Berlin and the post-Tian Anmen world – B. Courmont

Everything seems to oppose the two events that took place in 1989: the TianAnmen square events in Beijing on June 4th and the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9th. At the same time, although both movements were inspired and led by democratic spirits against communist regimes, one may claim the political responses offered a dramatic gap: a massacre on one side, and acceptance on the other. Yet, shall we acknowledge that the post-1989 world, a world in which we are living, has been influenced and driven by what happened in Beijing, or by the events of Berlin? The answer is probably an unexpected one and a misinterpreted mixture of both.

Beijing: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The evidence is there and the truth is not negotiable: the students and their professors who gathered around Tiananmen square were severely punished by the Chinese authorities by the use of military force. How many died, how many were imprisoned? Thousands, tens of thousands… numbers here don’t matter. The Chinese regime revealed its true nature that day and proved its limits in the acceptance of political reforms. Thirty years later, nothing has changed in this prospective, even with the death of the 2010 Peace Nobel Prize Liu Xiaobo, one of the most influential and intellectual spokespersons of the movement.

It is also within these three decades that China boosted its economy, reaching a level of prosperity and power that no one would have imagined back in 1989. The result is that most Chinese have no particular interest in what happened 30 years ago, while the “Philosophy of the Pig”, described by Liu Xiaobo himself, has extended its influence, relying on individualism, consumerism and a lack of political conscience.

While the Chinese political system has increased its legitimacy at home, replacing fights for freedom by a commonly shared search for fortune, its model has embraced popularity abroad. As a result, the exciting perspective of democratization on a world scale has been challenged by the re-emergence of authoritarian regimes legitimized by the promotion of economic liberalism and obsession with economic development.

Berlin: Requiem for a Dream

No Hollywood screenwriter had predicted it, and the reality looks sometimes better than the fiction: the Cold War ended peacefully thirty years ago. The fall of the Berlin wall remains the symbol of a spectacular process that only took a few years for the collapse of the USSR, and reshaped what the U.S. President George Bush called in September 1991 a « New World Order ». The prospects of a better and more united international community, carried by international values and the respect of UN provisions, justified a wave of optimism regarding the fall of the last traces of the ancient world, and perhaps the « End of History », as expressed by Francis Fukuyama. Three decades later, however, optimism has vanished, and John Ikenberry, another U.S. foreign policy expert, questioned in 2018 the « End of Liberal International Order ». During these three decades, the western world has been living in a dream and has proved itself incapable of understanding emerging threats such as transnational radical movements, or changes of paradigm such as the rise and return of great powers, China and Russia in particular. The fall of the Berlin wall has blinded our vision of a chaotic world, and our dreams of a perfect society soon perished.

Yet, the ghosts of the activists who braved the police forces back in November 1989 still lie in the public opinions, who watch carefully their leaders and do not hesitate to enter rebellion if necessary.

The recent cases of Hong Kong, Lebanon or Chile, where the streets were packed with opponents to unfair policies, echo both the memory of Tian Anmen when it comes to the potential consequences the protesters face, and the legacy of Berlin as they stand for democratic values. Therefore, although our too optimistic and Berlin-oriented vision of international relations has been challenged by the return of History, the memory still lives.

Barthélémy Courmont is a Lecturer at the Catholic University in Lille, where he is the head of the Master in History/International Relations. He is also a Senior Research Fellow at IRIS, where he leads the Asia-Pacific program and is chief-editor of Asia Focus. He has recently published Les Nouvelles routes de la soie (edited with Frédéric Lasserre and Eric Mottet), Presses Universitaires du Québec, 2019.

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Barthélémy Courmont (2019).“Berlin and the post-Tian Anmen world”, Observatory on contemporary crises, November 19, 2019, URL: