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The Legacy of Tiananmen Square


New York, December 2008

Wang Juntao arranges to meet me at a Starbucks at the corner of Broadway and 111th Street, across from Columbia University, his university pied-à-terre in Manhattan. I offer to rent a car and meet him at his home in New Jersey. “You might get lost,” he tells me on the phone. “In any case, I have things to do at the university.” He speaks warmly, as if we’ve known each other a long time. “How will I know you?” he adds. “I’m sure I’ll recognize you,” I reply. After all, Wang Juntao is one of the best known Chinese dissidents. Considered by the Chinese government as one of the “black hands” behind the Tiananmen student movement, he was condemned to thirteen years in prison, the most severe sentence imposed in the wake of the spring crisis of 1989 in Beijing. Freed for medical reasons in 1994 on the eve of American president Bill Clinton’s visit to China, he has since been living in exile in the United States.

The intellectual and reformer arrives on the dot at the appointed hour, briefcase slung across his shoulder. He gets to the counter ahead of me and offers to pay for coffee. “It’s the least I can do for someone who is interested in China’s future,” he says. We sit at the last available table, near the window. Outside, passersby brace themselves against a December wind. The sky is the colour of steel. I put the tape recorder on the table and ask Wang Juntao to tell me about Tiananmen.

“On the evening of June 3, 1989,” he says, “I was to meet, as I did every day, the student leaders for our daily strategy meeting. I showed up at the hotel where we had our headquarters, not far from Tiananmen Square, but no one was there. I sent my driver to see what was going on. He returned, telling me the army was advancing toward the square. I ran over. I knew it was the end. My only objective was to save the student leaders from the massacre that would take place. To do so, we had to leave Beijing. I left to look for them with my chauffeur. There were huge crowds everywhere.”

At Tiananmen Square, few protesters were left. Many, faced with the rumour of military intervention, had gone back home. The student leaders who were still there decided, in a last stand, to take an oath to the cause they had been defending for more than a month. They knew their struggle for democracy was lost. Already, the tanks of the People’s Army were advancing toward the square; in the distance shots could be heard. Deng Xiaoping, patriarch of the Communist regime, had decided to put an end to the student revolt. West of the city, in the working-class neighbourhoods, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of civilians, believing that the army would not fire on the people, fell to the bullets of soldiers or died crushed under the tracks of the tanks.

“We swear to protect the cause of Chinese democracy,” the students proclaimed in unison. “We aren’t afraid to die. We don’t want to keep on living in a troubled country. We will protect Tiananmen to the bitter end. Down with Li Peng’s military rule!” The square, in which a few days earlier close to a million demonstrators had gathered, now contained only a few thousand. The ground was littered with tents and debris. Resigned to martyrdom, the students awaited the final assault.

The army had difficulty advancing, however. People seemed determined to prevent the soldiers from reaching Tiananmen Square. Ordinary citizens erected makeshift barricades by placing buses crosswise in the street. A labour union distributed shovels and pickaxes to its members. Some of them knocked down the wall of a building site to allow people to arm themselves with bricks and stones. On Fuxing Road, a main artery several kilometres to the west of Tiananmen Square, thousands of people formed a human chain to block the army’s advance. The government, doubting the loyalty of the soldiers camped in Beijing, had called up detachments from the provinces, who were considered more obedient. They fired warning shots. But the human chain refused to back down. The soldiers then fired into the crowd. They even fired on the ambulance personnel who tried to assist the wounded. At Fuxing Hospital, there were no longer enough doctors to treat everyone transported there by makeshift means, on bicycles, motorcycles, or even on doors used as stretchers. Inexorably, the military continued its march to “free” Tiananmen Square. The crowd drew back but showed no mercy to the soldiers when it managed to get its hands on them. Two soldiers who tried to extricate themselves from a tank set afire by Molotov cocktails were beaten to death. In a brutal burst of violence, the crowd clubbed the skull of one of the soldiers open.

Around one o’clock in the morning on June 4, the army finally surrounded Tiananmen Square. The military used loudspeakers to tell protesters it had orders to put an end to the protest. The government branded the occupation an anti-revolutionary movement, which is tantamount to treason according to Chinese political vocabulary. A few students tried to convince the soldiers to put down their weapons; one of them was killed point-blank. The determination of the student leaders wavered. Those who, a few hours before, swore to die rather than to give up were not driven by the same hatred or the same courage as the workers or ordinary people who barred the soldiers’ way at the cost of their lives. The students didn’t believe it would come to this. When they began to demonstrate, in May, after the death of the reformer and former chairman Hu Yaobang, it was to call for the end of corruption and more transparency in the party. No one dreamed of overthrowing the regime. They even believed they had the support of Zhao Ziyang, the general secretary of the party and second-in-command in the regime after Deng Xiaoping.

Chai Ling, nicknamed the Joan of Arc of the student movement, addressed the last protesters gathered around the Monument to the People’s Heroes. “Those who want to leave should go,” she told the group, “and those who want to stay, stay.” While the elite troops, assault rifles at the ready, advanced toward them, the students voted with a show of hands. A majority decided to leave. Not far from there, Liu Xiaobo, a young academic and literary critic who had returned home from the United States to take part in the Tiananmen Square movement, had begun a hunger strike two days earlier with three other activists, one of whom was a young rock singer. Determined to prevent what seemed like an imminent massacre, he stepped in to mediate between the army and the students. Thanks to his intervention, the military agreed to let the students go. Escorted by the soldiers, they left the square singing “The Internationale” and calling the soldiers animals and fascists. In an absurd parody of their struggle, the effigy of the American Statue of Liberty they had erected across from Mao’s portrait was unceremoniously knocked over by a tank. Some students were arrested; others managed to flee, leaving the country. China’s democratic spring ended in blood, humiliation, and escape.

Wang Juntao knew that to survive the military crackdown spreading through the capital, he and the student leaders had to leave Beijing as soon as possible. In the confusion and panic, he still needed two days to find everyone. “I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I was certain of one thing,” he tells me. “If we wanted to stay alive, we had to leave Beijing as quickly as possible. At that moment the situation was very fluid. It was even possible that elements of the armed forces in favour of our struggle would rebel and organize a coup. We had to be ready for any eventuality.” On the morning of June 7, they left by train, heading to the northeast, barely avoiding a huge search operation that would sweep the capital. Within a few days, their photos would be put up in train stations and other public places. They were part of the twenty-one people most wanted for their role in the Tiananmen Square protests.

Wang Juntao, Wang Dan, and two other students managed to reach Shanghai. They thought that by being in the city they would more easily melt into the background. But the police were everywhere. Feeling more vulnerable in a group, they separated. Wang Juntao tried to reach southern China in the hope of secretly entering Hong Kong. Betrayed by one of the smugglers in the network, he was arrested in a train station while trying to buy a ticket. Wang Juntao was brought back to Beijing in handcuffs. Then came his trial, followed by prison, and his sudden and unexpected liberation a few days before the visit of American president Bill Clinton. Since then, Wang Juntao has built a new life for himself in the American academic world. Once his passport expired, he was no longer considered to be a Chinese citizen. He is still not allowed back in his country. But his dream of a democratic China remains intact.

More than twenty years later, the legacy of Tiananmen Square remains, an unsolved problem. The prominent names in the struggle, such as Wang Juntao, the mentor of the student leaders, or Wang Dan, leader of the Tiananmen student movement, live for the most part in exile in the United States, Europe, Hong Kong, or Taiwan. Their voices, for all practical purposes, have been stilled. In continental China, the struggle for democratization only survives underground. Any discussion on the country’s political future outside the framework of the Communist Party is severely repressed. In such a context, what remains of the democratic ideal in which so many Chinese believed during the spring of 1989? What do they think today of their battle and of the prospects for democratization of a China that managed to carry out one of the most spectacular economic U-turns in history while officially staying the course of its unfinished socialist revolution? What are China’s real prospects for democratization at a time when democracy has such bad press, given the parody it has become in the former USSR and the difficulties experienced by the West in making democratic reforms take hold in Iraq and Afghanistan? Should the struggle for democracy still be a priority for Chinese reformers, or must they first work at building a civil society and a rule of law capable of making democracy effective if and when it finally takes hold? These are questions that inhabit the daily lives of the exiled veterans of the Tiananmen movement and of those who still fight for political reform in China.

Today, the term Tiananmen Square remains a powerful symbol whose meaning varies diametrically depending on Western or Chinese points of view. For a good part of the international community, Tiananmen Square represents the symbol of a regime that chose to sacrifice the prime of its youth rather than accept change. The iconic image of a young man standing in the way of a line of tanks in the days following the massacre now appears for Westerners alongside scenes such as that of the Prague Spring in the gallery of pictures of twentieth-century Communist repression. But Tiananmen Square is also the battle for the triumph of liberal democracy, the inevitability of which many thinkers, especially in the United States, predicted with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet empire. Today, Tiananmen Square is still to a large extent the prism through which the West sees China. When Western leaders travel to Beijing and mention China’s human rights record in the presence of Chinese leaders, the unfinished business of Tiananmen Square is perceptible, both as a kind of uneasiness and remorse. The fact that the West keeps repeating the mantra that the market economy will bring about China’s democratization implicitly refers to the unresolved issue of Tiananmen Square.

Conversely, for China and its leaders, Tiananmen Square remains both a trauma and a taboo. The lesson Communist leaders learned from it is that opening the door to political reforms outside the limited framework of the party threatens the regime’s very survival. To understand the fear that the prospect of democratization inspires in them, we have to return to the context that led to the events of Tiananmen Square.

In the 1980s, Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, had not only begun economic liberalization of the country but also allowed extensive discussion of the political reforms that were to accompany the transition to a market economy. This unexpected opening spawned discussion groups, journals, and magazines, and a committee was even set up to study various reform scenarios within the government. When the students took to the streets and occupied Tiananmen Square, their initial aim was to show support for Zhao Ziyang, the reformist general secretary who was fighting a conservative backlash within the politburo. The Tiananmen Papers, published in 2001 in the United States by two renowned American sinologists, Andrew Nathan and Perry Link, tells the story of the deep divisions within the Chinese leadership during the spring of 1989.1 The book consists of a series of reports, transcripts, and accounts of conversations from the highest spheres of the Communist regime smuggled out of China after the massacre. They allow the reader to follow the day-to-day discussions, divisions, and positions of the government throughout the spring of 1989 and up to the days following the military intervention that put an end to the student protest.

These papers reveal the extent to which Deng Xiaoping was torn between the inclination to let the students express themselves and the reflex to quell their demonstrations. In the end, the old revolutionary could not come to terms with the idea that these youths, with the support of a significant portion of the population, could question not only the heritage of the Communist revolution but also, to some extent, the legitimacy of the regime.

In the fateful weeks leading to the bloody outcome of Tiananmen Square, Wang Juntao believed he was in a position to find a compromise between the students and the government and manufacture an agreement that would allow Chinese leaders to save face and the demonstrators to return home with their heads held high. At the time, Wang Juntao was one of the rising intellectual stars in China but also acted as an informal link to the reformist wing of the Communist leadership. Wang owed his notoriety to the fact that he had gone to prison for taking part in demonstrations commemorating the death of Zhou Enlai in 1976. He was only sixteen at the time. With his liberation and consequent rehabilitation, he became a symbol in China. To show how ready it was to make way for the reformers and victims of the purges of the Mao era, the new leadership of the party appointed Wang to the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League. Wang, however, continued to act in many capacities. In 1978 he became one of the most active but also moderate activists of the Democracy Wall. He launched, with others, the journal Beijing Spring, a scarcely veiled reference to the Prague Spring. People who contributed to it did not directly challenge the power of the Communist Party but campaigned for socialism with a human face.2 They called for respecting the rights guaranteed by the constitution, particularly freedom of the press, an essential condition for keeping the party on the straight and narrow.

Wang Juntao was not only the most famous of the activists for democracy but also, with his friend and partner Chen Zeming, one of the few who had succeeded in business. The two embodied the spirit of the times when people could have ideas and make money, and even make money with ideas. They owned their own research institute and the first private polling firm in China. Chen used the profits he made with two correspondence course schools to buy, together with Wang, an economic research institute connected to the Academy of Sciences. They renamed it the Beijing Social and Economic Sciences Research Institute. This privatization of knowledge and analysis was a first in China. They carried out studies for public or private clients, published books, and conducted opinion polls on subjects as sensitive as the political attitudes of the Chinese. Starting in 1988, they also published a review that became very popular with young Chinese in which they tackled the themes of democracy and reform. According to Wang Juntao, the fact that their institute was financially independent from the government was crucial. “Since we owned a business, no one could control what we published: so we had complete freedom of expression.” Their institute rapidly became the crossroads for many reform proposals and ensured that Wang Juntao and Chen Zeming played a key role in the reformist discussion that swept over China at the end of the 1980s.

In contrast with others, who wanted to carry out a French-style revolution, Wang and Chen dreamed of a British-style transition, “where we would come to a new arrangement with the king; we weren’t interested in drastic change,” says Wang Juntao. In their opinion, for democracy to work, it had to be supported by a civil society, institutions, and a rule of law. Demanding democracy without first laying the groundwork for it to function would lead to failure. In the course of their discussions, Wang and Chen reached an important observation: they wanted to be agents of change, not simply political agitators. To do so, they had to propose practical, pragmatic ideas on the reforms and cultivate alliances outside, but above all, inside the government. “If you want to have influence in China,” says Wang Juntao, “you must have a network inside the system and be connected to independent groups outside the government. That was our strategy.”

Wang and Chen worked at gathering together all those who wanted to change China: the intellectuals, students, journalists, and new entrepreneurs interested in politics. They organized seminars and published articles and books, all with the goal of creating a hub of reform in Chinese society. “Our intention was to build a political base for change,” says Wang. “To bring together all the independent thinkers and create public opinion in China.” Ideally, they would have liked to establish a political party, but that was impossible in Deng’s China. For want of anything better, Wang said, their institute became a kind of informal party. Considering his notoriety, it is completely natural that Wang Juntao found himself in the heart of the events of Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989. He quickly became, with his friend Chen Zeming, one of the éminences grises of the student movement. But he also had close ties with reformers inside the government, notably Bao Tong, the assistant of General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, who led the committee on political reform appointed by Deng Xiaoping.

In the beginning, there was something festive about the demonstrations. Up to a million people would assemble in Tiananmen Square. But Wang Juntao knew that the spontaneity of the student movement was also his Achilles heel and that the hard-liners around Deng Xiaoping would not tolerate such an affront forever. “The problem with the student leaders,” he told me, “was that they didn’t have specific demands that could have led to a negotiated compromise. They demanded more transparency from the government, the end of corruption, and a vague idea of democracy. I knew then that negotiation was basically impossible. Reformists inside the government said so to me: ‘But what do they want? Make a list, then we can have a discussion.’ That had become impossible.”

At the end of May, the situation became critical. General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, the leader of the reformist camp, was arrested. Li Peng, the prime minister and new strongman of the regime, had just proclaimed martial law. Soldiers began to move into the outskirts of the capital. Wang Juntao knew that little time remained to defuse the crisis. But he also knew that the students themselves were divided. The moderate wing, represented by Wang Dan, a young history student who knew how to stir up crowds, wanted to free Tiananmen Square and avoid military intervention. He believed that the students had won a moral victory and to continue the demonstrations would jeopardize whatever gains they had made. With dozens of other students he had staged a hunger strike that had crystallized Chinese opinion in their favour. The more radical wing of the movement, however, refused to withdraw.

Wang Juntao was also very much aware it would be impossible to convince the hundreds of thousands of students who had been demonstrating for a month in Tiananmen Square to go home without winning concessions from the government. They were intoxicated by their struggle, by the support of the people, and by the notoriety they had outside China. On the morning of May 27, Wang Juntao, his colleague Chen Zeming, and other liberals met with the student leaders. They thought they’d found a way out of the crisis. They suggested that the students adopt a resolution demanding a special session of the People’s Congress, the Chinese parliament that meets once a year. Congress had the power to revoke the martial law that had just been imposed and that was responsible for a significant escalation of tension. Wang and Chen hoped that this would allow for a return to calm and for a better climate for negotiation. In exchange, the demonstrators would agree to free Tiananmen Square. After long discussions, Chai Ling, the representative of the radical wing of the student movement, finally agreed to their proposal. Wang Juntao was relieved; the worst, he believed, had been avoided. Chai Ling said she would personally take care of informing the demonstrators of the decision. But once in Tiananmen Square, she could not bring herself to announce the end of the battle. She rallied those who demanded pursuing the struggle to the end. One week later, Deng Xiaoping gave the order to the military to put an end to the demonstrations. Wang Juntao became an outlaw; his photo was put up in public places as one of the most wanted men in China.

* * *

The campaign of Wang Juntao and of other activists in the Tiananmen Square movement in the spring of 1989 was the last in a long series of battles to democratize China that ended in failure. There was the Hundred Days’ Reform, when intellectuals tried to introduce democratic reforms to the Qing court at the end of the nineteenth century; the establishment of the short-lived elected government in 1912, overthrown almost immediately by the generals; the Movement of May 4, 1919, which saw intellectuals occupy Tiananmen Square to demand China’s democratic and scientific modernization; the Hundred Flowers Campaign at the end of the 1950s, when the Chinese were invited by Mao to express criticisms of the Communist Party before being severely repressed; the Democracy Wall of 1978, on which Chinese from all different backgrounds posted their demands for a more open China; and finally Tiananmen Square, ten years later, the peak of a century’s struggle for democracy. All the protagonists of these struggles inherited the battle of those who came before. But their cause, tossed about on the rough seas of China’s twentieth century, foundered each time before reaching port.

The catastrophic conclusion of the events of Tiananmen Square has had significant and unpredictable consequences for China. Many sinologists believe that Chinese leaders came to the conclusion that to temper the thirst for political reform, the pace of economic reforms had to be accelerated. Deng Xiaoping’s historic visit to the new economic zone of Shenzhen in 1992 was considered symbolic of this. It would be the initial spark of the economic big bang that launched China on its spectacular economic trajectory. Some analysts go even further and claim that the economic reforms of the past twenty years were actually a substitute for political reforms. The Chinese regime thus “reached the stage of governance without first going through the stage of democracy.”3 This governance, in the case of China today, consists of managing the problems of the new market economy, which excludes any political discussion. According to this logic, calling the Chinese political system into question is tantamount to questioning the legitimacy of economic progress and refusing to grant the Chinese the advantages of a consumer society. The only discussion allowed concerns improving the way the system works and must have as its premise the perpetuity of the Communist regime.

At a time when the majority of Chinese aspire—legitimately, needless to say—to the benefits of development, democracy activists see themselves relegated to the catacombs of dissidence. They lead their battle mainly on the Internet or in publications outside China, thus exposing themselves to severe reprisals that sometimes can go as far as imprisonment. The most prominent recent case is that of Liu Xiaobo, the literary critic who negotiated safe conduct with the army, allowing student leaders to leave Tiananmen Square before being subjected to an attack by the military in the early hours of June 4, 1989. Liu was one of the few Chinese intellectuals and veterans of this campaign to remain in China to continue the struggle for democratization. His last initiative, the Charter 08 movement, which demanded free elections, earned him an eleven-year prison sentence but also brought him the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. Chinese authorities, traumatized by the memory of hundreds of thousands of youths in Tiananmen Square demanding reforms, nip in the bud any hint of campaigns that could lead the Chinese to demand changes to the political regime.

In this context it isn’t surprising that Chinese authorities have erased the events of Tiananmen Square from history books and collective memory. Any political discussion of the June 1989 movement, which the government still describes as a counter-revolution, is forbidden; any research of the question on the Internet is automatically blocked. Few Chinese born after Tiananmen Square have heard of it. A young staff member of a Sichuan newspaper was fired a few years ago because he had authorized publication of a text by the Tiananmen Mothers, the women who lost children during the massacre and who to this day demand justice. The young journalist believed that Tiananmen Square referred to an ancient military battle.

It’s as if all of China had been struck with collective amnesia. But that’s not all. A large part of the intelligentsia that inspired the political reform movement at the time of Tiananmen has joined the ranks of technocratic governance. These intellectuals have accepted the new role the regime offered them, a role that “consists in bringing their technical expertise to the government to allow it to carry out the modernization of the country.”4 In exchange for this influence, the intellectuals implicitly agree not to question the legitimacy of the Communist Party.

From his prison cell, at the beginning of the 1990s, Wang Juntao saw clearly what was happening in universities and government departments. Back then he was angry at his former comrades-in-arms for having traded their independence of thought for a position or contract. He gave free rein to his bitterness in a letter he wrote to his lawyers to thank them for defending him. In it he criticized other intellectuals for not having the courage of their convictions, for not having agreed to go to prison for their ideals, as he and others did.

“They will certainly suffer less as a result,” he wrote. “But what about the dead? The dead are unable to defend themselves. Many of them intended to fight for China and her people, for truth and justice. I decided to take my chances to defend some of their points, even if I did not agree with all of them all the time. I know that my penalty was more serious because of all this action. But only by doing so can the dead rest in peace. . . . The trial has brought me a sort of relief and consolation. I once again have a clear conscience. . . . Yet what I am most concerned about is the loss of spirit and morality of our nation. . . . What I value is whether a human spirit has nobility—a noble and pure soul. In China, even intellectuals lack it.”5

Almost twenty years later, the man seated across from me in a New York café does not seem bitter. Even though all of his former life has been lost, even though he spent more than four years in prison, even though he may never see China again in his lifetime, he remains optimistic. Yet Wang Juntao knows better than most that the future of China’s political reforms will probably be at a standstill for a long time. He has just published a doctoral thesis at Columbia University dealing with the triumph of neo-conservatism in China. He knows that the conservative elements in the regime, at least for now, have the upper hand. It now seems possible for China to follow separate and apparently contradictory paths leading from the market economy and the monopoly of the Communist Party. He knows that Western premises relating to China’s democratic evolution have been proven false. He knows Tiananmen Square’s opportunity for democracy has not simply been postponed but that the country is experiencing an authoritarian change in policy that allows for no political reform. Chinese entrepreneurs who were supposed to demand a rule of law and launch China on the road to democratic reform have not only put up with the government’s authoritarianism but also support it as party members. He knows as well that the village elections that were supposed to sow seeds of democracy in the Chinese countryside instead guaranteed the stronghold of Communist officials on local government. To invest in China, foreigners now have to go through an investment fund controlled by the son of former Premier Wen Jiabao. The few activists who still dare work toward reform in China opt to defend so-called citizens’ rights, such as the right to clean water or education, rather than fundamental rights, such as freedom of speech, which are more likely to trigger repression from the authorities.

Wang Juntao knows that he and the other activists in exile who have not given up their fight may seem outdated, frozen like extinct species, in the amber of history. Despite all this, Wang Juntao says he remains confident.

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