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.”
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.)