WHERE China ends, mountains, deserts, and nomadism begin. China's historical borders extend to the edge of arable land in the eastern half of Asia: the Himalayas to the southwest, the Gobi wastes to the north, and the Central Asian khanates (which is what these new post-Soviet states really are) to the west. Its sheer size has meant that China's dynastic transitions have been vulnerable to rebellions, warlordism, and a weak central government. The Ming and Qing Dynasties both collapsed because population growth led to worsening poverty among peasants and more prosperity among merchants and landowners: the peasants revolted against their poverty, and the wealthier stratum revolted against imperial control and taxation.
The same vulnerability persists today. Jack A. Goldstone, in a paper for the Peace and Conflict Studies Program at the University of Toronto, writes,
The combination of forces revealed in the Tiananmen Square Uprising of [June 4,] 1989 -- a coalition of merchants, entrepreneurs, urban workers, students and intellectuals, with some support from within the regime, in revolt against a government that survived only because of continued loyalty of key military and bureaucratic leaders -- is quite similar to that of past patterns of Chinese revolt.
The lessons that China's leaders learned from Tiananmen Square were from their own history. They knew that, as in the past, many of the demonstrators were more concerned about economic conditions than about freedom per se. They also knew that anarchy in former times, from the Ming rebellions to Mao Zedong's Great Cultural Revolution, cost millions of lives. Western journalists and intellectuals who have been raised in secure, upper-middle-class environments may call for China to welcome a bit of instability for the sake of change, but for China's leaders chaos and instability have never been abstractions. Deng Xiaoping, China's ruler in 1989, lived with the memory of his son's having been forced to jump from an upper-story window by a crowd during the Cultural Revolution.
To satisfy the population while preventing chaos, after Tiananmen the Communist Party opened up both the economy and the society -- the former much more than the latter. In the past decade probably more people in China have seen their material lives dramatically improve than ever before in recorded history, even as democracy has led to social collapse and mafia rule in Russia. The Chinese have also experienced a dramatic increase in personal freedom. Two China experts, David M. Lampton, of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and Burton Levin, a former ambassador to Burma, have observed that the Communist Party has gone from controlling every facet of daily life in China to controlling the media and the political opposition. Chinese can travel, buy any books and videos they want, open bank accounts, live together if they are gay or unmarried, and so on.