• Tahuhu Korero

Francis Fukuyama, Tiananmen Square and the ‘End’ of History

The summer of 1989 was one of those times when change could be felt in the air. The once seemingly invincible Soviet Bloc was coming apart at the seams, and as protests began to mount in the other great communist power, China, it did not seem like long before the People’s Republic would follow the USSR to the dustbin of history.

In those heady times, the American theorist Francis Fukuyama thought he could see the end of history. The events happening around him had proven to him that this was the final triumph of the western model of liberal democracy. The other alternative, Communism, had proven that it could not compete. As he famously wrote, ‘What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government’ [1].

In his article, Fukuyama drew attention to the growing reform movement in China, calling it ‘only the beginning of what will inevitably be mounting pressure for change in the political system’ [2]. What ended up happening, of course, was the events in Tiananmen Square. The nascent Chinese Democracy Movement was crushed and suppressed. Those events were downplayed by Fukuyama. When he expanded his essay into a full-length book in 1992, he dismissed China as ‘just another Asian authoritarian state’ that had ‘lost control of significant parts of society’ [3]. The lesson of Tiananmen Square to Fukuyama was that it was China condemning itself to a slow and steady decline until political liberalisation caught up with economic liberalisation. China was merely ‘incompletely reformed’ and awaited a second Tiananmen Square that would sweep the Communists from power.

Thirty years have passed since both Fukuyama’s original article and the Tiananmen Square Incident, and one lesson has become apparent. History was not on Fukuyama’s side. It was on China’s.

Liberal Democracy, trumpeted by Fukuyama as the end stage of human political development, has in recent years been placed under more strain than at any point since the Cold War. While Democracy itself remains strong, it is the liberal ideal that has been progressively eroded.

Benjamin Franklin has been famously quoted as saying, "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." Though this quote has in fact been misinterpreted - he was writing about a family trying to escape being taxed in order to fund border defence during the 7 Years War - in modern times, it has become a famous point about the tension between liberty and security. And in modern times that tension has been a major cause of the erosion of Fukuyama’s liberal ideal.

Globalisation, border concerns, mass migration, internal and external security and the challenges presented by the new information technologies such as the internet have all combined to elevate the tension between liberty and security to a new high. And in that struggle, it is liberty that is rolled back. The most notable example of this in recent times is the Patriot Act in the United States, but it is far from alone.

This has fuelled a rise in what has become known as ‘illiberal democracies’. In these countries, liberal ideals have been rolled back in favour of national ones. Hungary, the Philippines and India are clear examples of this trend in recent years. Russia, weakened but still a major global power, has returned to its deep autocratic roots after its experiment with democracy begat nothing but economic dysfunction. In Western Europe and the United States, Populist movements sceptical towards liberal democracy have risen. Fukuyama himself, in the wake of the events of 2016 admitted that ‘the “democratic” part of liberal democracy is, in other words, now rising up and taking revenge on the “liberal” part’ [4]. Liberal Democracy is far from dead, but it now faces an active struggle to sustain itself.

Against all this, China has not simply become ‘just another Asian authoritarian state’ as Fukuyama postulated. It has become the second most powerful nation on earth and looks set to dominate the current century as western power wanes. And it has done all this without the need to liberalize itself politically as well as economically, which Fukuyama thought was essential to becoming a major power. At the time of Tiananmen Square, the Chinese state’s control over China’s culture and economy was absolute. Since then, China has been able to devolve the economic control with the state acting as a backer to private entities, while modernising the cultural one in such a way as the chains of political control feel lighter than they are. Thanks to these, revolutionary change of the sort that begat Tiananmen Square is unlikely to happen in China anytime soon. The spectre of the events in Tiananmen Square has haunted the Communist Party elite ever since it happened, and in offering the fig leaf of economic prosperity, the CCP hopes to buy off the desire for political change. For now, this has proven highly successful.

When he was writing his thesis, maybe Fukuyama should have taken heed of the lessons of Tiananmen Square. For in breaking the protests, China ensured that its ideology would last long enough to see the competing western Liberal Democratic ideal begin to come apart. This was the true legacy of Tiananmen Square.


Jim Brown is a postgraduate student at the University of Auckland studying how popular media such as Film and Television tell History. All posts by contributing authors reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not necessarily represent the perspectives of the University of Auckland History Society.


[1] F. Fukuyama, ‘The End of History?’, The National Interest, 16, 1989, pp.3–18.

[2] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man. Free Press, New York, 1992.

[3] Francis Fukuyama, ‘America: the failed state’: http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/america-the-failed-state-donald-trump

[4] ibid.

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