Jeffrey Wasserstrom: What the Beijing protests of 1989 have in common with activism in China today





[Jeffrey N Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine. His most recent book is China's Brave New World-And Other Tales for Global Times (Indiana University Press, 2007), and his next will be Global Shanghai, 1850-2010 (Routledge, forthcoming).]

It is three weeks since the nineteenth anniversary of the massacre of 4 June 1989 in Beijing, forty-nine until the symbolically potent twentieth. The routine in advance of the event, by now well established, was again witnessed in full this year: security around Tiananmen Square is tightened, a candlelight vigil for martyrs is held in Hong Kong (still the only part of the People's Republic of China [PRC] where open discussion of 4 June is allowed); Ding Zilin of the "Tiananmen Mothers" organisation submits an open letter to the Chinese authorities, calling on them to abandon their "big lie" about 1989 and admit that those, like her son, who were slain by soldiers were not "counter-revolutionaries" or rioters but ordinary urbanites; and human-rights activists, former student leaders, and China specialists issue statements or write commentaries assessing the legacy of 1989 or proposing a new way to honour the dead.

The lead-up to the latest anniversary followed this familiar pattern, but there were some novel twists - "novel" rather than "surprising", given how unusual a year 2008 had already proved to be and promises to remain.

This time, for example, some activists included a call for an "Olympic pardon" in their 4 June commentaries, suggesting that a moment just weeks before the start of the games would be a particularly appropriate one for the authorities to release political prisoners. The Hong Kong vigil was given a distinctive 2008 cast via efforts to combine honouring the martyrs of 1989 and mourning the victims of the Sichuan earthquake. In a similar vein, when local police asked Ding Zilin a week or so before the anniversary if her annual letter was ready, she said (according to reporter Mary-Anne Toy) that she had submitted it early but had a postscript to add, presumably inspired by how earthquake victims were mourned: "When will the national flag be lowered for our children?"

These are only some of the ways that ties between 1989 and 2008 have been and can be established for political reasons. They also suggest that it might be worth pondering how the events of the two years can be connected in historical terms too. Does a look back to Tiananmen help us make sense of what young Chinese have been doing in 2008? Can the recent behaviour of China's leaders be understood as reflecting lessons they learned from the events of 1989? What, for example, should we make of the role of Wen Jiabao in each of these critical periods: as the inspirational prime minister who comforted victims and impressed millions of citizens in the earthquake's aftermath, and as the man who went into Tiananmen Square to meet with protesters in 1989 in the company of his then-boss Zhao Ziyang (who would be purged and placed under long-term house-arrest for taking a softer line on the student-led movement than paramount leader Deng Xiaoping)?

At first glance, these questions may seem odd ones. It might appear, for example, that there are only contrasts and no parallels between the nationalistic young Chinese of today and their 1989 counterparts; or that the Chinese government's refusal to allow open discussion of the 4 June events must mean that it has no interest in learning any lessons from the upheaval. In fact, however, it is possible to see ties between the two generations of youths and to appreciate just how much, even in defeat, 1989's protesters altered Chinese political patterns.

History's bridge

In order to do this, it is necessary to clear away some common western misunderstandings of Tiananmen. Here are five of the most important points:

* All protesters and all martyrs were not students; a great many of both were workers

* Chinese protesters' ideological outlook was not identical to their counterparts in east-central Europe in 1989. In Beijing - in contrast to, say, Budapest or Bucharest - many people did not call for an end to communist rule but rather for party leaders to do a better job living up to their own professed ideals. This helps explain why there was division at the top over how to respond to the protests. The demonstrations began in mid-April, but it was not until mid-May that it became clear that Zhao Ziyang and others favoring a soft line had lost the fight within the upper echelons of power

* It is misleading to think that China's 1989 had everything to do with democracy and nothing to do with patriotism or nationalism. The western media of the time were fascinated with symbols such as the Statue of Liberty-like "Goddess of Democracy"; but in fact anger at nepotism and corruption was a more central theme in Chinese wall-posters and manifestos of the time than demands for elections, and criticism of these failings was framed in terms of official selfishness endangering the nation.Among openDemocracy's articles on China in 2008:

Kerry Brown, "Beijing's political tightrope-walk" (12 March 2008)

Robert Barnett, "Tibet: questions of revolt" (4 April 2008)

Wenran Jiang, "Tibetan unrest, Chinese lens" (7 April 2008)

Ivy Wang, "China's netizens and Tibet: a Guangzhou report" (8 April 2008)

Wang Lixiong, "China and Tibet: the true path" (15 April 2008)

James A Millward, "China's story: putting the PR into the PRC" (18 April 2008)

Li Datong, "China's soft-power failure" (16 May 2008)

Susan Brownell, "The Olympics' ‘civilising' legacy: St Louis to Beijing" (23 May 2008)

Li Datong, "China and the earthquake" (2 June 2008)

Emily Lau, "Tiananmen, 1989-2008" (4 June 2008)

Li Datong, "After the quake, the debate" (17 June 2008)

The most powerful tactic adopted by the students, which brought them an enormous outpouring of support from members of other social groups, was launching a hunger-strike - an act with special meaning at a time when lavish banquets were a potent symbol of corrupt behavior. Students insisted that for China to become great again, it required leaders willing to engage more fully with the outside world and pay more attention to the needs of the people. It is revealing in this respect that a main anthem of the movement, Hou Dejian's Children of the Dragon, had strong nationalistic overtones.

* The economic background to the protests is often forgotten. Chinese protestors in 1989 did share with their east-central European counterparts a keen awareness that people living in capitalist lands were enjoying a much higher standard of living. To look from East Berlin to West Berlin or from Canton to Hong Kong was to become aware of the contrast between drab, backward cities and glittering, modern ones

* There was a significant generational aspect in the demonstrations. China's young people (and again this is a point of similarity with those in other communist societies) had a sense of being unable to take part fully in attractive and increasingly global forms of popular culture. Many also felt that the state's interference in their private lives hindered their ability to express their individualism and do the things that would help define themselves as members of a distinctive generation.

These last two sides of the 1989 movement are summed up in comments that Chinese student leader Wu'er Kaixi made in The Gate of Heavenly Peace, the award-winning documentary film by Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon. He first lists ways that his generation's beliefs and desires differ from those of their parents and even their older siblings, and then poses a rhetorical question: "So what do we want?" His answer: "Nike shoes. Lots of free time to take our girlfriends to a bar. The freedom to discuss an issue with someone."

When Tiananmen is reconsidered with these factors taken into account, it becomes easier to trace links between the young people who took to the streets in 1989 and those who flock to internet chatrooms, earthquake-relief campaigns and shopping-malls in 2008. Behind the surface differences there are connecting threads: an intense love of country, and a desire to make their mark as a generation, for example. True, the outbursts of anger in 2008 directed against foreigners who are chastised for being disrespectful toward China in one way or another marks a great contrast (even if it has precedents in China's history); but there have been signs that this sense of moral outrage could easily turn, as it did in 1989, toward corruption and selfishness closer to home.

History's threads

The contrasts between then and now can also be seen as due, in part, to the Chinese Communist Party taking stock of lessons it learned from 1989 - both as that year unfolded in China and as it unfolded in other regions. Three are notable. First, the party has understood the importance of material goods. In a China that has enjoyed high growth rates and embraced consumer culture, the contrast between Shanghai and Hong Kong lifestyles is now much less stark than those between East Berlin and West Berlin before the wall came tumbling down.

When it comes to educated youths in particular, the government has done more than just give them the chance to buy the "Nike shoes" that Wu'er Kaixi mentioned. It has also made it possible for them to partake in global youth culture. And it has backed off from micro-managing campus daily life, and that of the educated classes generally, thus allowing more latitude for discussion of ideas and travel abroad. In short, if Tiananmen was fuelled by a frustration over the limited choices that Chinese urbanites had, the post-1989 period has been characterised by a dramatic expansion of the choices open to educated city-dwellers - apart from certain closed-off realms, such as picking who governs their metropolis and their nation.

A second lesson that the Chinese regime has learned is that the biggest threat to its longevity comes from movements capable of drawing together members of disparate social classes, as Solidarity did in Poland and Tiananmen did in China. This helps to explain, at least partially, the severity of the crackdown against Falun Gong, in a country where the authorities are increasingly willing to make concessions to protesters whose struggles are very localised and affect only a single class.

A third, more indirect lesson from Tiananmen is visible in the series of efforts by the regime to position itself as capable of steering rather than becoming the target of patriotic and nationalistic emotions. It has done this by ramping up patriotic education drives, and by leaping ahead of and trying to channel youthful outbursts (such as the one in May 1999 when Nato bombs hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three citizens of the PRC).

The love of country continues to be a difficult thing to control completely. There is always a chance that this double-edged sword will turn against officials. In a milieu where corruption is still (as in 1989) seen as a great national blight, the authorities must show repeatedly that they are concerned with more than simply maintaining their positions of power at all costs and furthering selfish agendas. They also have to show that they care about the whole nation, not just one part of it.

This "purity test" presents an ever-present danger, reflected in a couple of tense moments the Chinese authorities faced after the Sichuan earthquake, even amid the general goodwill their impressive response secured. The first tremor came right after the disaster, when angry bloggers chastised China's leaders for continuing to show celebratory images of the Olympic torch-relay on state television at the very time when people in Sichuan were suffering so deeply. The second came soon after when talk began to circulate about the disproportionately large number of school buildings that had collapsed, due in many cases to shoddy construction linked to official corruption.

Beijing defused the first moment when it introduced a minute's silence for earthquake victims to the relay, and then called a short moratorium in the ritual. The government also showed its sensitivity to earthquake victims and their families by lowering flags to half-mast, an unprecedented move in China for a case like this. The second danger was deflected in a different way, as Beijing's effective response to the disaster meant that most of the anger at corruption was directed at local officials.

With the people

If the Chinese regime's road from 1989 to 2008 is interesting to ponder, so too is that of man-of-the-hour, China's prime minister Wen Jiabao. It remains a mystery to many how the reputation of Wen continued to rise despite his association with the disgraced (in official terms) Zhao Ziyang after the latter's role in the Tiananmen events of 1989. In this context, however, the question of what lesson he has drawn from his trip to the square is moot.

Here's one thought: when Zhao met with students on the square in 1989, one thing he reportedly said to them was: "I came too late". The confession of bad timing carries a possible implication that he and perhaps the movement would have been better served if he had taken the initiative earlier on, made a bold gesture in support of the protests, or simply met with demonstrators sooner. Perhaps it is appropriate then that one thing that Wen has consistently done in other circumstances is to show an acute sense of timing, exemplified in the fact that his words and deeds after the earthquake were not just evidently heartfelt but were made quickly and spoke immediately to popular concerns. Here, perhaps, is a third connective thread with 1989, one that links leadership and people in a way that is full of political symbolism.


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Arnold Shcherban - 7/7/2008

Mr. Wasserstrom apparently wants no more nor less than the title of my note indicates, or that the Chinese official ideological and political propaganda was the most
open and the least fraudulent in the world. But can we (say, Americans) really demand that, while we unable to
make our own offical ideological and political propaganda talk straight and
honestly about our own "ancient" and recent history? (Not mentioning already the other so called democracies in the West and East).
Surely, we can, in principle, but I doubt the case can be presented with
real ethical superiority, sincerity, and efficiency.