30 Years After Tiananmen: The Meaning of June 4th

Issue Date April 2019
Volume 30
Issue 2
Page Numbers 31-37
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The 1989 democracy movement and its suppression marked a watershed in China’s contemporary history. The movement has influenced China’s subsequent development in at least three major ways. First, it was an enlightenment movement that spread the concept of democracy far and wide. Second, it played a vital role in grooming talent for the development of China’s civil society and the next wave of prodemocracy activism. Third, it laid a foundation for democratization in China’s political culture and popular mindsets. At the same time, the movement’s violent suppression left a legacy of fear and has led to the elevation of economic over social goals; a general attitude of defeatism; and a profound deterioration in social morality and ethics.

In assessing the historical significance of 4 June 1989, it is useful to consider a hypothetical question: If the democracy movement that brought the protesters out onto Tiananmen Square that day had succeeded, what would China look like today? Answering this question requires first establishing what “success” would have meant for the movement’s participants. There are a number of misconceptions on this point, one of which underlies a question often asked by the skeptical: “If you had taken power, would you have been better than the Communist Party?” In fact, this challenge rests on a false premise. The students who took to the streets in 1989 never mentioned replacing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) or proposed taking power ourselves. Regardless of the events of June 4, there was never any possibility of the student leaders becoming national leaders. Conjecturing about whether these leaders could have “done better” than the CCP, then—a popular tactic for casting doubt on the democracy movement—reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of that movement and its purposes.

About the Author

Wang Dan is chairman of the Chinese Constitutional Reform Association and founder of the think tank Dialogue China. In 1989, he was a leader of the student protests on Tiananmen Square. 

View all work by Wang Dan

Success means achieving one’s objective. The political positions of the 1989 democracy movement were first laid out in the Seven-Point Petition that student representatives, including myself, submitted to officials in an 18 April 1989 meeting in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, which sits beside Tiananmen Square. The goals set forth in this petition included, among others: publishing the salaries and all other forms of income of state leaders; allowing privately run publications and freedom of the press, with censorship to be lifted within a stated period; increasing funding for education; properly appraising the errors and achievements of reformist former general secretary Hu Yaobang (1982–87), whose [End Page 31] April 1989 passing was a trigger for the Tiananmen Square protests; and a thorough repudiation of both the campaign against “bourgeois liberalization” that accompanied Hu’s removal and the earlier campaign to “eliminate spiritual pollution,” including rehabilitation of the citizens who suffered injustice during these campaigns. As the movement developed, more political demands emerged, but these generally remained within the overall framework marked out by the aforementioned Seven Points.

To define success for the 1989 democracy movement, however, I would propose a different benchmark: the two conditions put forth during the student hunger strike initiated on May 13. This action transformed the student movement into a popular democracy movement, inspiring a nationwide base of supporters to rally behind the participants’ demands. From this it follows that success for the 1989 democracy movement would have entailed the government accepting these demands. The two conditions were: 1) that the government promptly engage in a substantive and concrete dialogue on an equal footing with the Dialogue Delegation assembled from Beijing’s universities; and 2) that the government fairly appraise the student movement and recognize it as patriotic and democratic in nature.

Discussing the question “What if the 1989 democracy movement had succeeded” therefore means considering what might have happened had the government affirmed the student movement as patriotic and embarked upon a dialogue with its members. In my view, such a turn of events would have had three main near-term effects:

1) A successful democracy movement would have fortified the reformist faction within the CCP, represented by Zhao Ziyang (who became general secretary following Hu’s ouster and was himself pushed out by the end of June 1989). It is common knowledge that Zhao was the senior CCP leader most inclined toward market-oriented economic reforms, and also the most open-minded of the Party’s top officials. If he had acquired greater policy-making authority, he would surely have used it to push for more extensive marketization. Hints of this trajectory could be seen in the bankruptcy law initially implemented in 1988. In other words, a successful democracy movement would not have plunged China into chaos, but rather would have lent new momentum to the economic-reform process.

2) If the 1989 democracy movement had succeeded, the political reforms initially launched in 1988—particularly those allowing for greater freedom of the press—would have gone forward with strong public support. This in turn means that economic reforms would have proceeded in an optimal environment: one with mechanisms in place [End Page 32] for the public to offer its input. Today, even the CCP acknowledges that expanding the role of “supervision by public opinion” is the only way to effectively contain the corruption spreading throughout the country. Had Beijing begun widening the space available for free expression back in 1989, graft and self-dealing would not have come to pervade China’s system in the way that they do today.

Wang Dan

One of China’s leading democratic dissidents, Wang Dan was born in Beijing in 1969. He enrolled in 1987 at Peking University, where he regularly hosted meetings of the “Democracy Salon.” In 1989, he became one of the organizers of that year’s pioneering democracy movement. In May, he played a role in starting the Tiananmen Square hunger strikes, and launched a hunger strike of his own. In the aftermath of the Tiananmen crackdown that the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime unleashed in early June in order to crush the democracy movement, he went into hiding and was one of 21 people put on the list of “most wanted” fugitives. He was arrested in Beijing on July 2 and sent to Qincheng Prison. In 1991, he received a four-year sentence for “instigating antirevolutionary propaganda.” Released in 1993, he continued his opposition to the CCP and was rearrested in 1995. His 1996 sentence of eleven years for “conspiring to overthrow the government” led to international pressure that secured his release in 1998, followed by exile to the United States. In 2008, he earned his doctorate in East Asian history from Harvard University, and has since been a visiting fellow at Oxford University as well as a teacher and researcher at National Tsing Hua University and National Chengchi University, both in Taiwan. He is the chairman of the Chinese Scholars’ Friendship Association, a board member of the New School for Democracy, and the founder and executive director of Dialogue China, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. He serves on the steering committee of the Asia Reform and Democracy Alliance, and his books include The Prison Memoir of Wang Dan, which was published in Chinese in 2013.

3) Success for the democracy movement would have set a precedent for dialogue between China’s government and its society. In fact, the 1987 political report of the CCP’s Thirteenth National Congress, drafted under the leadership of Bao Tong (a Zhao associate who was jailed shortly before the Tiananmen Square crackdown), established consultation and dialogue with the public as the focus of the Party’s reform plans. When the students called for dialogue, they were effectively echoing this demand for political reform. [End Page 33]

Today, the prospect of any such meeting of the minds between China’s government and its people has vanished, and the people have lost all confidence in the government. This is the main reason why so many social conflicts ultimately erupt into violence. In the delicate process of reform, with pressures from above and from below, social stability depends on keeping open a channel for dialogue between the government and society. Only through dialogue can the two sides work in concert to ensure a smooth and steady transformation. Taiwan’s experience offers the best point of reference. If the 1989 democracy movement had succeeded, the social foundation for the introduction of reforms in China would have been greatly strengthened.

Of course, success for the 1989 democracy movement would have had a range of other, deeper political, economic, and social effects that would have unfolded gradually over time. The developments mentioned above are the minimum changes that we could have expected to see in the near term. Simply put, if the 1989 democracy movement had succeeded, China would have stepped more swiftly onto the path of market development, and the ensuing economic reforms would have been implemented within a framework of political democracy. A democratic setting, with all the political constraints and incentives this entails, would likely have mitigated the rising social inequality that accompanied marketization, preventing it from climbing to the levels that we see in China today. Furthermore, development would have been carried out through a process of constant dialogue between the government and the public, contributing to the growth and strengthening of civil society. Is this not the kind of China that we would like to see?

Practical Conclusions

Stepping away from hypotheticals, what has been the actual impact of the 1989 democracy movement on China since the June 4 crackdown? I believe that the movement has influenced China’s development in at least three major ways.

First, the 1989 democracy movement was an enlightenment movement. The 1980s were an era of idealism, in which intellectuals, seeking to push China toward democratization, devoted themselves to spreading their ideas about democracy. For most of the decade, however, this enlightenment work was limited to paper. It took the form of essays, lectures, interviews, and the translation of foreign works on the social sciences. The enlightenment movement of the 1980s (sometimes called the “new enlightenment movement” to distinguish it from the May Fourth reform movement of the early twentieth century) reached its greatest heights at the end of the decade, and the 1989 democracy movement can be seen as its climax.

The defining feature of this climax was the pursuit of democracy [End Page 34] through real civic action. In 1989, the students’ drive together with support from people across all social strata ensured that the concept of democracy was spread far and wide until it became the shared demand of the entire populace. That is why China’s authorities, even after carrying out a violent suppression of the democracy movement, nonetheless began in the following years to hoist the banner of democracy and human rights. In the official discourse of the 1980s, democracy was dismissed as a Western, bourgeois concept, but in the 1990s, terms such as “human rights” were enshrined in China’s constitution. This shift reflected the formidable pressure from public opinion that made itself felt in 1989.

Second, the movement played a vital role in grooming talent for the development of China’s civil society and the next wave of prodemocracy activism. Before 1989, “dissident” was a rare designation in China. Although many people were dissatisfied with the one-party dictatorial system, they had no way to explicitly identify and orient themselves. The 1989 democracy movement led many devotees of democratization to begin defining themselves as members of a political opposition, and to make it their personal mission to carry on the spirit of 1989. In the 1990s, a significant number of dissidents began to emerge.

Many of the rights-defenders who have caused a storm in China in recent years were originally participants in the 1989 democracy movement. That movement, in effect, fostered a new political force composed of modern citizens. The formation of civil society is a crucial part of the groundwork for China’s future democratization, and the generation of people called to action by the spirit of 1989 represents the core of an emerging civil society.

Third, the 1989 democracy movement laid a foundation for democratization in China’s political culture and in popular mindsets. One of the obstacles standing in the way of China’s democratization has been our traditional political culture, which fosters an overreliance on government—that is to say, it encourages the individual to depend excessively on the state rather than to regard himself as master of the country. All hopes rest on the state, which is expected to serve the people. This approach leaves little distance between the individual and the state, and so the state can easily infringe on individual rights. At the same time, a lack of distance between individuals and the state also means a lack of space for civil society to develop.

When the students took to the streets in 1989, their actions were to some degree in keeping with China’s traditional political culture. These students might be seen as following in the footsteps of the 1895 Gongju Shangshu movement, which organized a petition to demand that the state carry out reforms. Yet the government’s violent suppression of the 1989 democracy movement thoroughly changed the relationship between the individual and the state in China. We discovered to our amazement that even the apparently open-minded government of the 1980s, once it felt [End Page 35] itself to be under threat, would preserve its power at all costs, including by a return to ruling through violence. A widespread loss of faith in the government led to the political apathy of the 1990s, which has persisted to this day. To a certain extent, this apathy may be seen as a stage in the evolution of the public’s mentality. At least the state now has difficulty carrying out ideological mobilization, and the gap between the individual and the state has begun gradually to widen—developments that are prerequisites for China’s future democratic transition. This is why I view the 1989 democracy movement as the starting point for the formation of China’s civil society.

Of course, the Chinese people paid a heavy price for these developments. The Communist government’s violent suppression of the democracy movement not only inflicted a deep wound on our nation, but also left a legacy of fear that has inhibited popular resistance to totalitarianism. After 1989, support for political reform was almost completely stamped out, with the result that China’s progress on the road to democratization has lagged far behind that of other developing countries. All this was the consequence of the suppression of the 1989 democracy movement, and we should not forget it.

A Dire Turning Point

At the same time, we can see that 1989 was a watershed in China’s contemporary history. China before that year and China today are in many respects poles apart. The Chinese state and society that have developed since the 1990s exhibit three characteristics that represent a dramatic departure from years past. I feel that these characteristics also stem directly from the government’s violent suppression of the people’s demands for democracy in 1989, and that they will be major influences on China’s future development.

The first characteristic is the prevailing trend of putting the economy above all else. After the Opium Wars of the mid-nineteenth century, which ushered in a period of foreign incursion and political instability, chaotic and violent conflict became the determining factor in China’s social evolution. After the CCP took power in 1949 with Mao Zedong at the helm, class struggle drove development. Even during the period after 1977 when Mao’s reform-minded successor Deng Xiaoping held power, political reform was given equal priority with economic reform. Over the past century of China’s history, it is only since 1989 that economic development has become the sole axis for measuring advancement. Today, economic logic determines everything from policy formation to value judgments. This has created an imbalance in China’s development, which in turn has given rise to increasing social instability. The elevation of economic over social goals can be traced back to the democracy movement’s suppression: The 1989 crackdown not only [End Page 36] stifled popular energy for demanding political reforms, but also left the government apprehensive about even touching on political topics.

The second characteristic is a general attitude of defeatism among the people, and especially the elite. Before 1989, concern with China’s development was widespread among intellectuals and in urban society, and people were willing to express their views on national and social issues. College students were inspired to take to the streets by their shared belief that each individual bore responsibility for the nation’s fate. But the violent crackdown in 1989 and the unbalanced development of the subsequent years caused state and society to become increasingly alienated from one another; people descended into political apathy, and the elite class shifted its focus from national development to personal gain. Such widespread defeatism was rare after the Opium Wars. Its emergence after 1989 reflects the deep impact of state violence on the collective mentality of China’s people.

The third characteristic is a profound deterioration in social morality and ethics. In public discourse, common-sense moral and ethical standards have ceased to hold sway. Views incompatible with the most basic regard for humanity, such as “It is worth killing two-hundred-thousand people for the sake of economic development,” are now accepted to a certain degree, and a wide array of cynical attitudes and beliefs have come into fashion. This state of affairs is also a consequence of the 1989 crackdown: Once idealism hits the wall, it often gives way to cynicism and a sense of hopelessness.

These three characteristics, which emerged after 1990, have heavily influenced China’s subsequent development, and they continue to cloud the country’s future prospects. This, too, is part of the historical significance of June 4.

Finally, I need to acknowledge that what happened in 1989 has profoundly affected my own life. Because of my part in this chapter of China’s history, today I am no longer free to reject the responsibility of promoting social progress and living up to certain expectations. As an ordinary student, I could have opted for a personal life or a public one, but now I have no choice but to live in the public eye. It is hard to say whether this is my good or bad fortune, but I feel that I can only face up to it.

Furthermore, if I were confronted with the same choice all over again, I believe I would make the same decisions I did in 1989. When one is young, embracing social ideals is not a matter of rational choice, but rather something closer to an emotional necessity. This is an estimable emotion, but it can be a fleeting one; as one grows older, it becomes very difficult to experience the passion of youth. Yet human life is finite, and I would not wish to give up the opportunity I had to join part of my life experience to the struggle to realize social ideals and to secure a better future for China. That is why I have absolutely no regrets for the price that I have paid. This is my own life choice. [End Page 37]


Copyright © 2019 National Endowment for Democracy and Johns Hopkins University Press

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