Modern history is full of failed revolutions, Randall Collins notes, like the democracy movement in China:
The democracy movement in China centered on protesters occupying Tiananmen Square in Beijing, lasting seven weeks from mid-April to early June 1989. Until the last two weeks, the authorities did not crack down; local police acted unsure, just like French troops in February 1848; some even displayed sympathy with the demonstrators.
The numbers of protesters surged and declined several times. Initially, students from the prestigious Beijing universities (where the Red Guards movement had been launched 20 years earlier) set up a vigil in Tiananmen Square to mourn the death of a reform-oriented Communist leader. This was China’s center of public attention, in front of the old Imperial Palace, the place for official rituals, and thus a target for impromptu counter-rituals. Beginning with a few thousand students on April 17, the crowd fell to a few hundred by the fourth day, but revived after a skirmish with police as militants took their protest to the gate of the nearby government compound where the political elite lived. Injuries were slight and no arrests were made, but indignation over police brutality renewed the movement, which grew to 100,000-200,000 for the state funeral on day 5. Militants hijacked the ritual by kneeling on the steps of the ceremonial hall flanking Tiananmen Square, in the style of traditional supplicants to the emperor. The same day rioting broke out in other cities around China, including arson attacks, with casualties on both sides. Four days later (day 10) the government newspaper officially condemned the movement — the first time it had been portrayed negatively; next day 50-100,000 Beijing students responded, breaking through police lines to reoccupy the Square. So far counter-escalation favored the protesters.
The government now switched to a policy of conciliation and negotiation. This brought a 2-weeks lull; by May 4 (day 18) most students had returned to class. On May 13 (day 28), the remaining militants launched a new tactic: a hunger strike, initially recruiting 300; over the next 2 days it recaptured public attention, and grew to 3000 hunger strikers. Big crowds, growing to 300,000, now flocked to the Square to view and support them. The militants had another ritual weapon: the arrival on May 15 of Soviet leader Gorbachev for a state visit, then at the height of his fame as a Communist reformer. The official welcome had to be moved to the airport, but the state meeting in the ceremonial hall flanking Tiananmen was marred by the noisy demonstration outside. On May 17, as Gorbachev left, over one million Beijing residents from all social classes marched to support the hunger strikers. The militants had captured the attention center of the ceremonial gathering; the bandwagon was building to a peak. Visitors to Tiananmen were generally organized by work units, who provided transportation and sometimes even paid the marchers. A logistics structure was created to fund the food and shelter for those who occupied the Square. The organizational base of the Communist regime, at least in the capital, was tipping towards revolution. Around the country, too, there were supporting demonstrations in 400 cities. Local governments were indecisive; some Communist Party committees openly endorsed the movement; some authorities provided free transportation by train for hundred of thousands of students to travel to Beijing to join in.
The tipping point did not tip. The Communist elite met outside the city in a showdown among themselves. A collective decision was made; a few dissenters, including some army generals, were removed and arrested. On May 19, martial law was declared. Military forces were called from distant regions, lacking ties to Beijing demonstrators. The next four days were a showdown in the streets; crowds of residents, especially workers, blocked the army convoys; soldiers rode in open trucks, unarmed — the regime still trying to use as little force as possible, and also distrustful of giving out ammunition — and often were overwhelmed by residents. Crowds used a mixture of persuasion and food offerings — army logistics having broken down by the unreliability of passage through the streets — and sometimes force, stoning and beating isolated soldiers. On May 24, the regime pulled back the troops to bases outside the city. But it did not give up. The most reliable army units were moved to the front, some tasked with watching for defections among less reliable units. In another week strong forces had been assembled in the center of Beijing.
Momentum was swinging back the other way. Student protesters in the Square increasingly divided between moderates and militants; by the time the order to clear the Square was given for June 3, the number occupying was down to 4000. There was one last surge of violence — not in Tiananmen Square itself, although the name became so famous that most outsiders think there was a massacre there — but in the streets as residents attempted to block the army’s movement once again. Crowds fought with stones and gasoline bombs, burning army vehicles and, by some reports, the soldiers inside. In this emotional atmosphere, as both sides spread stories of the other’s atrocities, something on the order of 50 soldiers and police were killed, and 400-800 civilians (estimates varying widely). Some soldiers took revenge for prior attacks by firing at fleeing opponents and beating those they caught. In Tiananmen Square, the early morning of June 4, the dwindling militants were allowed to march out through the encircling troops.
International protest and domestic horror were to no avail; a sufficiently adamant and organizationally coherent regime easily imposed its superior force. Outside Beijing, protests continued for several days in other cities; hundreds more were killed. Organizational discipline was reestablished by a purge; over the following year, CCP members who had sympathized with the revolt were arrested, jailed, and sent to labor camps. Dissident workers were often executed; students got off easier, as members of the elite. Freedom of the media, which had been loosend during the reform period of 1980s, and briefly flourished during the height of the democracy protests in early May, was now replaced by strict control. Economic reforms, although briefly questioned in the aftermath of 1989, resumed but political reforms were rescinded. A failed tipping point revolution not only fails to meet its goals; it reinforces authoritarianism.
If the Chinese government had the power to crack down by sending out its security agents and arresting dissidents all over the country, why didn’t they do so earlier, instead of waiting until Tiananmen Square was cleared? Because this was the center of the tipping-point mechanism. As long as the rebellious assembly went on, tension existed as to which way the regime would go. If it couldn’t meet this challenge, the regime would be deserted. This was in question as long as all eyes were on Tiananmen. Once attention was broken up, all those security agents could fan out around the country, picking off suspects one by one, ultimately arresting tens of thousands. That is why centralized and decentralized forms of rebellion are so different: centralized rebellions potentially very short and sudden; decentralized ones long, grinding and much more destructive.