After unrest erupted in parts of China this past weekend, many friends asked, “Will this end in bloodshed, just as the 1989 Tiananmen protests did?” The recent outburst of public dissent attacking the Chinese government’s zero-COVID policy was the most intense and widespread that many Chinese had ever seen. Wednesday then brought another eerie parallel with 1989: The death of former President Jiang Zemin echoed the April 15, 1989, demise of former Chinese Communist Party (CCP) head Hu Yaobang, whose popularity drew an estimated 100,000 demonstrators to Tiananmen Square just before his funeral. Would Jiang’s death inflame the protesters of today?
Mourners have already begun leaving wreaths and flowers at Jiang’s former residence in Jiangsu province. Still, 2022 isn’t 1989. Having covered the Tiananmen bloodshed in 1989, I don’t believe history will repeat itself. China’s recent protests are important in their own right, but their long-term significance may not be as clear-cut as some would think. To be sure, it is extremely rare to hear demonstrators openly call for President Xi Jinping to step down, declaring they don’t want an “emperor for life.”