the government, and faced restrictions on whom they could worship. China's press was under the strict supervision of the government and promoted no viewpoints in opposition to Communist Party power. In 2013, Chinese citizens still can't vote, freely criticize the government, or worship whomever they please (just look at what happened with Falun Gong
). And while the Internet has brought forth a wider range of viewpoints, open criticism of Communist Party rule is still not tolerated.
Focusing solely on the similarities, though, misses the larger point: China is a much better place to live now for most people. Consider the original aims of the protesters; they wanted democracy, famously hoisting up a model of the Statue of Liberty just days before the crackdown, but they also sought more concrete goals such as the right to choose their own profession following graduation. Two and a half decades later, young Chinese people now have far more freedom to pursue the career of their choice, travel abroad, and marry whomever they choose (provided their spouse is of the opposite sex, though China has also become much more tolerant of homosexuality in recent years). Far more Chinese citizens than before have access to the country's social safety net, including a rudimentary health care system, and a much greater proportion of the China's population can realistically obtain a university education. These advancements do not excuse China of its continued human rights violations, but they do explain how the Party can remain popular despite repression, corruption, and other problems.
Over the past three decades, since Deng Xiaoping first launched economic reforms, China has successfully managed to divorce economic change from political change, a trend that continues to the present day. Is this trend sustainable? Premier Li Keqiang recently made waves by announcing China's intention to pursue serious economic reforms
, aimed at promoting urbanization and tackling income inequality. At the same time, Xi Jinping criticized political revisionism
and a prominent Party newspaper wrote that obeying China's constitution was not appropriate
for the country. Nathan noted that China's political system, particularly with regard to corruption, suffers from constant strain. But, he added, he'd "hesitate to say that the Party is doomed". If there's one lesson from the aftermath of Tiananmen Square, it's that betting against the Communist Party's survival has proven people wrong before.