Reflection on Tiananmen, Spring of 1989, Part I

The 1989 movement has a place in China’s modern history equal to the Opium War, the Taiping Rebellion, the 1898 Wuxu Reform, the Boxers, the 1911 Xinhai Revolution, the 1919 May 4th Movement, the Civil War, the 1949 founding of the People Republic of China, and the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution. Its significance surpasses that of a mere short-term student movement, not only because of the great number of lives it touched nationwide during the movement, but also because it has long-lasting symbolic and political meaning that will continue to unfold for generations to come.

The mass movement in 1989 raised the fundamental questions that China faced in the 1980s. The questions are:

Can a technologically and economically modernizing China develop, prosper, and strengthen without implementing other Western values?
Can a patriarchal political system cope with the desires and aspirations of its youth and of its future generations living in an increasing interconnected world and open society?
Can dynastic cycles and the psychology of you-die-I-live in the zero-sum political transitions be somehow replaced by dialogue, negotiation, compromise, and co-existence?
Can order and progress somehow co-exist in China?
Is every movement in support of liberal tradition, (freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law), doomed to act merely as a prelude to each and every major transformation in China, only to be commandeered later by forces that are conservative and comparatively backward?

These are questions that concern the whole of China: the ruling party, the people, and the emerging political elite. Moreover, they are the same questions that generations of Chinese have faced in their relentless modernization efforts during the last century and a half. The answers to these questions were uncertain then, and still remain so today in the post-Deng Xiaoping era.

The 1989 movement dramatically raised those fundamental questions. Furthermore, they connected the old and new all in one theatrical play of love and hate, faith and betrayal, naiveté and realpolitik, hopes and disappointments, dark impulses and a sense of responsibility: factors that are all too human and all too Chinese to be transcended by the noble goals and stated purposes of the spokesmen of the movement. The familiar rhetoric used by both the government and the leaders of the movement; the speed and power exerted without the structure of checks and balances, which can corrupt even the purest souls; the acceleration of tension; the presence of a revolutionary fervor similar to that which inspired the youth of the Cultural Revolution; the broad and lofty claims made by the students; the inability of high government officials to cope with open challenge; the low capacity of the student leaders to genuinely control either the direction of the movement or the pace of its course; the tendency that part of the intelligentsia had to hover between serving as outside critics or as inside participants, as well as go-betweens for the government or as supporters of the mass and students are all symptoms of a nation and its youth caught in a timeless space.

What was exceptional about this movement? It was not a movement of national salvation. The country was not under major external threat or internal turmoil anywhere near to the degree of that existing in previous national movements. However, for the first time, the purpose of a nationwide mass movement was not national survival, but the betterment of the overall quality of people’s lives.

This was not a top-down, politically elite-engineered movement with a distinctive political agenda. There was no clear bearer of the political consequences prior to the movement. Political forces, both within and outside the establishment, became involved as the course of the events progressed. The reform-minded government faction and the self-styled aspiring liberal political elite outside the government all connected themselves with the all-powerful student-led movement only when it reached a level of national influence. For the first time, a nationwide mass movement was not solely a tool of political games and a product of political design, but rather a spontaneous, grass-roots demonstration of the general concerns felt by a large section of the society, albeit primarily urban.

There were several features of this movement that made it remarkable. The fit between student demands and popular sentiment was strong in the area of social justice and general hope for greater freedom and democracy. The general population expressed little criticism of the students’ insistence on a dialogue with high ranking government officials and for the generally confrontational ways in which the students conducted their affairs. This was unexpected for a people long accustomed to the paternalistic political mentality and the supremacy of political authority. The reason was not so much because of any clear and present danger that the country faced due to the inability of the government, but rather due to the partial yet important success of government engineered reforms and the psychological, intellectual, social, and political by-product–raised- expectations–brought about by those reforms. For the first time in China’s modern history, the country was enjoying an uninterrupted period of growth with relative social stability. Fast economic growth, like economic depression, often creates psychological up-rootedness. Thus, uncertainty and the raised expectations, which were not met, generated deep dissatisfaction in the general population.

The impressive organizational structure of the student leadership was, for the most part, an important and positive factor in the growth of the movement. Anyone outside of the governmental apparatus lacked the necessary experience in mass organization, yet despite their inexperience, the students demonstrated how quickly a spontaneous movement can turn into an orderly operation. This opened up the possibility of a relatively fast mobilization and organizational consolidation of a political alternative to the Communist totalitarian Party and its supporting police state apparatus. While many had hoped for this, more had feared that it was unfeasible. This is not to say that the organizational aspect of the movement is politically mature, on the contrary, the speedy disolution of leadership following the massacre indicated the imaturity by any sound political standard. It merely indicated a remote possibility of a organizational political alternative in the future based on a sponteneous movement.

However, the movement’s importance lies not in what it accomplished, but in what it did not. 1989 did not see reconciliation between radical public concerns and adaptive public policy. Compared to government crackdowns on previous political dissent, this movement accelerated under a relatively safe environment, and repeated stimuli from the government allowed it to continue. In the early phase of the movement, pressure from school authorities on student leaders, attempts by police to block demonstrations, government manipulation in response to the demands of demonstrators, and temporary setbacks were all practically affordable before the Massacre of June 3rd and 4th, and in turn, stimulated the movement’s growth. From my own recollection, and from the dozens of eyewitness accounts that have come out in the last eight years, it was quite clear that the longer the movement lasted, the less control the leaders of both opposing parties were able to exercise till the bloody showdown in Early June. We were also, to a significant degree, led by the course of events, over which the student leadership had little overall control.

In the decade prior to the 1989 movement, almost any public demonstration resulted in a call for fundamental political reforms. The Democracy Wall Movement followed Deng’s rise to power in the late 70s. The reopening of universities and reinstallation of local elections opened up the Election Movement. Japanese revision of official high school textbooks on the Sino-Japanese War triggered the New 9.18 Movement, and the nationwide student movement of 1986. In these series of events, the 1989 movement cannot be seen as sudden and exceptional. As many fundamental conflicts accumulate, and as long as symbolic anniversaries remain appealing to the public, another mass movement could rise at anytime. Will this likelihood cease when the opposition achieves limited but concrete changes in government policy or attitude? Will the government use even more force to crackdown? How far can gradual reform go? 1989 left these questions wide-open with the deep wound inflicted by the double impact of an intolerant government and the movement’s uncompromising leadership.

The price for radical reform remains terribly high. The dramatic ending of the 1989 movement demonstrated how high that price can be, and cast a shadow over future possibilities. When a mass movement rises again, there will be no room for naiveté. What could not be accomplished last time does not necessitate its realization next time around. History tends to repeat itself, and no matter how fantastic it may seem, things can always be worse.

This complexity of the 1989 movement in the Chinese national psyche, along with the Anti-rightist Campaign in the 50th and the Cultural Revolution from the mid-60s to mid-70s, have made the already tortuous path of China’s modernization even more uncertain. Imbedded in the complexity of post-Communist transitions in Central and Eastern European countries and the Former Soviet Union since the end of the 1980s, the triumph of the institution of liberal democracy and market economy is not so certain as some have claimed and many tend to believe. The “end of history”, as some enthusiastically believed after the fall of Berlin wall, remains an inspiration, and far from reality.

This is not to say that the chance that China will finally get on the liberal democratic track is slim. On the contrary, the opening up of China in the reform period, the experience of the 1989 movement, the collapse of the world Communist camp, and the great expansion of the global market have all provided favorable conditions for democratization in China. What this does say is that the process is not an easy one, and cannot be taken for granted. China’s liberal democrats face even more complex situations, for the Chinese population has more complex examples to learn from, therefore raising more complex expectations.

While liberal opposition in China and in exile have the dream of promoting a free society of responsible individuals, how to accomplish the goal, and to start with, how to assess China’s current situation continue to be difficult tasks. Contrary to the accusations by those in the Beijing regime and some China experts in the West, we fully understand the torturous path of China’s modern history. We have empathy for the pain that all the people in China endure. We are alert to the complex domestic and international security issues China faces, and subsequently, the political and social stability that is important for a balanced development.

We differ with the Beijing regime on the point of stability. Stability should not be mere stagnation, and progress does not necessarily lead to chaos. We believe that stability should be for the good of the country, not the party in power; and that stability is only achieved if a prospering China also develops respect for human rights, rule of law, an accountable democratic government, and responsible and peaceful participation in international affairs. Only then, will we have lasting stability.

We differ also from Beijing and the apparent majority opinion in the Western political and commercial establishments on the virtue of China’s economic development. We welcome the greater freedom in job allocation, travel, access to information, and civic association due to the economic growth, and most of all, the expansion of free market. However, when economic growth strengthens a regime, that increases the military budget, increases the budget for police surveillance, but also continually decreases the investments in education, in arts and culture, in social justice, and in government’s public accountability, this represents a negative growth in the overall quality of life. Pure economic growth as such does not necessarily mean it is sustainable, nor does it mean it is a balanced development.

On the same note, we do not believe that China’s problem have to be dealt with in a one-time, revolutionary fashion (though we respect people’s right to do so.) We support all the healthy reform measures including new Premier Zhu Rongji’s anti-corruption campaign and administrative streamlining. We believe that if gradual reform can reach the necessary depth, the price people have to share for the transformation could be lower than a revolution. At the meantime, we clearly see the limitation of the current reform, and its avoidance of genuine political institutional change. Though we appreciate the complexity of the problems China is facing, and understand that such a complexity is not only a political one; we believe that without a genuine political reform, balanced development can not be achieved.

Twenty years have gone by, since the bloody crackdown at the night of June3-4, 1989. Once again, Chinese paid the price of blood for reform at that night, and mass arrest, forced exiles which followed the massacre. Today, there are still prisoners in China who have been imprisoned in connection with the 1989 movement, relatives of the dead are still harrassed for their public mourning of their loved ones and for their appeal to establish a truth commission by the People’s Congress, and hundreds remained in exile, most of whom are not allowed to return to our homeland, even to enter Hong Kong.

So much loss, and so much pain have once again captured a generation in the bitterness that so many generations in Chinese modern history have tasted. And yet, it is the duty of us who survived the massacre to rise above the tortuous past for a better tomorrow.

Twenty years of time at least should give us the distance for a better understanding of the meaning of 1989 in Chinese history. Like the May 4th Movement in 1919, 1989 Movement means not only its particular historical events, but also a historical movement broadly defined. What a movement can leave us by and large depends on what we can discover in the process of our reflection.

(The essay so far is mostly from the preface of Almost a Revolution,  Ann Arbor Edition by the University of Michigan Press)

To be continued.

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