In the lead up to the Tiananmen crackdown’s anniversary, there have been a lot of articles looking back on the event – some with new interesting angles, some just dusting off stories from five years ago. But in reading this stuff, I’ve noticed that some things tend to get overlooked or remembered in a skewed way.
I think oversimplified media coverage of the protests at the beginning plays a major role. Images of Tank Man and Democracy banners in the heart of Red China offered a narrative too appealing to complicate with the finer details. This list (which is admittedly also pretty simplified) is a reminder of some of those details that we tend to neglect about Tiananmen and its legacy.
1. The whole event was much messier than it looks in hindsight
In popular memory, the Tiananmen movement was a brave stand by Democracy-hungry youth against the tyrannical Communist Party; but the reality was a bit more complex. Since the late-70s, the Party had been touting Reform and Opening up, so as the 80s progressed, political discourse became more open and “safe.” But the “reform” being touted was vague. It was akin to an American politician running on a platform of “change.” “Yeah, great,” most people thought. Just about everyone can agree to that. But once you start dissecting exactly what “change” or “reform” means and how far it should go, opinions start to diverge pretty radically.
By the time 1989 rolled around, just about every social group in China wanted some sort of “change.” Some thought the reforms had gone too fast, others not fast enough. There was a widespread feeling that, in one way or another, many government leaders had dropped the ball and were corrupt to the point that they were holding China back. But there was really no coherent set of demands among protestors about how to address this; in fact many of their demands were contradictory.
Names now synonymous with the movement like Chai Ling and Wu’er Kaixi probably didn’t mean much to the average protestor. In a sea of people, their influence stretched about as far as the sounds from their bullhorns could reach. These “student leaders” went through their own power struggles and quickly factionalized. Whatever control they had over the movement was confined to very small pockets. There were too many divergent demands for anyone to exert any meaningful leadership.
As the Beijing spring went on, the Tiananmen protests became a major social event that was seen by the public as a patriotic continuation of the May 4th Movement. People from every point on the social ladder and political spectrum – most of whom weren’t otherwise politically active – joined in with the herd. Even uber-nationalist and Confucius Peace Prize founder Kong Qingdong jumped in on the festivities, if that tells you anything. People tend to think the movement was for “Democracy,” but that’s a gross oversimplification. There wasn’t even a clear definition of what “Democracy” meant. Is it direct national elections, or is it just greater transparency within the CCP?
Few actually wanted to overthrow the CCP and replace it completely. After all, the protests started with an outpouring of support for a fallen Communist leader, and many of the protestors were Communist Party members themselves. But ultimately, there wasn’t really any agreed upon message or motive for the movement – just that it was patriotic.
2. The movement was a blessing for the CCP
With everything the Communist Party does to erase Tiananmen from history, it seems odd to think that it was actually the movement’s greatest beneficiary. The divergent demands emerging in the late 80s left the Party increasingly challenged by the public with shrinking room to operate. When hundreds of thousands of protestors took to the streets for seven weeks without any coherent set of demands, it was the perfect excuse to clamp down and re-assert absolute control. It was especially convenient for the hardliner faction of the CCP and the likes of Li Peng. They were able to pin blame for the “chaos” on liberal opponents who’d taken a soft-line on student demonstrations. Extreme measures – like purging the very highest ranked Party official, Zhao Ziyang – can only be taken in extreme circumstances. Tiananmen provided exactly this. The Politburo was cleared of those pushing for aggressive political reform, and agitators among the public were silenced. The now conservative-controlled CCP enjoyed two decades of the greatest prosperity it had ever experienced.
3. Tiananmen had some very nationalistic roots
It’s become popular to compare young Chinese of today unfavorably to the Tiananmen youth. The latter erected the Goddess of Democracy to stare down Mao, while the former throws eggs at the Japanese Embassy. But blind xenophobia/nationalism and fierce criticism of the government aren’t at all mutually exclusive, and in fact, can be directly related. This has been the case in political uprisings from the Boxer Rebellion to the May 4th movement. In fact, xenophobic protests were one of the undercurrents that led straight to Tiananmen Square.
In December of 1988, two African students at Nanjing’s Hehai University wanted to bring Chinese girls into a school dance, but were rebuked by campus security. The exact facts are disputed, but some sort of large brawl between groups of Africans and Chinese broke out. False rumors spread that Chinese women had been raped or kidnapped and a Chinese man killed. In response, hundreds gathered outside the foreign student dorm clamoring for blood, but they were dispersed by police.
This was just the latest in a series of race-fueled conflicts at universities over the preceding decade, and it incensed Chinese students. They were kept under strict control, while foreign classmates had all sorts of special privileges. Now, these Africans were apparently getting away with murder and being protected by traitorous officials. It was an infuriating highlight of China’s weakness.
The story wasn’t true, but the issues it represented struck a nerve for the students who felt corruption and disrespect all around them. They wanted to stand up and defend their country’s dignity, but once again they were thwarted by bought-off officials and an unjust legal system. It was just as their ancestors had felt before May 4th, 1919.
Thousands hit the streets with chants like “Down with the black devils.” But slogans like “protect human rights” and calls for political and legal reform soon slipped in. News spread to Beijing and Shanghai, where local students piled on the “anti-African protests.” Then with the death of Hu Yaobang four months later, the volume of these calls was cranked up at Tiananmen Square. (link)
So when you see Chinese youth of today written off politically because of their “nationalist” tendencies, it’s worth asking how much nationalism really hedges against challenges to the CCP.
4. There are side-effects from the state-induced Tiananmen “amnesia”
The Tiananmen Square Massacre raises very unwelcome questions about the Communist Party’s legitimacy, so it’s no surprise that it’s tried (pretty successfully) to airbrush it from public memory. We now frequently see reports highlighting the ignorance or ambivalence of young Chinese toward the events, and it gives a pretty sad commentary on how the rebellious idealism of youth has ebbed. But that’s an old story. What’s becoming an increasingly interesting story is the other implication of that “amnesia.”
When the CCP decided to put down the protests, it could have done so with riot gear or rubber bullets. It instead opted for machine guns with live ammunition. The bloodbath that ensued was a message that this sort of dissent wouldn’t be tolerated again. For the following two decades, that message was received loud and clear. But what happens when the next generation is shielded from it?
It’s an exaggeration to say that young people today don’t know anything about 1989, but most are indeed pretty sketchy on the details. I’ve even talked to a few students who didn’t know why it happened, but assumed the protestors must have had it coming if the government saw fit to kill them. They don’t fully grasp how the CCP was willing to send in soldiers to indiscriminately massacre hundreds, perhaps thousands, when it felt its legitimacy was threatened. And most of those protestors didn’t even oppose the CCP; they simply challenged it to reform.
These days, it’s becoming apparent that the next generation of youth isn’t as scared of speaking out (so long as they avoid directly attacking the CCP’s legitimacy). We’ve seen a steady stream of environmental street protests, a large demonstration against censorship, and recently, a dozen college students uploaded pictures of themselves supporting jailed civil rights attorney Pu Zhiqiang. In all these cases, teenagers and 20-somethings have been front and center.
This is still a relatively small segment of Chinese youth, but it’s one that’s obviously growing. None of these things were happening a decade ago. There are of course more social factors in play here than 6/4 amnesia, but as the memory of Tiananmen drifts further away, so does the instinctive fear it was meant to instill.