Book Excerpts: China
from Part III: Chapter 12 - China, Eastern Europe, Mongolia - The Democratic Tide

China - Democracy Arrested

"Rallying Cry"

In the springtime of 1989, less than four months after Palestinians had shaken off their acquiescence to Israeli occupation and launched the intifada, the students of Beijing shook off a long winter of complacency, moved suddenly to the center of the world's attention, and demanded democracy for China.

It began on April 17 when students from the city's universities flocked to Tiananmen, the colossal esplanade in the center of the capital, and placed wreaths at the Monument to the Martyrs of the People, in memory of Hu Yaobang, a former general secretary of the Communist Party who had tolerated student dissent. For five days, until Hu's funeral, there were demonstrations and wall posters calling for democracy and an end to government corruption. In that brief interval, a gesture of grief became a challenge to state power.

Tiananmen Square was a natural magnet for students with a yen to protest, because the Great Hall of the People, the Museum of Chinese History, the Museum of the Chinese Revolution, and Mao Zedong's Mausoleum are all found there. A month later, as spring was in full flower, tens of thousands of students and other citizens would march back to the square, past police and barricades, and crowd around twenty-one year old Wu'er Kaixi, a charismatic student leader. They would hear him demand faster political reform, guarantees of rights to the people, a free press, an end to corruption and real democracy1.

In the ensuing seven weeks, warming to what would be a year of liberation from communist rule in Eastern Europe and neighboring Mongolia, millions from across the wide mantle of the Chinese nation would join the students in a cascade of marches and demonstrations, culminating in a people's take-over of Tiananmen. And then this fresh, unexpected new movement would be engulfed by a military crackdown, and a square for the rallying cry of democracy would give way to the square space of prison cells. Where others would follow, China would not lead.

"Students and Rulers"

The seeds of democratic yearning in communist China were sown in the wake of one of the most hysterically destructive acts of twentieth century communism: the Cultural Revolution launched by Mao Zedong, which devastated Chinese institutions ranging from universities to collective farms. After it finally ended in 1976, the government had to rebuild the economy, which led to greater openness toward the world. That, on the surface at least, dislodged a narrow chink in the wall separating the Chinese people from freedom.

On a wall just west of Tiananmen Square, young dissidents took to posting signs and slogans urging more freedom. In 1979 Wei Jingsheng posted several essays on "Democracy Wall," criticizing the Communist Party and the supreme leader, Deng Xiaoping. That was too much for the authorities, and Wei was arrested and sentenced to prison for fifteen years. But dissent still bubbled underground, and essays demanding change were circulated extensively. When the authors went too far, however, they were silenced. In 1986 and 1987 Fang Lizhi, a prominent physicist, and Liu Binyan, a well-known journalist, were expelled from the Communist Party for expressing "bourgeois views" regarding China's future development2.

It was not surprising that intellectuals and students were those who came forward first to defy the regime. Chinese students had a long history of political action: Students had organized a revolt against the Tang dynasty in the ninth century and also the Taiping Rebellion in the nineteenth century. Traditionally esteemed in China, students fell on hard times after the Cultural Revolution. University funding declined, classrooms and laboratories deteriorated, and dormitories were jammed to overflowing. Resentment of all this was sharpened as students noticed profiteering and nepotism among officials. One popular poem about bureaucrats was explicit: "A Japanese limo that costs big bucks, from the blood and sweat of the people is sucked, and inside a fat son-of-a-bitch is tucked."3

But the students chafed even more at the regime's restrictions on basic rights. Not only was dissent limited, the government often determined where students could work and live - imbuing personal grievances with political significance. Students knew what workers had done in Poland through Solidarity, to force the government to make changes, and they were keenly aware of how Mikhail Gorbachev was loosening the reins of control in the Soviet Union. So when Hu Yaobang died - perhaps the most reformist official in recent years - the tinder box of student alienation was ready to be lit.

When the five days of demonstrations following the wreath-laying in Tiananmen Square were over, the government faced the prospect of strikes at the city's universities starting on April 24, and party leaders were nervous about the potential for wider unrest. A blizzard of pamphlets critical of the regime had hit the streets, demanding a dialogue with Premier Li Peng, and the authorities began to feel besieged, fearing the same kind of chaos that overtook China in the late 1960s. Unwilling to concede that any part of society other than the party had the prerogative to spur political action, they labeled the demonstrations a "disturbance" and "a planned conspiracy" in an editorial on April 26 in the official newspaper The People's Daily.4

This threw fuel on the students' fire, who replied the next day with the largest demonstration yet. Over 100,000 students, joined by 400,000 other citizens, marched to Tiananmen in protest. Impressed by this support, many students thought they might succeed in bringing about change. They knew that the regime was divided on how to respond, and they sincerely thought that opposing corruption and advocating freedom would reinforce those inside government who wanted reform. Indeed, Zhao Ziyang, the general secretary of the Communist Party, was a reformer and soon would signal his sympathy for the students.

A quartet of students had emerged as leaders of the movement: Wu'er Kaixi, a cocky boy wonder who was often arrogant with officials; Chai Ling, an emotional twenty-three-year-old graduate student in psychology; Wang Dan, a twenty-four-year-old graduate student in history; and Li Lu, a student from the provinces, whom some thought was opportunistic. Backbiting among them seemed to be a problem. At a critical juncture in the occupation of Tiananmen, Chai said, in a taped interview, that she was "irritated at Wu'er Kaixi all along; he has at times used his own influence and position in ways that have caused great damage." Their lack of cohesion was apparently one reason that the demands they put to the regime changed frequently.5

But the students' oratory was sensational. Wu'er, an ethnic Uyghur, stood out easily, and in that first speech in Tiananmen Square, he proclaimed a "New May Fourth Manifesto" - shrewdly invoking Chinese nationalism by linking his protest to famous demonstrations in May 1919 that had assailed Japan's annexation of part of China. When a movement can claim a higher legitimacy antedating the regime it opposes - as Solidarity did in Poland by associating itself with the Pope, and as the Danes did by reaffirming their affection for the king during the German invasion - it can tap wellsprings of popular support that the government cannot.

Animated by their own rhetoric, student leaders proceeded with a barrage of protest. They drew 10,000 bicyclists into Tiananmen Square on May 10, demanded meetings with the premier, and issued manifestoes that addressed the highest officials as if they were secretaries taking dictation. Aware that Mikhail Gorbachev was due to visit Beijing on May 15, along with a swarm of foreign journalists, they raised the stakes. On May 13 some 3,000 students started a hunger strike in Tiananmen, again demanding a meeting with Li Peng and presenting a menu of democratic reforms. Soon students in Shanghai, Harbin, Tianjin, and other cities joined the action, and the Beijing Autonomous Union of Workers threatened a general work stoppage. One million people stood with the hunger strikers in the square on May 17 and 18.

Outwardly the regime seemed calm through most of this. Since Tiananmen Square was occupied, the leadership had to greet Gorbachev at the airport; this was embarrassing but it was endured. On May 18 the Standing Committee of the Politburo went to a hospital to visit hunger strikers who had been evacuated after showing signs of illness. The following day Li Peng met with students for a nationally televised discussion. In its own eyes, the regime was meeting the students halfway.

In the students' eyes, it had much more to do. In the televised meeting, Wu'er Kaixi angered the premier by cutting him off and chiding him for lecturing students instead of talking with them. It was a terrible error. The next day Li Peng declared martial law. Student leaders objected, arguing that they had not resorted to violence, and they demanded that the April 26 editorial in The People's Daily be retracted. Radical students called for Li Peng's resignation. It was all too much for the regime, which apparently gave up on negotiations. Off stage, Zhao Ziyang was pilloried for his conciliatory attitude toward students and shortly was replaced by Jiang Zemin, Shanghai Communist Party secretary. The hard-liners were poised to bring down the curtain.

The movement's response was ambivalent. On May 27 Wu'er Kaixi and Wang Dan, now wary of repression, called on the students to abandon their occupation of the Square. Chai Ling, styling herself the general commander of the "Tiananmen Command Center," at first agreed - but, after getting complaints from radicals, broke with the others and supported staying. Later, in a temperamental interview that may have been videotaped without her knowledge, she confessed that they were waiting for "the spilling of blood, for only when the government descends to the depths of depravity and decides to deal with us by slaughtering us, only when the rivers of blood flow in the Square, will the eyes of our country's people truly be opened..."6

Having passed the point of no return, both sides prepared for the finale. Using the pretext that hooligans had injured troops and killed one, the regime sent 30,000 unarmed soldiers toward Tiananmen on June 3, but rings of citizens prevented them from advancing. In the early morning hours of June 4, a much larger force attacked and broke through with tanks and troops firing live ammunition. (Most of the soldiers were peasants from units in distant provinces and thus less likely to be sympathetic to city-dwelling protestors.) They reached the square and ordered the students to evacuate. Most complied, and tanks rolled in, crushing the tents and other pieces of shelter that had been put up.7

Because many students had left on their own, the government could claim that only one person died in Tiananmen Square, but many had perished trying to keep the army out. The government later reported that the dead numbered 300, many of them soldiers. Unbiased sources offered estimates of 2,600; others put the figure as high as 10,000. With their blood, into the sewers of Beijing, ran hopes for reform and democracy.8


The communist regime's ostentatious use of force against the democracy movement of 1989 was very likely a tribute to the latent power that the government saw on display in Tiananmen Square: if the movement was allowed to salvage any space in which to operate, the regime could not be sure it would not resurrect itself. The gerontocracy that had ruled China for a half century had gone through the Sino-Japanese war, the civil war between the Nationalists and the communists, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution. Their fathers had told them about the Revolution of 1911 and the warlord era. With such a century to look back on, they craved stability. There was no threat too small to risk accommodating.9

But the defeat of the student movement cannot fully be explained by the violence used to send it underground or into exile, for many other nonviolent movements in the twentieth century deflected repression and endured to fight another day. Erratic and divided leadership, that believed more in the power of the moment than seeing the right moment to apply power, was at least as great a problem. This overconfidence diverted student leaders from the necessary work of organization and strategy. Had they seen the value of recruiting support from other parts of society - workers in transport and communication, civil servants, and, most important, the police and the military - they might have consolidated their gains and opted to develop a broader challenge not confined to Tiananmen, a convenient venue for repression.

Failing to appreciate or plan for the possibility of repression was an error in itself, but it also freed the students to indulge in whatever provocative action seemed enticing. Inflammatory gestures such as erecting, opposite Mao's Mausoleum, a "Goddess of Democracy," a replica of America's Statue of Liberty, doubtless antagonized the regime while not changing any facts on the ground. In short, while the students were familiar with the most obvious forms of nonviolent action - occupying public spaces, hunger strikes and playing to the international media - their decisions in using these sanctions did not reflect "any significant degree of strategic thinking..."10

The failure of strategy at the moment of crisis kept echoing throughout its aftermath. The government's use of repression taught the wrong lesson to many about how rights and democracy should be pursued. In 1999 one former protestor called himself "a victim of June 4," since he was fired and prevented from getting another job; he had decided that "the only path for China was. . .cautious, progressive liberalization." Even the flammable Wu'er Kaixi, who fled China and later had to pump gas and wait on tables in California, succumbed to lower expectations. Explaining why he hoped that Beijing would not be forced to acknowledge its Tiananmen savagery, he said that doing so might only set back gradual reforms. And he wanted to return home. "I think if everything goes okay, I'll be able to go home in five years. If something happens, if there are demonstrations and another crackdown, it will take longer."11

But that view genuflected to the regime's version of history: that the use of nonviolent action risks violent upheaval, that popular action to seek human rights and democracy is the enemy of unspecified gradual change. Gandhi in India thought otherwise; if he had not, his followers would never have learned how to undermine the basis of British domination. At exactly the moment when the revolutionary potential of nonviolent power seems hopeless, there are always a determined few who will not be persuaded by repression to give up - and in the long run it takes only a few to reignite the motives and means of change.

At the end of the century Ding Zilin was a professor in Beijing engaged in a one-woman campaign to have China's state prosecutors investigate Li Peng for his role in the Tiananmen massacre. In June of 1989, she had pleaded with her son not to join the demonstrations. On June 4 he was shot by government troops. "The government's view about Tiananmen is inhumane," Ding declared in 1999. "They violated these people's rights to life and they are still insulting them to this day." Like las madres de la Plaza de Mayo, she refused to be silent. And the history of nonviolent resistance in the twentieth century does not augur well for those who try to enforce silence.12

1. Han Minzhu [pseud.], Cries for Democracy: Writings and Speeches from the 1989 Chinese Democracy Movement (Princeton. NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990), pp. 136-137.

2. Orville Schell, Mandate of Heaven (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994), p. 29.

3. On these earlier revolts, see: Howard Levy, Biography of Huang Ch'ao (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961), and Jonathan Spence, God's Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996); Schell, Mandate of Heaven, p. 35

4. Michel Oksenberg, Lawrence Sullivan, and Marc Lambert, eds. Beijing Spring, 1989: Confrontation and Conflict: The Basic Documents (Armonk. NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1990), p. xxii.

5. Han Minzhu, Cries for Democracy, p. 327.

6. Ibid. Han's observations were recorded on video and then used by Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon in their documentary film on the student movement entitled "The Gate of Heavenly Peace."

7. Samuel P. Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993), p. 199.

8. Timothy Brook, Quelling the People: The Military Suppression of the Beijing Democracy Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 169.

9. Oksenberg, et al., Beijing Spring, p. xl.

10. "Special Report on China," Nonviolent Sanctions: News from The Albert Einstein Institution, Cambridge, MA, 1990, p. 3.

11. Elisabeth Rosenthal, "Memories of June 4 Fade, Stunted by Public Silence," The New York Times, June 4, 1999, p. 12; Michael Laris, "A Quiet Anniversary: Tiananmen Reflections Held Mostly in Private," Washington Post, June 4, 1999.

12. Rosenthal, "Memories of June 4 Fade," p. 15.