Tiananmen at 25: From the China Beat Archives

There has already been, and there will be much more, written about the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and June Fourth Massacre as the 25th anniversary approaches. As I said, I’ll do my best to stay on top of it all and post links to good material here on a semi-regular basis. But in addition to new reflections and analysis, I’m also taking this opportunity to look back at older writings about the Beijing Spring and its aftermath. I thought I would start at the site I know best and had the privilege of editing for close to three years, The China Beat. I entered “Tiananmen Square 1989” in the search box, combed through our archives, and picked out these five things to share with you, the first four of which appeared in the site at the time of the 20th anniversary in 2009:

• Journalist Philip J. Cunningham (no relation) posted extensive excerpts of his book Tiananmen Moon: Inside the Chinese Student Uprising of 1989 at China Beat:

Cunningham coverTiananmen Moon: Preface
Excerpt II (Looking for Feng Congde)
Beida Summit
The New May Fourth Spirit
May 10, 1989: Demonstration of Ten Thousand Bicycles
The Hunger Strike Begins
5/15/89: Looking for Gorbachev
5/16/89: To Serve the People
5/18/89: Working Class Heroes
5/22/89: The Hunger of Provincials
5/26/89: An Audience with an Audience
5/28/89: Chai Ling’s Last Will and Testament
6/4/89: The Night of No Moon

Cunningham will release a new edition of Tiananmen Moon this May in advance of the 25th anniversary.

• Read Tiananmen protestor and scholar Wang Chaohua’s account of “The Big March of April 27, 1989,” which marked a turning point in the makeup of the protestors. While the initial protests were filled with university students, the April 27 march brought in workers and other members of the general public. The Tiananmen protests are still remembered as a student-led movement, but actually, it is likely that the majority of the people killed on the night of June 3-4 were not in fact students, but members of other groups who had joined the movement.

• Despite the diverse makeup of the movement, there were still many divisions between the different groups within it. Professor Jonathan Unger analyzes these fault lines and explains why the Tiananmen protests attracted such a broad swath of the public in “The Tiananmen Protestors, Then and Now”:

What held the protesters together was the very fact that theirs was a protest movement, without a clear platform. Had there been one, far fewer people might have participated – for the solutions to China’s economic ailments favored by different groups among the protesters were very much at variance. Some of the protesters who came into the streets – in particular the leading intellectuals and most of the students – wanted the economic reforms to proceed faster. Others among the protesters contrarily had discovered that the economic reforms had not been to their advantage: particularly those in the working class whose incomes were declining, and those whose jobs were no longer secure or who had already been laid off. Only a fragile unity was pasted together among these groups. The better educated had little sympathy for the circumstances of the laborers, and for much of the time the university students sought to keep the working class at arms’ length, preventing workers from entering the perimeters of their own demonstrations.

All the same, more than merely anger at economic woes and corruption held the various protesters on the same side of the political divide. They did project a vague common vision of what they wanted, and it was summed up in the word “Democracy.” The word was blazoned on a multitude of their banners. But by “democracy,” few of the protesters meant one person, one vote. Most of the university students and intellectuals had no desire to see the nation’s leadership determined by the peasants, who comprised a majority of the population. Many urban residents held the rural populace in disdain, and their fear was that the peasants would be swayed by demagogues and vote-buying.

Zhang cover• The biggest and most widely covered protests were in Beijing, but the spring of 1989 saw student protests in major cities across China, including Chengdu, Guangzhou, and Nanjing. Journalist Zhang Lijia (author of the book “Socialism is Great!”: A Worker’s Memoir of the New China, which I highly recommend) was then working in a factory in Nanjing, where she organized a demonstration in late May. In “China’s Growing Cage: The Legacy of Tiananmen,” she looks back on her involvement in the movement and shares her continuing, if tempered, optimism regarding China’s future.

• The Tiananmen protests came at the conclusion of a transformative decade in the PRC, one that was marked by reforms and a degree of openness that would have been unimaginable during the Mao years. For many scholars, the changes of the 1980s are embodied in the landmark miniseries River Elegy (Heshang), which aired on CCTV the year before the Tiananmen protests. Sinologist David Moser discusses River Elegy in an essay that reflects on the program and its continuing resonance across more than two decades:

Viewing the documentary again gives one a sense of the tragedy of missed opportunities. River Elegy occupies a point on a fleeting historical trajectory that fizzled in 1989. It is a time-capsule relic of the chaotic but hopeful 1980s, when something like an honest dialogue between the leadership and the people seemed at least a possibility. A question is: How did such a program come to be aired in the first place?

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