Lessons from Tiananmen

Ian Buruma
7 Min Read

NEW YORK: It is a chilling thought that exactly twenty years after the “Tiananmen Massacre few young citizens of the People’s Republic of China have much idea of what happened on that occasion. Many unarmed Chinese citizens were killed by People’s Liberation Army troops on June 4, 1989, not only in the vicinity of Tiananmen Square, but in cities all over China. Most were not students, who started the peaceful demonstrations against corruption and autocracy, but ordinary workers, the sort of people a Communist Party ought to be standing up for.

Young people don’t know, because most parents have shut up about it, lest they get themselves and their children in trouble, and because the subject is never mentioned in the official Chinese media; it is a taboo. Websites mentioning the events of 1989 are closed down. Emails are intercepted.

People who still insist on talking about it in public are frequently arrested.

Zhao Ziyang was General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1989. Although no democrat himself, his sympathies were with the student demonstrators. Because he opposed the hard-liners in his own government, he was put under house arrest until his death in 2005, and his memoirs had to be smuggled out of the country on cassettes, disguised as Peking Opera recordings. They have just been published in English and Chinese, but cannot be legally distributed in China.

Zhao’s book will doubtlessly inspire more debates on what lessons we should draw from “June Fourth. These are necessary debates. If only they could take place in China. One strong school of thought that emerged almost as soon as the killing began in 1989, is that the more radical student leaders had been reckless. It should have been clear to them that a violent crackdown was inevitable. By provoking the regime, the students derailed any chance of slow political reform, which their more moderate elders had carefully set in train.

Indeed, so proponents of this school often add, China was not yet ready for democracy. And mass demonstrations certainly were not going to achieve it.

Indeed, the radical student leaders had no more understanding of democracy than the Communist leaders they opposed. Life in the capital, and many Chinese cities, had been severely disrupted. The Chinese government was heavy-handed, to be sure, but had a perfect right to restore order in the streets.

If the student leaders had really wanted to take over the government, and use violence to do so, this theory would be convincing. Violent revolutions are rarely followed by liberal regimes. There is, however, no evidence that even the most radical students ever had such ambitions, and the demonstrations had been entirely peaceful. All the demonstrators had asked for was free speech, dialogue with the government, independent unions, and an end to official corruption.

As to whether the demonstrations were doomed to end in failure and bloodshed, this too is easy to say in hindsight. History may never repeat itself precisely, but certain patterns can be discerned.

Demonstrations alone almost never topple a regime, but they can do so in combination with other political shifts, which can happen suddenly. When East Germans protested against their Communist autocrats in 1989, they were not assured of success either. Indeed, some Party bosses wanted to bring out the tanks, just like their comrades in Beijing. But when Mikhail Gorbachev refused to support a German crackdown, a mixture of overwhelming public protest and government bungling brought down the Berlin Wall.

South Korean students filling the streets of Seoul in 1986 could not have ended the authoritarian military government either. Again, it was a combination of events – pressure from the United States, the impending Olympic Games, and the presence of plausible opposition politicians – that did it.

The students on Tiananmen Square could not have known what was going on inside the closed Communist regime. There were serious splits, but no one could have known exactly what the end results would be. In the event, Zhao Ziyang’s conciliatory approach, which might have led to concessions, which in turn might have opened possibilities for a more open political system, lost out. Hardliners, who refused to give up their monopoly on power, won.

Would Zhao have prevailed, had the students retreated? Unlikely. In any case, it was not the place of the students, or the workers who supported them, to back any particular faction in the government. They lacked the authority. They were not politicians. All they asked for was more freedom.

And this should be the main lesson to draw from those Spring days in Beijing, and Shanghai, and Guangzhou, and many other places: Chinese have as much right as any other people to speak freely, without fear of arrest, to elect their own leaders, and to have laws that apply to everyone, even to the leaders themselves.

On June 4, 1989, thousands of Chinese were killed for demanding less than that. The best way to remember them is to reaffirm their right to liberties that millions of people, in the West, and in many parts of Asia, take for granted.

The worst way is to blame a few students who insisted on that right until it was too late.

Ian Buruma’s latest book is The China Lover. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).

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