There’s a widespread misconception in the West that the 1989 student protests that begun in Beijing and spread to other parts of China can be neatly categorized as a pro-democracy movement. There certainly were calls for democracy and democratic reforms, but these words had, and still have, very different meanings and applications in China than they do in the West. The d-word entered into common parlance in Mao-era China with the notion of New Democracy, which was promoted as the first stage on the road to communism, not to parliamentary democracy.
The demonstrations that eventually led to the June 4 massacre began following the death of the popular reformist politician Hu Yaobang on April 15. Students from Beijing’s universities marched through the streets of the capital calling on the Communist Party (CPC) to lift press censorship, improve personal freedoms, and curb official corruption.
Rather than appease the students, on April 26 the state-run People’s Daily published an editorial condemning the protests and accusing those involved of wanting to overthrow the government. The CPC, however, underestimated the will of the masses and demonstrations continued throughout May, until the People’s Liberation Army moved into the capital for the tragic denouement.
Since that day perhaps no country has seen greater change than China, yet it is hard to say exactly what the protests actually achieved. Whatever relatively trivial improvements there have been in press freedoms since 1989 are hardly cause for celebration. This year Reporters Without Borders ranked China 175th (out of 180) in their world press freedom index. Punitive measures are still regularly dished out to those who break with the party line; journalists regularly have their work censored and some find themselves imprisoned after being convicted in perfunctory show trails.
With China’s growing economic might, Reporters Without Borders suggests that the CPC’s media influence is spreading throughout the region, namely to Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. The inference is that the Chinese media machine is more dangerous than ever before.
Yet this fails to take into account that, just as it is in the West, the internet is changing the media landscape in China. The CPC may censor what users can see, but Chinese social media sites connect people from all over the country and, just like Facebook and Twitter, provide a forum for discussion and “citizen journalism.” When terrorists attacked a market in Urumqi recently, the first images and reports came from witnesses who uploaded photos and reports to the micro-blogging site Weibo. These spread to Twitter and eventually to news services around the world. There would have been a time not that long ago when the entire incident would have been covered up and not even appeared in the domestic news.
The internet is also playing a role in improving individual freedoms; access to information, even if censored, is liberating. Coupled with this, a rise in personal wealth means the China of today is vastly different from the China of 25 years ago. Significantly, more and more Chinese people are able to travel overseas; not only was it not financially viable for most people a generation ago, the CPC also feared the encroachment of Western values into Chinese society and worked to demonize much of the world outside its borders. In 1983 the Propaganda Department launched the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign and, although it only last several months, it was significant enough for the student protesters to demand that the CPC admit that the campaign had been wrong.
Another of the students’ demands was that the government end the restrictions imposed on the Beijing protesters. If anything, the 1989 student demonstrations confirmed to the CPC that authoritarianism has to be a requisite element of its rule. And while its rare to get a glimpse into the inner workings of the CPC, one can be sure that its leaders fear, perhaps more than anything else, a popular uprising that could destabilize their rule. This was certainly on their minds in 1989; the release of the Tiananmen Papers in 2001 revealed that the top brass in the Communist Party wanted to suppress the popular protests with enough force and brutality to ensure they wouldn’t have to confront a similar problem again any time soon.
The popular grievances that threaten the CPC’s rule are slightly different than they were a quarter of a century ago; many students of university age don’t even know about the 1989 massacre thanks to the censorship regime imposed on them. And most of those who call for a more representative political system don’t want to see the current order overhauled in a way that would weaken or undermine China’s rise. For most ordinary Chinese citizens, the Communist Party and their conception of China is one and the same thing. In his book When China Rules the World, Martin Jacques argues that this is why the Communist Party enjoys far greater support and legitimacy than its counterparts in the Western world.
This may well be true, but unlike Western democracies, Chinese citizens don’t have a chance to show their displeasure at the ballot box. And as long as it remains that way, popular protests are still going to be seen as potential tinder for larger-scale rebellions. They’re easily neutralized if those protesting are members of an ethnic minority: Tibetans were gunned down in the streets of Lhasa in 2008 and violence between government forces and Uighurs in the north-western region of Xinjiang has increased in recent years. The major cities of both provinces resemble occupied territory rather than the “one China” image the CPC is so keen to promote. But the plight of these minorities are of little importance to much of the Han majority, most of whom have accepted the government’s propaganda labeling the demonstrators as “terrorists” and “separatists” (which, in some cases, is not entirely untrue).
The grievances that are most likely to mobilize large parts of the population today are the ever-worsening environmental conditions. Much of the country chokes under a toxic peasouper, water supplies are becoming extremely polluted, food safety is becoming an increasing concern, and the emergence of “cancer villages” (that these are even a
“thing” attests to just how bad things have got) compound to give rise to an enormous population of disgruntled people.
This month, 39 people were injured when environmental protests in Zhongtai, a small city in the eastern province of Zhejiang, escalated into a full-blown riot. These demonstrations are becoming more and more common in China. Although credible statistics on protests are difficult to find, the Chinese Society for Environmental Sciences reported that between 2010 and 2011 environmental protests rose 120 percent.
Living standards are improving and personal wealth is rising right across China (albeit disproportionately), but people are beginning to realize that is of little consequence if their toxic surroundings kill them and their children before they’ve had an opportunity to reap the benefits.
The Communist Party knows better than anyone how politically important its going to be to make noticeable improvements to the current state of the environment; employing typically combative rhetoric, Premier Li Keqiang declared war on pollution at the opening of parliament this year. The CPC has to be seen to be acting on the people’s concerns; ordinary citizens are becoming more informed about the health risks they face and want to know that their government is not intentionally sacrificing them to make a few extra million yuan.
The CPC’s ability to transform China from a feudal backwater into what will soon be the world’s largest economy has meant that its people have granted it some leniency when it comes to things that could impede this rise: human rights, freedom of the press, rule of law, among others. It often seems as if many Chinese people have gone some way to forgive the government for the June 4 massacre; after all, the CPC has also helped them become rich. The government’s prioritized economic growth above all else and used it as an excuse and cover for many sins. It has refused to even acknowledge its democide of 25 years ago and, although the wounds may appear to have healed, there may come a time when prosperity isn’t enough. And when that time comes, the consequences of the CPC’s decision to let the wounds of 1989 fester may well reveal themselves.
Tim Robertson (@timrobertson12) is a Beijing-based freelance journalist.