Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 13
3 April 2000

Tienanmen Square, 1989 C R O S S - C U L T U R A L   V I E W:
"What If" Questions and China's 1989

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom

At the end of 1989 - a year when protestors took to the streets everywhere, from Beijing to Bucharest, to challenge state socialist regimes - many commentators, in the United States at least, insisted that the days of all Communist Party governments were numbered. Several governments had just fallen and others seemed about to follow suit.

Nothing could delay for long the final playing out of the long-term processes that had led to dramatic changes in places such as Poland and Hungary, we were told. Even harsh repressive measures would not do the trick, it was assumed, and many took it for granted that the 4 June Massacre in China would, at most, buy the Beijing regime another year or two in power.

By the end of 1999 - a time when, ironically, many of the protestors who were in the headlines were decrying not state socialism but global capitalism - many commentators in the United States were treating the events of a decade ago somewhat differently. In part, no doubt, simply because Communist Party leaders continue to govern in China and a few other countries, a language of inevitability had increasingly given way to one of contingency by the time the tenth anniversaries of events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall arrived.

Accounts focusing on structures were less common than they had been, and those that highlighted human agency were more common than a decade earlier. We heard fewer references to pre-determined roads leading to the 'End of History' and more invocations of the many ways that history can move. There was even more willingness than there had been at the beginning of the 1990s to pose counter-factual or "what if" questions about 1989.

This shift was most marked in the case of Central Europe's "refolutions" - to borrow the term Timothy Garton Ash coined to describe non-violent transformations via protest and negotiation that combined revolutionary and reformist aspects.

What if Gorbachev had not been in control? Might China's 4 June Massacre have had a German as well as Romanian counterpart? What if Havel and a few other leading Czech dissidents had not been active and done what they did? Might things have turned out very differently in Prague? These questions were asked more frequently in 1999 than they had been nine or ten years previously.

Miracles and tragedies

To this American China specialist, looking back at 1989 with this new kind of sensitivity to contingency brings other sorts of counterfactual questions to mind. These relate to timing, not personalities. What difference might it have made, I wonder, if the refolutions in Central Europe had all run their course before the crowds began gathering in Tiananmen Square in mid-April of that year of miracles and tragedies that closed the eighties?

Here, we should remember that, in May of 1989, there were Chinese intellectuals and student activists calling on the protestors to leave the Square, build upon what they had accomplished organizationally and take a more conciliatory stance toward the regime. At one point, the main cry of protestors was "duihua" (dialogue), elevating to the status of primary goal meaningful exchanges of opinion between dissidents and officials.

There were, in short, moves toward refolution before the term existed - as is made clear in the controversial prize-winning documentary The Gate of Heavenly Peace, which was produced by the Boston-based Long Bow Group and has been shown on public television and at film festivals in various countries.

In the end, the students stayed at the Square, upping the ante of their protests in the eyes of the regime, especially when enormous numbers of workers turned out to support the youths. And by June, demonstrators and officials were locked into stances that left little room for negotiation - though, even then, the regime could have avoided bloodshed.

There are many things that explain the turn toward radicalism by students, and many that account for - though none that excuse - the regime's unconscionable decision to fire on unarmed citizens. A key factor is the form one famous "dialogue" between protesters and officials took.

Li Peng, a top Chinese Communist Party leader, then and still a powerful figure in Beijing, made it clear in that exchange that he only wanted to lecture to the youths. This increased the resolve of those within the movement who had argued all along that compromising with a hard-headed and dictatorial regime was impossible. Meanwhile, the forcefulness with which some student participants in the "dialogue" expressed their views hardened the resolve of various officials to defend a hard line.

Debates about how best to understand the road to the 4 June Massacre continue to this day, and thinking counter-factually will not resolve them. It can help reframe them, though, by encouraging us to emphasize one thing that made it hard to resolve things non-violently: the refolution model had not yet proven its flexibility and efficacy.

What exactly would have been different if it had? The regime might have been even more fearful of what the protesters could ultimately accomplish, but those within the movement calling for moderation would have been able to make a much stronger case. As it was, events such as the rise of Solidarity in Poland made Beijing fear the demonstrators, without Central Europe simultaneously providing a full-fledged positive model for Chinese protestors to emulate or adapt.

In general, there seems to have been considerably more awareness and interest in Central Europe among Chinese officials in April and May of 1989 than there was among Chinese demonstrators. Yes, there were a few banners that said things such as "Where is China's Lech Walesa?" But from what I have been able to gauge from conversations with Chinese participants in, and Western eyewitnesses to, the 1989 demonstrations (like so many, I followed them long distance via television at the time), there was not much information about or even interest in Central European developments that spring. Interest increased, of course, after 4 June, which was the date of both the Beijing Massacre and Solidarity's electoral victory - a deeply ironic coincidence of timing.

International influences

Before that point, however, there were other international reference points that were more on the minds of students ranging from the People Power upheaval in the Philippines in 1986, to ongoing South African protests against Apartheid to sporadic campus unrest in South Korea. The details of these and other anti-authoritarian struggles directed against non-Communist regimes were better publicized in the Chinese media, for obvious reasons, than were Central and Eastern European dissident activities.

Had the students known more about Poland and Solidarity's recent history just prior to 4 June, one wonders if they might have tried harder than they did to form alliances with the autonomous unions workers which began forming when the youths occupied Tiananmen Square. As it was, though sometimes welcoming shows of support from laborers, student leaders often tried to keep other social groups at arms length.

Within the Chinese government, on the other hand, there seems to have been both more familiarity with, and much more interest in, what was developing on the other side of the Urals, and the Polish case in particular, well before 4 June. Concern over the potential spread of the so-called "Polish disease" helps explain patterns of repression in China in the 1980s. Consider, for example, the moves the Chinese leadership made to curtail the short-lived protest wave of 1986-87, for which I was in Shanghai to witness firsthand.

The regime initially treated these now little known demonstrations, which served as a kind of dress rehearsal for the bigger and more famous protests of 1989, with considerabe leniency. But, when workers began to take part in what had started out as purely student rallies, officials began to fear that something like Solidarity might come into being, if laborers with one set of grievances and educated youths with others united under a common cause. Students were given clear indications, at that point, that if they did not return to their campuses and stop demonstrating, there would be serious consequences.

An awareness of and concern over Solidarity also influenced the Chinese government itself in 1989. When the regime called for the imposition of martial law in late May of that year, they clearly hoped the policy would have the same results it had in Poland in the early 1980s.

Visions of a Chinese version of Solidarity emerging helps explain why the Chinese Communist Party leadership was so deeply disturbed when the protests at Tiananmen Square, and in the central gathering places of other cities, continued after martial law was announced. It also helps explain why, when the crackdown came, though many students were killed, even more of the victims of state violence were workers and ordinary citizens who had turned out to support the educated youths.

Finally, it helps explain why many of the harshest prison sentences were handed out to people such as Han Dongfang, who was not a student activist but rather a leader of one of the newly founded autonomous labor unions.

Concern with the danger that something like Solidarity might some day emerge in China continues to be a source of concern to the Chinese leadership. This was clear last May when (I was in China to attend a conference at the time) the officially sanctioned, though still partially spontaneous, anti-American and anti-NATO protests broke out following the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade.

Even when the regime was facilitating student demonstrations in Beijing's foreign legation quarter, steps were taken to ensure that large numbers of angry workers, who might steer the movement in a more oppositional direction once mobilized, did not join in. The same policemen that I saw allowing the students to throw rocks at the American Embassy were also there, in part, to keep non-students from joining the crowds.

Ironically, the police were much readier to let Western observers, such as myself, get close to the scene rather than Chinese who lacked student ID cards. Such local residents, after all, might be recently unemployed workers who had formerly had jobs with a state-run enterprise. These laborers, though angry at NATO's policies, were also angry at their own government's economic moves towards privatization and destruction of social welfare safety nets - moves that have created a situation that, to modify a famous Central European phrase, often seems best described as Capitalism without a Human Face.

Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union

Finally, a very different sort of counterfactual question associated with China's recent fate and European struggles against Communist Party rule of the late 1980s and early 1990s comes to mind, which has to do not with Central Europe but with the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. How might China be different today if the USSR had not collapsed in 1991 and Southeastern Europe had not been as conflicted a place in recent years?

Many observers assumed nine years ago that the fall of the Soviet Communists was the worst thing that could happen for the Chinese government, as it seemed to reinforce the 'End of History' thesis and make the Beijing regime's end seem imminent and unavoidable. Ironically, however, the chaos in Russia has helped give China's Communist Party an extended lease on life.

So, too, in their own way, have the troubles in the Southeastern Europe - and not just because in 1999, the destruction of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade gave the Beijing regime the ability to help lead, rather than become the target of street demonstrations.

In recent years, the regime has been able to use the most worrisome trends in the former Soviet Bloc and Yugoslavia to make a new argument to the general population about the need for continued Communist Party rule in China.

The government can say, in effect: "You may not trust us, but isn't the status quo here preferable to some forms of post-Communism, and in a time when the international arena is such a dangerous place, shouldn't maintaining a strong and stable regime be everyone's top priority?"

To put this another way, in 1989, a famous student banner lamented the fact that "Heaven gave Russia a Gorbachev but only gave China a Deng Xiaoping," but now the regime can suggest that the opposite is actually true. The official media, by continually putting a negative spin on European post-Communist transitions and playing up the high growth rates China has recently enjoyed, implicitly makes the case that Chinese citizens were lucky indeed when Heaven decided to give them a Deng Xiaoping and saddle Russians with a Gorbachev.

What both of the counterfactual arguments laid out above suggest is that, at the beginning of the 1990s, the collapse of the Chinese Communist Party seemed just a matter of time. But now it seems equally fair to say that the regime's ability to stay in control so much longer than most of us expected was possible, has largely been a matter of timing.

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, 22 March 2000

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, who teaches history at Indiana University, has published widely on issues associated with modern Chinese politics and culture. One of three principal consultants for the Tiananmen film The Gate of Heavenly Peace,

He also contributed a chapter ("Chinese Bridges to Post-Socialist Europe") to Sorin Antohi and Vladimir Tismaneanu's new edited volume, Between Past and Future: The Revolutions of 1989 and their Aftermath (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2000).


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