24 Years On

By Mo Zhixu, published: June 4, 2013


By all means, the student movement in the spring of 1989, from its emergence to its development, was a surprise. It started with the sudden death of Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦), the reform-minded CCP General Secretary who had recently been taken down by Deng Xiaoping, China’s real ruler at the time. It escalated when People’s Daily published the editorial entitled “We Must Take an Unwavering Stand against Unrest” on April 26, and climaxed with the controversial hunger strike in Tian’anmen Square. Before April 15, 1989, no one had seen such a magnificent student movement coming, let alone its cruel and bloody ending. Today, looking back 24 years later, some things have changed forever and will never be repeated, but a certain logic is continuing at work, and the June 4th movement and its tragic outcome are still important factors in China’s core problems and they have never gone away.

The Unrepeatable Student Movement

China in 1989 was still under the tight, omnipresent grip of the totalitarian system. In the cities, the work unit-based structure was barely beginning to loosen. In the countryside, much of the rural population remained isolated from the urban areas and was still living in abject poverty although the so-called household contract responsibility system with remunerations linked to output had been widely implemented. Most members of China’s intelligentsia worked in the system and under the control of the units that employed them. Private businessmen and employees of foreign or joint enterprises were only emerging and few in number. There was no social class in Chinese society that could have started a movement, if it wasn’t for that generation of college students who seemed to have arrived on the scene out of nowhere.

College students in the mid 1980s were known for being “decadent.” They were not as earnest as those classes who came immediately before them; they were content with 60 points in their course work, and they refused to be held to lofty “ideals.” In daily life, many of them found their pursuit in Ma Jong, love affairs, dancing, and the TOEFL. Before April 15, 1989, if someone predicted that this generation of college students would contribute the most inspiring movement against the regime, it would be regarded as the talk of idiots.

Looking back after all these years, we might be able to see better some of the positive qualities of college students around that time. First of all, they were no longer beholden to the bankrupt communist ideology; instead, they depended more on their common sense to make judgments, and common sense served them well enough to take a stand against the despotism around them. Secondly, college students in China at the time had a strong sense of elitism and an elevated sense of self-importance due to the extreme selectiveness of college entrance policies and the high expectations placed on them by the society at large following the bleak 10-year hiatus of the Cultural Revolution.

Finally, among the juniors, seniors, graduate students and young faculty, the memory of the student demonstrations at the end of 1986 was still fresh which resulted in, among a slew of expulsions from the party, the resignation of Party Secretary Hu Yaobang. All of these together made up the campus climate in the spring of 1989.

Almost all have changed these days. Colleges are much more accessible, young people no longer have the same kind of elitist sense of self, and commercialism has pretty much washed off idealism. The new totalitarian system, veiled under “market forces,” globalization and information technology, has become less repulsive than before, not to mention that the authorities over the years have taken measures to cleanse and control college campuses because of the student movement in 1989. Today’s university campus is no longer the place where free thinking is bred. However you look at it, a student movement similar to the one in 1989 is all but impossible.

The Distant Echo of a Mass Movement

The protagonists of the June 4th movement were college students, although in Beijing there was wide participation by the general public, especially after May 19 when martial law was announced. But overall, across China, whether it was workers, farmers, the educated class, or the emerging private businessmen, none of these groups participated enthusiastically. This had little to do with moral choice, and was determined by the level of totalitarian control and the social structure at the time.

But 24 years on, the circumstances have changed a great deal. In today’s China, while a student-led democratic movement is unlikely, the possibility of large-scale mass movement clearly has heightened. After 1989, especially from 1992 onward, the Chinese communist party chose quick and sweeping market-oriented reforms. Today, even though the party/state still keeps its grip on key economic sectors, maintains the system of units in education, science, culture and health care with some degree of commercialization, and continues to strengthen its social control arms on all levels, it has inevitably lost direct control over the majority of the society. The market economy has created millions and millions of migrant workers as well as new social groups such as private entrepreneurs, small businessmen, professionals and the self-employed who are only faintly associated with the system. In addition, market reform has created a large number of people whose interests have been hurt, such as laid-off factory workers, farmers who have lost their land to development, and city dwellers whose properties have been subject to forced demolition.

Unlike in 1989, these blocks of the populations are no longer bound by work units or collectively-owned farmland. They make their livelihood through their own efforts, and, with the help of Internet and market-oriented new media, these groups have grown to be aware of their interests and their sense of self. Meanwhile, as the new totalitarian system strengthens and perfects itself, the system is more direct in squeezing those who participate in the free market, but has established neither institutions nor rights guarantees to mitigate such exploitation. This has inevitably created resistance, even rising opposition, against the system. As for those whose interest has been harmed time and again, the antagonism against the system is even stronger.

On the other hand, market reform has given these groups economic resources, the ability to gain information, and all sorts of interconnectedness. Following the arrival and the spread of the Internet and cellphones in particular, the general public is able, fairly freely, to issue information and express opinions with more and more convenient communication tools. The combination of the convenience to express and the antagonism against the system has pushed the ever-growing volume of online criticism, and it has also brought about all forms of rights defence and resistance. These include the lasting struggle to defend ownership rights by petitioners and the struggle against deprivation of interest such as happens in forced relocation or demolition. There have been large-scale demonstrations against pollution such as those in Shenfang (什邡) and Kunming (昆明), and there are also sudden breakouts of mass events such as those in Zengcheng (增城) and Shaxi (沙溪). It all goes to show that, with a large population that is not under direct control by the government but equipped with relatively free communication, the relationship between the system and society has changed fundamentally from 1989. When society begins to rid itself of the absolute control of the party/state, a sudden, large-scale convergence of people across the social spectrum is no longer impossible.

What Is Ahead

Of course, the system is not going to let it be. The so-called stability maintenance was born precisely in 1989, and its purpose was to prevent a similar social movement from happening again as the government sought to release the economic energy through market reform. The core mechanism of stability maintenance is to reduce the possibility of large-scale gathering by controlling the activists. Since 2004, fearing a color revolution, the stability maintenance system has been further strengthened, and, in the spring of 2010, it reached new heights, spurred by the Arab revolution. Stability maintenance by way of grid management is still busily developing.

So far this strategy has been working. Assemblies with a pure political purpose have all but disappeared, and the recent arrests of ten citizens in Beijing who advocated public disclosure of officials’ personal wealth are evidence that the stability maintenance system is showing no sign of relenting. But since this strategy puts almost all of its force on activists, it will have a hard time to control a much broader base of society members. From the anti-PX protest in Xiamen in 2007 to the anti-PX protest in Kunming in 2013, we can reach the conclusion that, as long as people amass enough will power, they will assemble, let alone gather for a spontaneous protest.

Looking ahead, the antagonism against the system will only grow as the system steps up exploiting citizens. At the same time, political opposition will continue to be scattered but persevere, forming alliances based on similar ideas. With the continuous presence of the potential for sudden mass gatherings, the two could very well converge at the right turn of events. When that happens, a movement, broader than that in 1989, will arrive. However, the stability maintenance apparatus is not giving up easily. On the one hand, through measures such as internet real-name registration and the “seven no talks,” it suppresses dissent and opposition to gain more support; on the other, it will adopt a uniform social credit code and other measures to exert direct control over citizens. It will be a long and arduous contest, and there is no telling when those forces will meet.

It will not be pretty, because its roots can be traced right back to the day of June 4th, 1989. As long as the rulers of China don’t have the courage to produce a real political solution for political reconciliation, as has happened in Myanmar, then it is not unthinkable for a massive social movement to erupt not too far into the future.


Mo Zhixu (莫之许) is a Beijing-based dissident intellectual and a participant in the June 4th movement.


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