The Atlantic

Decades of Being Wrong About China Should Teach Us Something

American analysts keep trying to fit the country into familiar patterns—ignoring the many ways in which it’s an exception.
Source: Jacques Langevin / Sygma via Getty

Thirty years ago this week, I watched the news from Beijing and started shredding my bedding. It was the night before my college graduation, I had been studying Chinese politics, and news had broken that college students just like us had been gunned down in Tiananmen Square after weeks of peaceful and exhilarating democracy protests—carried on international TV. In the iconic square where Mao Zedong had proclaimed the People’s Republic decades before, bespectacled students from China’s best universities had camped out, putting up posters with slogans of freedom in Chinese and English. A “goddess of democracy” figure modeled after the Statue of Liberty embodied their hopes—and ours—for political liberation in China.

On my campus back then were just a handful of students majoring in

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