Foreign Policy Digital

Tiananmen Crushed Asia’s Wave of Rebellion

China's shadow darkens democratic hopes today.

From the middle to the end of the 1980s, youth-led democracy movements transformed several of Asia’s largest economies. It was a dramatic shift for a region that had previously been dominated by illiberal regimes, a mixture of left- and right-wing authoritarians. Within just a few years, students, dissidents, and radicals had brought democracy to South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines, three of the largest economies in the region. In 1989, it seemed like the largest and most influential country, China, might even follow the path of not only its neighbors, but its Communist brethren in Eastern Europe.

That, of course, did not happen. On May 20, martial law was declared, and on June 4, the in the 1950s had arguably been as harsh as any crackdown by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), but it was never able to squash the opposition fully. The and massacre, when South Korean paratroopers shot hundreds of civilians, was as recent as 1980—and, in 1987, South Korea had become a democracy.

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