A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Four Times 1989


Thirty years after 1989, we in the West still aren’t sure how to celebrate the anniversary—nor exactly which anniversary we are commemorating.

© REUTERS/Stringer

These days, many are celebrating 1989. The problem is that we in the US and Western Europe remember it wrong. This is at least in part because we were wrong about 1989, or at least guilty of severe oversimplification. There was not one 1989 story; there were four. And the legacies of all four are visible in the world we find ourselves in 30 years later, a world where the fate of liberal democracy globally, and even within Western societies, seems a lot less certain than it once did.

1989 of the West

What happened in Eastern Europe in 1989-90 was not about a wall falling, it was about peaceful political revolution on a mass scale. A revolution that supplanted authoritarian, vassal-state Communist rule with national democracy. In our shorthand version, the authors of the story have been replaced by the events of the finale.

The other thing we get wrong about even this version of 1989 was that it was not, as the US National Security Strategy of 2002 put it, a “decisive victory.” The West did not defeat Communism—it withstood, outshone, and outlasted it. Communism was not vanquished by a president in Washington DC; it crumbled because it failed. It failed to deliver peace and well-being to its people. As our Western societies struggle with growing inequality and social discontent and are unable to address the most pressing issues of our time, including migration and climate change, we would do well to adjust our memory of how the Cold War was “won.”

Beijing’s 1989 

There were many pro-democracy protests in 1989, but not all of them ended peacefully. Just hours before the first round of Poland’s (and Soviet-Europe’s) first free election, tanks rolled into Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to brutally quash student-led demonstrations there, the last and largest of months of widespread protests challenging Chinese Communist Party legitimacy. The world watched as thousands were wounded and at least several hundred killed on June 4. At the time, the images of students facing off against tanks were as iconic as the images of revelers on the Berlin wall. It was in the years afterward that the more optimistic story of 1989 prevailed and colored the West’s expectations for China.

Western policy makers were so wrapped up in the certain march of democracy heralded by Poland’s 1989 that they failed to see that Beijing’s 1989 had left very different deep and lasting marks. As Gideon Rachman notes in the FT, “It was Tiananmen that secured the Chinese Communist party’s grip on power, thus ensuring that the rising power of the 21st century would be an autocracy not a democracy.” Furthermore, as China watcher Janka Oertel argues, the “Tiananmen shock” has shaped how the CCP’s holds its power ever since, preventing new challenges by delivering economic prosperity and strictly prohibiting public dissent.

The reason the Beijing 1989 is so important to our world today is that China succeeded where it should have failed, and because it succeeded so exceptionally.

Economic reform without political reform was supposed to be impossible. A succession of US Presidents and other Western leaders assumed that an open economy would necessarily lead to an open society. As George W. Bush argued in 2000 on the issue of WTO membership: “[T]rade with China will promote freedom. Freedom is not easily contained. Once a measure of economic freedom is permitted, a measure of political freedom will follow.” But it turns out that political freedom in China did not follow. And even the information age did not change this. Instead, Beijing now boasts an impressive AI-empowered surveillance state.

To make matters worse, economic reform did not materialize either. 19 years later, Chinese WTO membership has not made the Chinese economy or society significantly more open; instead China’s non-market, Party-driven economy has thrived in a way no one would have imagined. The Chinese economy is now so big and so successful that it is more likely to kill the system than be reformed by it.

Thus, the Tiananmen 1989 has proven lasting and successful, and as China’s influence in the world grows, so does the meaning of this alternative story of protests.

Internet 1989

And in the early years of what would soon to be known as the World Wide Web, “techno-utopianism,” to quote Karen Kornbluh, around a new technology was equal to bright-eyed optimism about democracy’s “new era.”

Originally started in the 1960s as a military project to enable communication during a nuclear blackout, around 1989 a different future for the decentralized digital communication network was beginning. In this year the first commercial dial-up access connected users to the Internet, ending the early phases of the Internet as first a military and then an academic network. (ARPANET, the military precursor network, was officially decommissioned in 1990.) The architects of early Internet policy were a small niche group in 1990, but thirty years later the web and social media have become central to our lives and even, as we’ve more recently learned, our elections and democracies.

Because of its decentralized structure, the Internet was envisioned as an open, democratic, and power-equalizing force. And in its first decades, it arguably was. People connected directly with each other through email and chat and created their own sites and blogs.

But the Internet grew more centralized and more central to our lives. More and more of life is lived online, and this online life is dominated by a few very large companies who control a user’s experience. Algorithms meant to keep us online longer determine what we see in our search feeds and our timelines. Even news is increasingly fed to us (and filtered for us) by these platforms, while at the same time the Internet has savaged the revenue model of democracy’s fourth pillar. Thus instead of the bottom-up, citizen-driven supplement to established media that the early Internet promised, we now contend with struggling serious media and mass-scale, bot-supported propaganda. As Karen Kornbluh writes, “Propagandists and extremists wishing to conceal their identities fund targeted ads and create armies of social media bots to push misleading or outright false content, robbing citizens of a basic understanding of reality.”

Not only for citizens of democracies has the Internet proven not to be an unambiguous force for freedom. In 2011, we were still celebrating the Arab Spring as a social media revolution and heralding technology’s power to undermine dictators. A few short years later, as GMF’s Laura Rosenberger observes, authoritarian powers have learned to harness technology “for control and manipulation, developing tools to constrain, surveil, and insidiously shape the views of their populations using information and technology, bolstering their power.“ China, in particular, has managed to create a national censored Internet and platforms and apps that allow the Party to track users online activities—with AI-enabled surveillance tracking them offline. And Beijing is increasingly exporting the “techno-authoritarian systems of surveillance and control” that it has developed and employed domestically to other countries.

Thus thirty years after the modern Internet began to take shape, there is an unforeseen contest over its future. What we can foresee is that a rosy future is not automatic: the Internet and other new technologies will only be as friendly to democracy as we can make them be.

Yugoslavia’s 1989

Unlike in Central Europe, there was no Soviet yoke on Yugoslavia, and Titoist Communism provided greater freedoms. What’s more, by 1989 political reforms had been underway for a decade. But other forces were also rising within the multinational state. Slobodan Milošević was elected president of Serbia in May 1989 and shortly afterward delivered his (in)famous Serbian ethno-nationalist speech by the Gazimestan monument in Kosovo. Milošević was not alone, indeed, as Paul Hockenos writes, “[m]ost Yugoslavs welcomed the new spaces and ideas that sprouted from the cracking façade of socialism, including the liberty to identify more openly with one’s ethnicity, be it as a Serb, Croat, Muslim, Slovenian, Montenegrin, Macedonian, or Kosovo Albanian.” We all know what happened next: Slovenia and Croatia opposed Milosevic’s centralist policies, and in 1991 declared independence, starting the first in a series of territorial wars and ethnic conflicts that would last a decade, destroy Yugoslavia, and cost around 130,000 lives.

The ethno-nationalism that turned violent in Yugoslavia was a bigger feature of 1989 than our simpler story acknowledges. Branko Milanovic, a Serbian-American economist, has argued that the revolutions of 1989 should be “seen as revolutions of national emancipation, simply as a latest unfolding of centuries-long struggle for freedom, and not as democratic revolutions per se.” In Poland, Germany, and Czechoslovakia the revolutions of 1989 “it was easy to fuse” nationalism and democracy: “Even hard-core nationalists liked to talk the language of democracy because it gave them greater credibility internationally as they appeared to be fighting for an ideal rather than for narrow ethnic interests.”

In Yugoslavia, ethno-nationalism quelled any hints of democracy as events unfolded very differently than they did for Central Europeans. As a result, in our narrative of 1989 Yugoslavia was an anomaly, a regional side-note. But by 2019 the ringing of the nationalist side note has become impossible to miss, from Viktor Orban’s Hungary to the Brexiteers called for British self-determination, and Donald Trump proposing to “take the country back.”

The Intricate Story of 1989

The truly remarkable and inspiring story of the Polish revolution, the fall of the wall, the peaceful collapse of Soviet rule in Europe should be celebrated on its 30th anniversary, certainly. But this story has never been the truth. It was as Damir Murasic, executive editor at The American Interest, notes, a “successful narrative” that “captured important truths about the time it sought to describe. And like all good stories well told, it chose to focus on some things in lieu of others.”

However, those events left out of our original 1989 narrative also hold important truths that can help us better understand the challenges we face today—for a start by making us both humbler and less hopeless. For the victory of democracy and freedom in 1989 was not as unequivocal or robust as our original narrative had us believe, nor the future so certain. But now that we find ourselves in a more difficult future we should not succumb to the temptations of cultural pessimism, as also the GMF’s Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff argues in his book, Die Welt Braucht den Westen. Like the Internet, the world is not, as it turns out, an automatically democratizing place. Tribalism continues to be a powerful force, even in wealthy democracies. Freer markets do not have to lead to freer people; capitalism and technology are as compatible with authoritarianism as with democracy.

And yet, democracy remains a powerful idea that even today, and even in China, drives people to the streets. Yes, democracies, too, can fail if they fail to deliver enough. But they need not. If we want freedom and democracy to have a future, we will have to work to ensure that new technologies reflect and support these values. And we will have to work to sustain freedom and democracy within our own societies. As we should have learned from Poland in 1989, a better future is possible—it’s just neither easy nor guaranteed.