Misreading Tiananmen: Part I

I woke up this morning and put my black t-shirt on. Today is June 4th, or 六四/ liusi, as the Chinese call it. I was considering joining in the annual 6/4 candle light vigil in Victoria Park tonight. But something I saw on Facebook this morning – something overall innocuous – is making me rethink going: it was a picture of the Goddess of Democracy and the words, “never give up hope.”

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I had two immediate reactions. The first, was, “they have.” And the second was, “hope for what?” Which led to a realization that 6/4 might mean very different things for the people who experienced and the people of Hong Kong (and the West, in general). The commemoration of the event, likewise, means different things. For Hong Kongers and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), 6/4 was a revolutionary threat – a democratic coup at the footsteps of the Zhongnanhai compound that was crushed because of its prospects for success. But that’s not what it meant for most of the students, it was a call for evolutionary reform – some of which has been met.

I’m convinced that we do injustice to the dead when we use them, and the anniversary of their protest, to argue for a type of change that the CCP has always insisted – despite student denials – that they were after. For the vast majority of participants, 6/4 was never about overthrowing the CCP and replacing it with a Western-styled multi-party electoral democracy. Implying that it was, by demanding such changes during 6/4 vigils in Hong Kong, at least partially ensures the CCP never needs to reevaluate what happened.

In Part II of this post, I want to argue that full democratic transition in China right now is unwise. The rest of this post is meant explore what 6/4 was for the participants, and how it was interpreted by different people and groups.

Interpreting 1989

For the students who went to Tiananmen, the sit-in was a call for political and economic reforms for the Communist Party to implement. Let us not forget the origins of the movement – it started as a commemoration of Hu Yaobang, the outspoken General Secretary of the Communist Party who had been sidelined by Deng Xiaoping because of his reformist views and his refusal to follow orders firing other reformists. The original seven demands of the Tiananmen students were all for reforms. Not a single demand called for elections or the end of CCP rule. To wit, their demands were:

Affirm as correct Hu Yaobang’s views on democracy and freedom; Admit that the campaigns against spiritual pollution and bourgeois liberalization had been wrong; Publish information on the income of state leaders and their family members; End the ban on privately run newspapers and stop press censorship; Increase funding for education and raise intellectuals’ pay; End restrictions on demonstrations in Beijing Provide objective coverage of students in official media.

Consider that for a moment: the students at Tiananmen were calling for a vision of freedom and democracy that had been espoused by the top leadership of the Communist Party. How “top” was it? Xi Jinping now has Hu Yaobang’s job. Far from trying to topple the party, they were taking sides with (relatively powerful) factions inside the Party. They were as “anti-government” as the Tea Party in the United States was. They were showing popular support for one faction of an intrenched power.

It is interesting that two oppposing groups fundamentally misunderstood what was going on: hardline Communists and pro-democracy advocates. Li Peng and his CCP faction misunderstood the nature of the protests and over-reacted, partly because the socialist world around them was begining to crumble. A political earthquake has begun and the Berlin Wall was to crumble five months after all this.

In the months before, protests had erupted in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and Romania. Communist parties everywhere were in a state of collapse. The USSR held their first competitive parliamentary election three months earlier, Poland followed next by having their first on… June 4th, 1989. This was the beginning of the end of the Cold War – or, as Fukiyama would have it, it was the beginning of the “end of history.” A point of reference from which there could be no other path to development other than some varient of a liberal democracy. It’s understandable that many in the CCP thought they might well be next.

And they weren’t alone in seeing the students in Tiananmen as being the beginning of a d’état or popular uprising to push the CCP from power – some force of historical inevitably. Most of the Western democratic world saw it as that. They stayed glued to their TVs waiting Deng Xiaoping to announce a call for elections and an end to CCP’s political monopoly. But this wasn’t what the students demanded, even if Li Peng was having the PLA sharpen their swords to remove the “threat” of this happening.

The people of Hong Kong saw it as that too. For all of the same reasons that Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng were terrified, Hong Kongers saw hope. History was moving in the opposite direction for them. Where the Soviet Union was about to collapse and Eastern Europe freed from Soviet control, the British had just ceded Hong Kong to (limited) CCP rule that would begin in six years. Both, then, saw 6/4 as part of some Hegelian geist that it never really was. Where the CCP saw fear in it, Hong Kong saw hope.

1989 and 2013

The vigils and marches in Hong Kong today seem to fundamentally be about calls for democracy in China. Pulling up the latest SCMP article about the vigils, two types of signs are visible: one demanding justice for victims (“平反六四” / “Overturn the unjust official verdict on 6/4”) and calls for democracy in China (“March for Democracy in China”). And it is this second “hope” that I think my Hong Kong friend speaks of, more than the first. Hope for a democratic China. Hope, perhaps, for another 6/4 – this time without the guns and tanks. And whether it is acknowledged or not, protesters actually demanding multi-party democracy this time.

But what of the student demands from 1989? More than half of been addressed or partly addressed. The school- and education-specific reforms have happened. There’s now a private press, but still quite a bit of censorship. The government never admitted that Campaigns against Spiritual Pollution and Bourgeois Liberalization were wrong, but many CCP policies today promote what they once condemned as “spiritual pollution” and “bourgeois liberalization.” The CCP internally tracks the incomes of cadres and cracks down on many of them, and there’s serious talk of making cadres publicly declare their assets.

And what do the Chinese today want? Regarding Tiananmen specifically, there are the Tiananmen Mothers. But they’re not calling for an overthrown, or even reform. Let’s look at their actual demands:

  • The right to mourn peacefully in public;
  • The right to accept humanitarian aid from organizations and individuals inside and outside China;
  • No more persecution of victims, including those injured in the shootings and the families of the dead;
  • The release of all people still in prison for their role in the 1989 protests; and
  • A full, public investigation into the crackdown

They just want justice: acknowledge that a grave injustice happened, make appropriate restitutions. They would probably settle for the CCP just admitting that their sons and daughters were killed by the PLA that night. For me, this is a perfectly legitimate demand. And it is why I’m wearing black today. Some very brave people died that night. We can, and should, remember them.

And of the other billion or so Chinese? On the 20th anniversary, my Hunanese taxi driver needed some help remembering that anything of note happened at all twenty years ago. Not a single student, to my recollection, hinted that they were aware that the rest of the world was marking the date in newspapers and vigils. A relatively highly-placed CCP official once told me that he supported the students, in spirit, at the time. “But Guangdong would be its own country today,” had they won – meaning, the People’s Republic would have been torn apart by regionalism like the Soviet Union was. Among the youth, anyone who has spent time in China knows that it’s simply not an issue because of how thoroughly the media and history books remove all mention of  what happened.

And what of hope? Like most of the world, their hope is relatively material. They hope for better social mobility. They hope for a legal and criminal justice system that “works” a lot better than it does now. A lot of them hope to be able to buy books and join online social networks that are banned now, in so much as they know such books and websites exist. Like Americans, a lot of them hope to cut through red tape – making it easier to start businesses, travel, aquire the residency permits (see: hukou), or even change college majors. Mostly, though, they hope for a system where character and talent matter more in the job market and business world rather than guangxi/relationships.

But, speaking in broad strokes, I think they’ve given up hope that big changes can be pushed on the government through demonstrations and social unrest. I think they’ve given up hope that something like a multiparty democracy or even substantial political reform might arise in coming years.

I think many might actually think a full transition might be undesirable. And I would partially agree – call for revolutionary democratic reforms in China are misplaced, or at least seem deeply ahistorical about the processes of democratization that we’ve seen elsewhere. I’ll write more about that in a second post.


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