There Will Never Be Another Tiananmen 1989

2009 has the potential to be a volatile year for China. The economy is slowing, Charter 08 is reportedly gaining some momentum (Also see ChinaGeeks’ guide to Charter 08), and the year brings two inauspicious anniversaries: the fiftieth anniversary of the Tibetan Uprising in 1959 and the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Incident in 1989. There has been much speculation and, one imagines, wishful thinking that something like Tiananmen (only larger and more successful) might happen this year. Well, it won’t. Evidence suggests that the protests and subsequent crackdown in 1989 redefined the way Chinese people approach rebuking their government.

First, let’s define some terms. For the purposes of this article, two terms have been invented, both terms refer to modes of solving national political and social issues in China:

  • National Collectivism refers to the mode of problem solving marked by top-down, collectivist approaches and focused directly on national interests. It is characterized by appeals to solve national problems by way of broad, nationally-implemented solutions.
  • Local Individualism refers to the mode of problem solving characterized by non-collectivism and non-generalism. It implies that national, general problems are best solved through a focus on individual or local specific issues.

As with almost any attempt to broadly define historical eras and trends, the distinctions that separate National Collectivism and Local Individualism are not always cut and dry. There may be individual cases where the line between “general” and “specific” problems is difficult to draw, or where the difference between a “national” cause and a “local” one is not entirely clear. Still, looking at the larger trends, these categorizations are useful to separate what are two very different techniques.

Pre-1989, there are lots of examples of National Collectivism. The May Fourth and May Thirtieth Incidents are early examples of protests appealing for sweeping, nationally-implemented reforms, and of course the CCP’s large scale movements (Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution, etc.) also qualify in that they are all attempts to resolve national issues through collectivist solutions implemented nationally. The Tiananmen Incident of 1976 and the Democracy Wall movement in 1976, again, were appeals for broad change on a national level, and there were others. It is, of course, a well-publicized fact (outside the PRC) that the goals of the students in Tiananmen in 1989 were also broad reforms they wanted implemented on a national level.

After the crackdown, Chinese culture—especially youth culture—underwent something of a transformation. “Gray culture”, as it was called , was “a state of mind—the zeitgeist of a new generation that had lost the grand hopes of reforming, much less unseating, China’s Party-controlled political establishment.” (Schell, Orville, Mandate of Heaven) Rather, youth focused on much more personal methods of resistance, or eschewed social change altogether. The people had learned, wrote critic Liao Wen, that “extreme resistance proves only just how powerful one’s opponent is and how easily one can be hurt.” Rebellion became a personal concept expressed through removing oneself from official channels and culture rather than by demonstrating en masse in the hopes of affecting far-reaching social change. Gray culture was, then, the antithesis of National Collectivism: where National Collectivism aims to solve issues of nationwide importance, gray culture focused on individual goals; where National Collectivism approached broad social change directly and with optimism, gray culture largely ignored it. In their own way, they participants in gray culture were changing society in a decidedly Local Individualist way. The stage their rebellion played out on was inevitably individual rather than national, but this widespread form of individual changes in attitude was itself a form of protest.

It would be untrue to allege that protests haven’t occurred in post-Tiananmen crackdown China. Quite the contrary, mass protests have been quite numerous. However, post-1989, protest and reform efforts have differed sharply from the protests that occurred in Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989. In Rightful Resistance in Rural China, O’Brien and Li characterize the rural Chinese protests in the 1990s and early 21st century as “rightful resistance”. This type of resistance, they argue, is played out as a “local or regional rather than national or transnational” phenomenon, and thus it clearly fits within the confines of nationalist individualism/localism. For example, O’Brien and Li cite a Central Committee report as saying that in rural Shandong province in the year 2000, more than seventy percent of collective incidents were in response to “[local] cadre-mass contradictions and conflicts of material interests” . Much of that 70% apparently refers to protests of corruption in local elections:

The main points of conflict reported were: elected cadres who were corrupt, overbearing, or unwilling to open village finances; election manipulation; attempts by lineages or criminal gangs to undermine elections; and county and township officials who did not “work hard to guide elections and correct problems.

Clearly, these kinds of protests all fall within the definition of Local Individualism. Moreover, these statistics, although taken from a study of incidents in Shandong, appear to be representative of the country as a whole. Over the course of the book, O’Brien and Li cite examples of protests spurred by displeasure with local elections in Fujian, Hebei, Liaoning, Heilongjiang, Zhejiang, Henan, and Hubei, just to name a few. In fact, direct-action protest tactics—a form of resistance that appeals either directly to a mediator, high-level official, or the local populace regarding a local dispute of some kind—are on occasion quite effective, and widespread enough that Chinese surveys indicated direct-action rural resistance was occurring in Sichuan, Anhui, Hunan, Jiangxi, Henan, Shaanxi, and Hebei, while surveys taken by O’Brien and Li reported people from twenty-eight provinces had lodged complaints about local affairs, people from twenty-seven provinces had “led or taken part in demanding dialogues with local government leaders”, and people from twenty-six provinces “had taken part in publicizing central policies and laws [as a way of informing villagers that these central policies were being violated locally]”. Although O’Brien and Li’s sample sizes were too small by far to be considered scientific (overall, they had 1,314 respondents), all signs indicate that in rural areas, protests focus exclusively on local issues. Almost all of the incidents of protest cited throughout the book are either protests of local laws and regulations or improper or nonexistent local enforcement of national policies locally.

Interestingly, in the essay “Civil Resistance and Rule of Law in China: The Defense of Homeowner’s Rights”, Yongshun Cai cites a 2004 survey by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences as saying that “of its record of 130 mass confrontations between peasants and police in 2004, about 67% were over land use.” Although this seems as though it may contradict O’Brien and Li’s numbers—there is no way that 70% percent of mass incidents can be over local electoral problems at the same time 67% of them are about land reform—whatever translation issues and contradictory data explain the difference are largely irrelevant here, as land use protests also qualify as Local Individiualist mode of solving social issues. Cai also notes that local land use protests are not just taking place in rural areas, but that the phenomenon also holds true for people in urban areas . For instance, in Nanjing, homeowners unified against a developer and defied move them by “organiz[ing] themselves day and night into patrol squads to monitor the people entering their neighborhood.” He also cites examples of urban protest about local land use issues in Beijing and Shanghai

Xi Chen cites yet another protest phenomenon popular in post-1989 China. “[The] most common strategy [of ordinary people when protesting] is what James Scott calls ‘everyday forms of resistance’: people carry out covert and individualized resistance while feigning obedience.” Chen then argues that in addition to the examples of “rightful resistance” cited by O’Brien and Li, Chinese protests also sometimes take more confrontational forms. Chen cites four examples. The first, a group of disabled urban residents who drove “motorized tricycles” (ostensibly as necessitated by their disabilities) organized a protest at their district government (Chen does not specify which city the example is from), then blocked the gates of the provincial government compound and undermined an officially sanctioned parade. The second example concerned retired cadres protesting insufficient pensions and health insurance from their former work groups (the groups were targeted specifically), her third example also concerns government retirees seeking pensions from their former company, and her fourth involved demobilized members of the military who found it difficult to get jobs because national policies had not been properly implemented in their location. What all of her examples have in common is that they are protests bent on resolving specific, local issues rather than national ones.

All of protests described above, which represent both urban and rural protests in China post-1989, are both local and specific, as they tend to be focusing on local implementation of a specific law, tax, or policy. They quite clearly implement Local Individiualist modes of solving social issues, and surveys by various branches of the Chinese government, media, and academic world (as cited in O’Brien and Li) and O’Brien and Li’s own research confirm that this mode of protest is widespread and makes up the vast majority of “mass incidents”. Reasons for this are clear: China’s authoritarian government proved with finality on June 4, 1989 that direct impact on national politics was out of the question; thus, many of those inclined to protest shifted their focus locally. O’Brien and Li confirm, “Most popular contention [in post-1989 China] surrounds misimplementation of beneficial measures that already exist but which local officials have chosen to ignore.” Clearly, in post-June 4th China, Local Individualism has become the default popular approach to solving political and social issues.

Does any of this prove for certain that there won’t be another National Collectivist event like the protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989? Certainly not, but it does indicate that popular perceptions about how to effect change have shifted away from any kind of national, people vs. government confrontation. 2009 is going to be an interesting year, but it seems unlikely we’ll see another Tiananmen-like incident.

Major Sources
O’Brien, Kevin J., and Li, Lianjiang, Rightful Resistance in Rural China, Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Schell, Orville, Mandate of Heaven, Touchstone, 1995.

[Full citations for all quotations, including page numbers, publication dates, etc., available on request.]

0 thoughts on “There Will Never Be Another Tiananmen 1989”

  1. Hi,
    You are absolutely correct on what O’Brien and Li have noted to be local grievances. But the thrust of “rightful resistance,” is not so much that they are locally-based as they are law-based. For example, the Chongqing nailhouse controversy was interesting because the woman defended herself with the property law. Likewise, villagers might take a local official’s statement and ask him to deliver on his promises.
    However, if these rights-based grievances are ignored, it suggests that there is either something untrustworthy about the government’s claims, or with local officials’ administration. Should people fail to be satisfied at the local level and then move up the political hierarchy, on up to Beijing, and still find that their grievances are still not being addressed — what then? It no longer becomes a local issue. This is becoming an increasingly pressing question as there have been more news reports of different groups going to Beijing with grievances in tow, but leaving without an answer (or worse).
    We can only speculate about if people are getting disillusioned or not, and to what extent. Another question is if non-participants are hearing about this and if so, how many, and are they also growing disillusioned? And of course, the grand question, what will it all amount to?


  2. Yeah, that’s a valid and interesting question, and I suppose it remains to be seen. I think the Chinese government benefits from the fact that most people are unlikely to be willing to see things through the whole way, though. For instance, after a long chase up the hierarchy that led all the way to Beijing and ended without positive result, I wonder if many people, though disillusioned, might decide to cut their losses and give up since the original issue was a local one that might not appeal to a larger base of protesters, whereas a nationally-based protest has intrinsic national appeal and can build on itself like a snowball rolling downhill. The national appeal of local issues that haven’t been resolved by Beijing is only sort of tangential: “the government should have fixed issue X, but they didn’t”. It might offend a larger percentage of the populace, but at the end of the day, how many people are going to be willing to spend their time and risk their careers/freedom to protest about how issue X went unresolved if issue X doesn’t affect them?


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