Monday, June 2, 2014

Remembering Tiananmen Square: the 25th Anniversary of the June 4 massacre

Protesters in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, June 2 1989 (Source: Boston Globe)

4 June 1989 was the date on which the Chinese Government brutally smashed the occupation of Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The Square had been the target of protest since April of that year, in a pro-democracy protest initially led by students but which quickly gathered broader support. At times during these 6 weeks, the Square was filled with over 1 million people.

There will no doubt be plenty of anniversary articles written about these events to mark their 25th anniversary. Among them, novelist Ma Jian has written a great article for the Guardian about his experiences of the 1989 movement, and of the fate of some of his fellow protesters and the Chinese democracy movement in the years since.

Of course, the stories of historical events like this are always told through the lens of the present, and for me at least, it's hard not to think about Tiananmen in relation to other more recent pro- (and anti-) democracy occupations and demonstrations. Reading the article, passages like the following have a strong resonance with recent events:
The democracy protests were ... a spontaneous mass uprising, a jubilant national awakening, in which millions of students, workers and professionals gathered peacefully in public squares around the country for weeks on end to call for rights guaranteed to them by the constitution: freedom of speech, of the press and of assembly and freedom to elect their leaders – basic liberties that the west takes for granted. They were among the most orderly, restrained and self-disciplined protests the world has seen. Student marshals maintained crowd control; armies of volunteers distributed food and drink and provided free medical care. In the madness of 20th-century China, the Tiananmen protests were a moment of sublime sanity, when the individual emerged from the somnolent collective and found their true voice.
 In this atmosphere of freedom, people used their innate creativity and intelligence to challenge and question state power. Teenagers strummed Bob Dylan ballads around campfires and danced in the dark. The Beijing Symphony Orchestra brought its instruments to the square and gave an impromptu performance of Beethoven's Ode to Joy. Art students erected a replica of the Statue of Liberty right opposite the huge portrait of Chairman Mao on the square's northern edge. The student leader, Wu'er Kaixi, rebuked Premier Li Peng on national TV, dressed in striped pyjamas. In a makeshift Democracy University, professors gave seminars on Thomas Paine and the French revolution. When the government rejected pleas for dialogue, hundreds of students tied white bandanas around their heads and went on hunger strike. On 3 June, Liu Xiaobo, then a lecturer at the Beijing Normal University, staged his own hunger strike on the square with the economist Zhou Duo, the rock star Hou Dejian and party member Gao Xin, to protest against martial law and call for a peaceful transition to democracy.
Reading this great article reminded me of a couple of articles about Tiananmen Square that I read a long time ago as an undergraduate student by sociologist Craig Calhoun. I went back to those pieces briefly today, they make for fascinating reading.

Calhoun was actually in Beijing teaching at the time of the 'Beijing Spring'. One of his articles, "Revolution and Repression in Tiananment Square", provided a blow-by-blow account of the events that he witnessed (and in which he participated, alongside some of his students), along with some initial thoughts on the kinds of . He had some particularly interesting things to say about the improvisation of the repertoire of protest by the activists, and also about some of the different outcomes being sought by those protesting (including the relationship between 'the people', democracy, and economic inequality and development). Calhoun concluded this account by saying:

I think this movement is more likely to be one of the moments to which future Chinese democrats will look for inspiration, as they did this year to May 4, 1919. The inspiration of the movement will come partly from the very scale on which it happened, and partly from the common cause found for a while between students and intellectuals and workers and other citizens. However thinly it may be understood, the idea of democracy was spread. People demanded to be seen as citizens, not just as the government's masses. The citizens of Beijing (and other Chinese cities) showed that the totalitarian communism had not destroyed all institutional bases for social revolt; "society" was still separate from "state," at least to some extent – an extent growing because of Deng-era reforms. Perhaps most of all, however, the movement will be remembered for June 4, the day of infamy and massacre. It has brought about a massive loss of legitimacy for the government, and perhaps even more tellingly for the army. Over and over again students told me, "the People's Liberation Army will not shoot the people" They will not soon be so trusting again.

In a second article, "Tiananmen, Television and the Public Sphere", Calhoun argued that the protests had an 'intensive' and 'extensive' relationship to space. Here, he was seeking to understand the relationship between co-present and mediated forms of public address - in the Square and on the screen. The occupation of the Square was crucial:
When students seized Tiananmen Square, they seized a powerful, multivocal symbol. The Square spoke at once of the government, which used it to display its power, and of the people who gave the government authority by gathering there to acclaim official leaders. It linked the imperial palace to revolutionary monuments; it represented the center of China. By their actions the students transformed the meaning of the Square. Its popular side became dominant; this was the challenge to its power which the state well recognized. For a time, the students also made Tiananmen Square into a genuine place of public discourse. They met in small groups of friends for discussion, large audiences for speeches and even a more or less representative council for debating their collective strategy and carrying out self- government.
But as the title suggests, the article also focuses on the highly significant role of television, in both circulating narratives about crisis in China that influenced the Tiananmen movement, and in circulating stories and images of events to a global audience. As Calhoun noted, plenty of the actions of those in the Square were actually addressed towards that global audience - protesters were highly aware that some of the folks who were co-present with them in the Square were international journalists and photographers who would spread the word of their actions beyond both the city and China. Reflecting on that, Calhoun insisted that while face-to-face gatherings in 'public spaces' might be crucial to a democratic public sphere, democracy and public debate in large modern societies also depends upon mediation:
In modern large scale societies, ... democracy depends on the possibility of a critical public discourse which escapes the limits of face-to-face interaction.
This was an important message then, and still now.

But re-reading this article 25 years down the track, after the rise of social media, other passages stand out. In particular, there's an interesting discussion about the failure of the student movement to develop its own media. He noted the:
absence of some organized media 'voice of the students'. There was talk of forming a newspaper but none ever materialized. Hand printing presses were used to produce single sheet flyers, but there was no place for reporting news from the students' point of view, let alone a discussion journal. Even the 1979 Chinese democracy movement had formed several of these. Its 1989 counterpart was stronger on mobilization and found deeper popular sympathy, but it fell behind on both theory and communication. 
Of course, it is hard to imagine anyone coming to this conclusion about more recent insurgent movements, who had made use of social media to communicate amongst one another and to a broader public. As a growing number of folks are noting, there's an important relationship between urban and media spaces in these events that is being transformed but certainly not transcended with the use of social media.

So ... there's lots of food for thought in returning to these really powerful events (or in reading about them for the first time, if you are a younger reader!).


Craig Calhoun, 1989, "Revolution and Repression in Tianenmen Square", Society, Volume 26, Issue 6, pp 21-38.

Craig Calhoun, 1989, "Tiananmen, Television and the Public Sphere: internationalization of culture and the 'Beijing Spring' of 1989", Public Culture,  Number 2, pp. 54-71.

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