Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Tiananmen Square: 25 Years Since a Failed Revolt for Democracy in China

by George Jochnowitz


Tian (heaven). An (peace). Men (gate). The Gate of Heavenly Peace is the entrance to the Forbidden City, where China’s emperors lived and where the movie The Last Emperor was filmed. Tiananmen Square, the front yard of the Forbidden City, was enlarged by Chairman Mao into the largest public space in the world, so that he could organize mass demonstrations of his supporters. Irony of ironies. Twenty-five years ago, the square was the scene of the biggest spontaneous demonstration is history, part of a movement that almost brought down the regime Mao had created. I was there on May 13, when the hunger strike began; on May 19, when the students prepared for an invasion by the People’s Liberation Army that was turned back before it ever got near the Square, and on June 2, when the Goddess of Democracy had been erected but a sense of doom pervaded the atmosphere.

The Beijing Spring Movement was a relatively rare phenomenon in human history: a struggle between good and evil. Mao Zedong had created a vicious regime, which taught people to betray their friends and relatives, which launched mad policies (ordering farmers to melt their tools in order to manufacture steel in backyard furnaces) that led to the most catastrophic famine in human history, and which continued to export grain during that famine.

Radical evil is more familiar and therefore less surprising than radical virtue. Nevertheless, outbreaks of radical virtue occur. After the funeral of Party Secretary Hu Yaobang on April 22, 1989, and even more so after the start of the hunger strike in Tiananmen Square on May 13, human nature changed in China. A drop in crime, fires and accidents was reported. “Criminals are on strike for freedom and democracy,” people joked. A steady stream of trucks went in and out of the square–the citizens of Beijing supplying the million or so demonstrators with food and beverages. Railroad employees, famous for their rudeness, became polite. Students and other demonstrators riding to and from Beijing were allowed to ride free. At Hebei University in Baoding, where I taught, the students took over the campus loudspeakers and played Beethoven symphonies, alternating with appeals for contributions for an independent newspaper. A peasant woman walked up to the university gates and put 50 yuan into the collection box–the equivalent of half a month’s salary at the time.

I often think of my student—let me call her Miss Qin. She was the shyest person I ever met. No matter what I asked her, she whispered “yes.”

“How old are you?”


“Do you understand me?”

Ni duo da?” (How old are you?)

Miss Qin’s parents lived in my building. Her father was a Party member. She and her parents seemed to have a very cold relationship with each other. One day, she approached me voluntarily, already a surprise. “I’ve been to Tiananmen,” she said in perfect English. “I spent three days there.”

“My God, does your father know?” I asked, shocked.

“They’re not opposed,” she answered in Chinese.

Unbelievable! About an hour later, I saw Miss Qin and her mother walking and talking together, their arms around each other. The Beijing Spring Movement had brought the Qin family together.

I remember the sound of the ambulances in Beijing, carrying hunger strikers to the hospital, just as I had heard them on May 19. Whenever I think of that time, tears come to my eyes—even now as I type these words. But even in Baoding, the smoky, drab industrial city I lived in, demonstrations took place every day. At 6:30 A.M. on May 16, 1989, I woke up in my apartment in a faculty residence building at Hebei University. My younger daughter, Miriam, had already left the apartment to join a student demonstration in front of the Communist Party headquarters. After breakfast, I got on my bicycle to see what was happening. The main street of Baoding was packed with demonstrators, who began to ask me questions in Chinese:

“What do you think of China’s students?”

“China’s hope,” I answered as well as I could in Chinese. I got big smiles and thumbs-up signs in response. This encouraged me.

“What do you think of the Communist Party?” someone asked.

“It serves no purpose.”

Thumbs up. “And what do you think of Marxism?”

Goupi” (bullshit, literally “dog fart”), I replied. I did not know that I was being filmed by a television crew and would appear on the local evening news later that day. The following day, two police cars drove up to the campus to warn me, very politely, not to interfere in China’s internal affairs.

The popularity of the movement was not enough. There was no organization to build on. There were no independent clubs or groups of any kind in China in 1989. The protesters in Tiananmen Square had no office and no telephone. There was no way for leaders to be elected by the ever-changing population in the square. There was no way to establish authority. Totalitarian regimes are designed to prevent competition of any kind from arising. Even the Catholic Church—the pro-contraception, pro-abortion Chinese Patriotic Catholic Church—was, and still is, run by the government.

The absence of civil society gives the Communist Party a monopoly on all political activity. When the Party falls, as it will some day, the lack of a political opposition will be a great danger to the country. Had there been some sort of legal organization outside the government, there would have been a way to settle the issues raised by Beijing Spring.

And what were those issues? Rule of law was tied for first place with an end to corruption. “Rulers should not be above the law,” I was told repeatedly by my students. Separation of powers was an issue as well. There was a great deal of political sophistication expressed to me by people I spoke to, mostly my own students.

What would the government have done had the protesters left the square on, let’s say, May 30? The great majority of the casualties of June 4 did not take place in Tiananmen Square at all. The bloodshed occurred about three miles to the west, on Chang’an Avenue, a major east-west street, part of which forms the northern boundary of Tiananmen Square. Many of the victims were simply residents of the apartment buildings and old courtyard houses in the neighborhood who took it upon themselves to block the tanks. Would plans to enter the city have been canceled if the students had left the square? I don’t think so. Would the residents of Chang’an Avenue have come out to stop the army even if there were no students in the square? I think the answer may be yes.

There are no “what-if’s” in history. The demonstrators did not withdraw on May 30, and the People’s Republic of China killed unarmed civilians who, during the seven weeks of Beijing Spring, had been extraordinarily peaceful and good humored.

On June 4, 1989, tanks of the People’s Liberation Army crushed Beijing Spring, the movement for democracy in China. The whole world watched, even in Communist East Europe. Demonstrations took place in front of the Chinese Embassy in Warsaw. Mikhail Gorbachev had witnessed the movement personally when he visited China in May. It is no coincidence that the Berlin Wall fell later that year.

In China, the government decided that it could placate the people by giving them capitalism instead of democracy. Although democracy ordinarily coexists with capitalism, China now has Marxist Capitalism—the pursuit of wealth and relatively free markets but no free speech and no freedom of thought. Money, however, will not buy human rights.

China’s current leaders have achieved a certain degree of prosperity, but the regime they have created is repressive and, like all dictatorships, it is unstable, having no established process for leaders to succeed each other.

Democracies are inherently stable, because they have established procedures for governments to change. They are inherently rich, because creativity is an essential element of a prosperous society, and to be creative one has to have freedom of thought. Democracy is the Gateway to Heavenly Peace.

George Jochnowitz was born in New York City, in 1937. He became aware of different regional pronunciations when he was six, and he could consciously switch accents as a child. He got his Ph.D. in linguistics from Columbia University and taught linguistics at the College of Staten Island, CUNY. His area of specialization was Jewish languages, in particular, Judeo-Italian dialects. As part of a faculty-exchange agreement with Hebei University in Baoding, China, he was in China during the Tiananmen Massacre. He can be reached at


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