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. They showed, often on live television, how bloody violence was used. The scene of one young man standing alone in front of the PLA's tanks was broadcast repeatedly, often moving the global audience to tears. This was a defining moment in 20th-century history, a moment that would begin to slowly drain international Communism of any moral strength that it once might have possessed. It was the beginning of the end.
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.
Twenty years after the Tiananmen tragedy and the fall of the Berlin Wall, we have gained some perspective on those events, their causes, and their immediate consequences. Still, China's story in 1989 -- how China shaped the specific course of that year's events and helped define the immediate aftermath -- remains full of questions. In China itself, 1989 has been a "forbidden zone" in the press, scholarship, and classroom teaching. After 20 years, it remains inconceivable for scholars to access Chinese archival sources and many other key documents related to 1989.
The impact of this fateful year continues to play a role in defining the trajectory of China's development. The Chinese experience of 1989, and the Tiananmen tragedy in particular, remains a knot that must be untied and a barrier that must be removed in China's continuous advance toward modernity. Without doing so, the legitimacy narrative of the Chinese "communist" state will always be burdened by its fundamental inability to justify itself.