“Before 1989”

Tomorrow is the twentieth anniversary of the tragic events that unfolded in Tiananmen Square.  As we’ve already noted, most people both in and out of China don’t have a very deep understanding of what happened there (not to imply that we’re experts).  It’s important to note that June Fourth was the last in a series of uncoordinated and often unrelated student protests that occured accross the country for over a decade.  The following account is translated from a biography of Han Shaogong, a famous novelist and former sent-down youth, who participated in student protests during the 80s.  It is interesting to look at the similarities in the organization of this protest and the much larger ones that took place in 1989.


At that time, everyone was fired up and wanted to be heroes.  It seemed like we had reached a stage in history where we were so close to having the China that we wanted, all we had to do was put in a little hard work and a beautiful country would emerge.  Of course, life is never that simple.

In 1980, the government was conducting a democratic experiment.  They were going to allow some people to vote for the People’s Representatives, but the students weren’t satisfied with the candidates the government had given them to choose from.  At Hunan Normal University, we all stopped going to classes, abstained from the voting and hit the streets.  Some of the students set up camp right in front of the provincial government’s offices and began a hunger strike.  Even the AP came to report on it.  At the beginning, I was sympathetic toward the other students and they asked me  to be their student representative to the government [At that point Han was already a rather famous writer, and the students thought he would have leverage with the government.-Ed].

I gave them three conditions: 1) Don’t make any excessive demands that we know can’t be met, 2) Don’t organize with other groups in Hunan or around the country, and 3) Call off the hunger strike and return to class.  Not surprisingly, I was immediately called a coward and they sent me packing…As the protest went on, I saw behavior that reminded me of my youth, when the Red Guards were reaking havoc everywhere.  They kept getting more and more extreme.

But what shocked me the most, was the despotism behind the democracy.  The student leaders’ main demand was to be recognized as the legitimate heads of the movement by the provincial party secretary.  Why was that so important? Some of the leaders fancied themselves as generals in control of an army of students…They were already planning their positions of power after democracy was established.  They even had an exclusive council and had their sights set on particular political positions.

After seven days of the hunger strike, the situation had become chaotic and I decided to find a way to let the students back down while still being able to accomplish some of their goals.  I went to the protest at four in the morning and gave a long speech laying out the students’ options and what they could accomplish by holding out.  Surprisingly, most of the students agreed and the movement was over.  The provincial government was so grateful that the situation was over, they caved into some of the students’ demands.  But I paid a high price for this.  Many students saw me as a “student traitor” (学贼), and the party members saw me as an activist and kept their distance.

I learned that even when you’re claiming to be democratic, it’s easy to be fooled.  Democracy couldn’t come to China if it were led by tyrants in disguise.

Translator’s Note: Han was a student at the time, but because he spent a decade in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, and, therefore didn’t have the opportunity to go to college on time, he was considerably older than most of his classmates.  I think this explains why he alternates between “we” and “the students.”

Our Thoughts

This story is very similar to the ones that have come out about many of the student leaders in the 1989 protests.  Many of them were acting in their own interest or in the pursuit of some abstract glory, rather than for the sake of the other students.

According to Jan Wong in Red China Blues, “Chai Ling was elected Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Tiananmen Square Unified Action Headquarters.”  (That quotation was taken from an excellent post over at Fool’s Mountain that goes into more detail about the student leaders.  It’s long, but worth reading in full.)

Criticizing the student leaders isn’t an attempt to shift the blame from the government.  Their unconscionable actions speak for themselves.  But if we are to evaluate all that happened on June Fourth objectively, we shouldn’t attempt to view it all in black and white.  History is never that simple.

References:  Kong Jian, Han Shaogong, A Critical Biography , Jiangnan Wenyi Publishing House, 2008 (pp. 37-38.)

0 thoughts on ““Before 1989””

  1. Interesting stuff. While I agree with Han’s questioning the motives (and democratic tendencies) of some of the student leaders, I can’t say I’m very surprised his solution of “long speech at four in the morning” didn’t work out.


  2. Agree it’s nuanced. Sadly that’s not how our media, or our “official narrative” of China sees it. Honestly, after 20 years it’s no longer mere “passive journalism” or “mistake”.


  3. Criticizing the student leaders isn’t an attempt to shift the blame from the government. Their unconscionable actions speak for themselves.


  4. Originally posted by a “Wahaha” in another post; I’m moving this comment here:

    As one of the students who participated in 1986 and 1989 democratic movements in China, I have to say that few of you know what we thought and believed 20 years ago, and what we think now.

    There are several things you have to know when talking about 6/4 :

    We didnt fight for democracy, we fought for something that we deeply believed that wouldve made China better. That is why democracy immediately lost its momentum after the collapse of Soviet Unions, as we saw what democracy wouldve brought into China.

    Maybe the current situation in China is not what you want to see, but for most of us, the direction China is going towards now is what we fought for 20 years ago. see the following link :

    Some of you think western democracy is the best thing since sliced bread. But that is not we believe now. Look around world, instead of “of the people, by the people, for the people”, western democracy is more like “of the riches, by the riches, for the riches”; the so called ‘ people ‘ are protesting for the money of their children and grandchildren ; in democratic countries, people who lived in slums 20 years ago are still living in slums.

    Did any of you watch “slumdog millionaire”? do you know that the father of your indian star tried to sell his daughter for $300,000 ? do you know that 40+% of children under age 5 are under weight ? do you know China was poorer than India 20 years ago. SO SPARE US THE EMPTY TALKS OF HUMANITY. This is what we are doing :
    If I read the temper of our people correctly, we now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we can not merely take but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective. We are, I know, ready and willing to submit our lives and property to such discipline, because it makes possible a leadership which aims at a larger good. This I propose to offer, pledging that the larger purposes will bind upon us all as a sacred obligation with a unity of duty hitherto evoked only in time of armed strife.

    With this pledge taken, I assume unhesitatingly the leadership of this great army of our people dedicated to a disciplined attack upon our common problems

    Franklin D. Roosevelt


  5. @Custer

    They can talk about the rich and the poor all day, but at the end of the day, and yell about how it’s money that elects politicians, not the people. But at the end of the day, it’s in China where local politicians are permitted to give gifts to villagers to sway their votes before an election, not in America. It would seem it’s in China where it’s truly “by the rich and for the rich.”

    Plus, I feel that describing poverty issues in India or people living in slums seems to be missing the point on this whole “humanity” subject. Because unlike in China, when human rights abuses take place in America in the form of violent crimes and such, it’s not state-sponsored.


  6. @ Josh, yeah, I’m reposting another person’s comment from elsewhere on the site because I felt it was more appropriate here. I don’t personally agree with it.


  7. By saying “SO SPARE US THE EMPTY TALKS OF HUMANITY.”, my post is an answer to woodoo.


    In China, riches have little to none saying about what government should do or should not do.

    In a democratic system, who or which agency is capable of limiting the power and influence of riches ? Answer : none.



    Obviously, you are a pro-democracy, I dont mind, and I dont mind you bash CCP, in lot of ways, they deserve it.

    I dont know why my post is not appropriate ‘ there ‘. Is this kind of ‘ censorship ‘ West media has used widely and wisely ?


  8. Josh,

    In China, riches have little to none saying about government policys.

    In a democratic system, who or which agency can limit the power and influence of riches ? Answer : none.


  9. Josh,

    You can bash CCP, I dont mind. and in lot of ways, they deserve it.

    No offense, but we are not interested in talks without goal. If you post something to remember those who died 20 years, I will wholeheartly support you; if you post something that implys your view representing the view of those who participated in 1989 movement, sorry you are not.

    The feeling is very simple : something you deeply believed and fought hard for, turns out to be a naive imagination; there is not much to be proud of. What 6/4 accomplished is that CCP realised the power of people, which has made them work very hard to improve the economy.


  10. @ Wahaha: What the hell are you talking about? Where did I ever post something “that implys your view representing the view of those who participated in 1989 movement”? I have never posted or suggested anything like that whatsoever, so please stop accusing me of it.

    As a sidenote, you might consider taking your own advice a bit, my guess is that among the hundreds of thousands of protesters there are plenty who might characterize and understand what they were protesting for differently than you do. You also seem to be claiming to understand Western society and democracy better than we do, which I find rather unlikely (no offense).

    Anyway, the only person here claiming to represent the views of “the people protesting in 1989” is you.


  11. C.Custer,

    Sorry for offending you.

    In 1980s, we knew little to nothing about outside world, few families had TV, everything we knew about West and democracy is from VOA. You think we knew what democracy was ?

    Let me tell you a story in 1986 in Shanghai :

    We students gathered at people’s Square, policemen surrounded us with a big circle. Only students were allowed to get into the circle, and, no students tried to reach out the people who were watching us outside circle. Did we know what democracy was ?

    Yes, I have tons of friends who participated in 1989 movements from Beijing to Shanghai to Hefei, all of them stopped careing about democracy since former soviet unions were cut into several pieces. wonder why ?

    If you think you understand democracy, then please kindly explain the following phenomena :

    1) With all the millionaires and billionaires who beneifited hugely in last 20 years, why did west need borrowing money from China ?

    2) what led to the huge amount of debt US, British, France owed ? government officials elected by people are stupid or the so called ‘ people ‘ are irresponsible ?

    3) Why couldnt democratic governments pull the people living in slums out of poverty?

    lastly, if possible, I like you to show me some articles that proved the greatness of democracy by real world facts, not empty words like ” you can vote …” or “freedom”.


    I give you an example :

    There is government position to be filled, you have two choices :

    1) one millionaire and one big-shot lawyer run for the position, you can vote.

    2) one person with similar financial situation like you from your neigborhood is appointed, you cant vote.

    Which one do you like ? I would take #2.

    It is naive to think you have a people’s government simply cuz you can vote.


  12. Wahaha,

    The idea that wealth has no political influence in China is so laughably ridiculous, I don’t even feel like mentioning how all of the democratically elected village leaders are businessmen who buy their way into power. You say that riches have no influence on political policy — but the people making those policies got there for a reason, and it wasn’t because they campaigned across the appropriate channels. But you’re right. Wealth doesn’t affect the policies on paper. But it certainly does hold sway when the men upstairs decide to brazenly break every single one those rules. Don’t insult me with this languid nonsense like I don’t know anything about the country I live in.


  13. Josh,

    Yes, Riches have little to nothing saying in decision making in top tier of the government, locally yes, they have a little.

    Now have a look of those rescue plans during these financial crisis.

    Let me compare the wealth to a pie :

    In China, government officials cut 10% for themselves, and give 90% to people.

    In India, riches cut 90% for themselves, and give 10% to people.

    Dont believe ? I give you two pairs of numbers :

    China spent 568 billion dollars in stimulus plan, India 50 billion.

    India has 1,456 billion dollars of black money in Swiss bank, China has 96 billion dollars.

    Try to explain that.


  14. C.Custer,

    you said “You also seem to be claiming to understand Western society and democracy better than we do, which I find rather unlikely (no offense).”

    But you didnt challenge what I said:
    ” Look around world, instead of “of the people, by the people, for the people”, western democracy is more like “of the riches, by the riches, for the riches”; the so called ‘ people ‘ are protesting for using the money of their children and grandchildren ; in democratic countries, people who lived in slums 20 years ago are still living in slums.”


    No offense, but please explain the phenomena I mentioned.


  15. “Anyway, the only person here claiming to represent the views of “the people protesting in 1989″ is you.”


    Can you explain why people in Russia abandoned democracy in merely 8 years ? not only that, they selected a former KGB as their president.

    Why ? cuz down to earth, the thing people care most is their living better. Didnt you see almost all the protests in West are basically ” give me the f—— money!” ? didnt you see all the candidates getting vote by claiming ” I will get more money for you ” ?

    Didnt you hear that former presidents of Taiwan and South Korea were caught for corruption ?

    That is about basic instinct of human being, Chinese are no exception. For almost all the people, especially those living in poor, the things they care most is how to get a better living.

    Also you know, the 1989 protest was an all-out protests, I have tons of friends who participated in demstration, you know what we worried at that time ? Iron bowls. druing 1987 to 1989, government broke the system of Iron bowls, including graduted students, we had to look for job ourselves, lot of workers lost their jobs and benefits or their incomes dropped significantly. also SEZ was just set up, people in SEZ were getting rich quickly, while people in Shanghai and Beijing didnt have the benefits of policy, which caused widespread dissatification of the government, plus the corruption. These were the reason that started 1989 democratic movements.


  16. Wahaha: You seem to be under the mistaken impression that I have said that China should become a Western democracy, or that I have any interest in defending Western democracies.

    Yes, there are plenty of flaws with our system, although the gap between the rich and the poor is definitely wider in China than it is in any Western country. However, I’ve never said China should be democratic the way America is, nor do I have any interest in engaging in some stupid shouting match about whose political system is worse.

    You seem to be intent on engaging in an argument about something no one here is actually talking about. I’m going to ask that you stop, and respond to the things people are actually saying in response to this post. If you don’t, I’m going to start deleting or editing your comments. I’m not going to have senseless nationalist arguments on this site, period.


  17. Two WOW :

    First WOW,

    You are the first westerner I know who are willing to concede there are flaws in democracy and who didnt try to push their believe into our brain.

    2nd WOW,

    Since last march, the word “nationalist” or ” natioanlism” has been widely used on people who have different opinions from West media. I dont know what I have said had anything to do with nationalism.

    I dont care communism you can bash CCP, I dont mind), I dont care capitalism, I dont care democracy-lism, I dont care empty-talk-lism, I dont care idealism, I dont care idiolism, I dont care human-rightlizing-everything-in-china-lism. All I care is something-that-works-in-China-lism.

    Again, 1st, You have my respect for being an honest person; but 2nd, your comment “…and respond to the things people are actually saying in response to this post. ..” seems to imply that the threads on this board are pointless.



  18. This is NOT a board, this is a blog. People comment on and discuss the topics posted on the blog. You, on the other hand, are arguing with people that don’t exist. So all you care about is works-in-China-ism! Great! Who are you talking to? Who ever said anything contrary to that?

    Second, if I’m the first westerner you’ve ever talked to who would admit there were flaws with democracy, you obviously haven’t talked to many Westerners.


  19. Custer,

    My first post was for Woodoo who basically accused people like me not caring for the “humanity”, I tried to explain my stand of what kind of “humanity” I care. and you moved my post here.


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