Tiananmen’s Legacy: The Forgotten Rebellion

With all the anniversaries celebrated in China one conspicuous date remains forgotten by much of the population: June 4th. In the late 1980s, inflation, increasing corruption and rising unemployment contributed to several student led protests, with the death of reform politician Hu Yaobang in 1989, students all over China linked the mourning ceremonies with acute dissatisfaction and took to the streets. The protests in the Spring of 1989 are famous throughout the West: images of student rallies, hunger strikes and the lone bespectacled student facing down a line of tanks are etched into the memories of many westerners above the age of 21.

The battle fought in Beijing that year focused on rampant corruption and the lack of a Fifth Modernization – democracy. The positions taken by the government and the students back then were anti-bourgeois liberalization and stability for the former, anti-nepotism and pro-democracy for the latter.

That battle seems like ancient history in today’s China, with the government allowing "capitalists" into the Party and encouraging foreign businesses to invest in the Mainland and students taking advantage of every relationship possible in order to get ahead.

According to recorded conversations and documents now available throughout the West, the Elders led by Old Deng and the new guard led by Li Peng and then-Shanghai mayor Jiang Zemin saw the mass movement as a "spear pointed at the heart of the Party" and socialist ideology. Paranoid and terrified of a new Cultural Revolution, the Party leaders distinguished between a small minority of dissenters, supported by foreigners, the Kuomintang and overseas Chinese and the patriotic students whose aims and demands supposedly mirrored the Party’s own goals: the eradication of corruption and the eventual progression to a democratic China. In what was seen then as a Last Battle between the proponents of reform and the old guard, thousands of students and Beijing residents were shot and killed, "order" was restored and the "stable, slow road to modernization" favored by Old Deng and his supporters resumed.

Jiang Zemin, whose dismissal of the Shanghai World Economic Herald’s Editor sparked a furious response at the height of the movement, assumed Party leadership instead of hardline socialist throwback Li Peng and steered China into the WTO, and back into the international community.

Ironically, everything the students fought against and everything the government swore it abhorred in June 1989 has come to be in the 21st century.

"Bourgeois liberalization" is in full swing all over the Mainland. The Western "values" the old guard so despised are commonplace: divorce, drug use, liberalized sexuality, mass consumption, individual greed. Corruption is at an all-time high. The sons and daughters of officials and businessmen drive million dollar cars and go abroad as they please. Black Hand gangs exert control over swaths of the country and masquerade as legitimate businessmen. Success is 50 percent ability and 50 percent connections.

Even more ironic, what the students fought for and what the government promised has also come to being.

Chinese are more prosperous with each passing year. Luxury goods are (somewhat) affordable, people can travel, cuisine is becoming more and more internationalized and few people go hungry, even in some of the poorest regions. China’s economy is growing by leaps and bounds by most experts’ standards and the whole country is a construction site. What was a dump yesterday is a four-star hotel/apartement complex/bustling mall the next. Corrupt officals can afford to buy their sons a Benz.

Taxi drivers speak openly about the failings of the government, businessmen boast how they don’t give a hoot about what the government does or says, school children discuss corruption, university students discuss Taiwan, Tibet and the Fall of Marxism and peasants will sit with a foreigner and discuss the rising taxes, the falling income and the horrors of the Moa Zedong era. People leave the country to make fortunes, study and sightsee. The media enjoys more freeedom than before, although not enough to consitute a free press by any means.

It’s as if June 4th never happened. It’s as if the students never rose up and the military never fired a shot. Today’s University students know little if anything about 1989 and don’t much care. Those old enough to remember don’t believe the stories of blood and death and don’t much care either. Old Deng will go down in Chinese history as the man who brought China out of the pit and into the light, instead of the iron fisted dictator with Chinese blood seeping through his fingers. One of the most defining events in Chinese history is forgotten here and remembered abroad: Americans know more/think more about Tiananmen than the average Chinese.

In 1989, an influential intellectual and leader in the mass movement, Fang Lizhi, proclaimed to the students one afternoon that they would go down in history as patriots and true defenders of the motherland. Instead most of them have been exiled, jailed or forgotten by the masses: Tiananmen might be considered as a necessary sacrifice on the long road to modernization. Did those students die for nothing? Did their sacrifice pave the way for today’s Chinese exchange students and jet-setting Little Emperors?

I truly believe that without June 4th, modern China would not be as free and vibrant as it is today. Jiang Zemin learned his lesson well, and he plays his cards well at the poker table with Party hardliners, Black Hand gangsters, Shanghai and Hong Kong businessmen, pipe puffing peasants, and eager college graduates.

China today is comparable to the USA at the turn of the century. From 1900 to 1930 the USA was rocked by massive worker demonstrations, black revolts, suffragist marches and antiwar protests. Many of those true patriots died at the hands of the US Government and Civil Guard. Most of them are forgotten by todays youth – but without them there would be no today. So for now Tiananmen remains a buried milestone and turning point for China – perhaps one day we’ll see a People’s History of the People’s Republic and a revival of the Spirit of 1989. Until then June 4th will remain the forgotten rebellion in Mainland China.

Read more by Sascha Matuszak