In 1986, three years before the tragic Tiananmen Square Protests in 1989, Chinese youth demonstrated for the very reason we saw many Hong Kong students take to the streets in recent weeks: the promise and then retraction of electoral reform. Given the deep history of student activism in China, can we expect to see mainland Chinese students protesting for political change any time soon? Probably not, because promises have to be made to be broken. Since 1989, Beijing has effectively closed off debate in the political realm and has refrained from extending promises of democratic reform to its mainland audience.
After days of occupying the streets, demanding genuine universal suffrage and civil nominations for the city’s chief executive, many students in Hong Kong returned to school with negotiations underway for a dialogue between student representatives and authorities. Just months ago across the Taiwan Strait, students occupied the national legislature, protesting a trade pact with Beijing and calling for greater transparency and democratic deliberation on all future agreements with the PRC.
Given the recent student activism in Hong Kong and Taiwan, one might wonder what the youth in mainland China are up to. Plenty of news articles have highlighted the fact that most mainlanders, including students, do not support the protests in Hong Kong. Rather, they resent the Hong Kong people’s sense of entitlement and “ingratitude” towards the mainland. But why have students refrained from calling for reform at home? After all, it was students in Beijing who led the legendary May Fourth Movement of 1919, and pro-democracy demonstrations throughout the 1980s, culminating in 1989.
Student activism in the 1980s began when, at the beginning of the decade, Deng Xiaoping introduced a set of electoral reforms that permitted the open nomination of candidates and direct election of delegates to local people’s congresses. Chinese students greeted the new electoral initiative with enthusiasm, organizing campaigns and forums to discuss policy issues. Even various party outlets, including the People’s Daily and the Communist Youth League, discussed the virtues of democracy, freedom of speech and assembly around this time. Trouble arose, however, when local authorities began sabotaging nominations and refusing to seat unapproved candidates in local congresses. In 1986, a major protest broke out at the University of Science and Technology of Hefei when local authorities denied students the right to nominate candidates as promised by the central government. Protests spread across the country to other campuses in major cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Nanjing, with students expressing support for their counterparts in Hefei, and calling for freedom and democracy. Like the youth in Hong Kong today, Chinese students waged class boycotts and marched to local party offices when authorities first offered and then failed to uphold their promise of electoral reform.
Despite widespread dissatisfaction with censorship and official corruption, a lack of a voice in politics, and surprisingly high unemployment rates among university graduates in recent years, students in mainland China today are unlikely to follow in the footsteps of their predecessors and their contemporaries in Hong Kong and Taiwan. This is because since 1989, Beijing’s leaders have clamped down on any discussion of democratic reforms and have presented a united front on the supremacy of Party rule.
In many ways, Chinese society is indisputably more prosperous and open today than it ever has been before. Individuals enjoy wide personal and economic freedoms, and average citizens do not live in fear of political persecution. And every year, tens of thousands of mass incidents occur across the country. But the themes of such incidents revolve around local level corruption, environmental pollution, and nationalism, all issues that are part of the central government’s agenda. Since the 1980s, Beijing has never again engaged in an open dialogue on democratic reform. Any discussion of “democracy” has referred strictly to intra-party democracy, and even those references have thinned in recent years. Since coming to power, Xi Jinping has repeatedly emphasized that “Western-style democracy” would not work in China, and that the Party must remain in charge.
Also gone are public intellectuals, like Fang Lizhi, who inspired students to advance political reform in the 1980s. In recent years, dissidents and academics deemed dangerous to one-party rule have been quickly silenced. In fact, there are reports that mainland activists who expressed support for the Hong Kong protests were swiftly detained to prevent further dialogue in the mainland. Furthermore, while more reform-minded and conservative factions have openly clashed in the past, signaling room for debate to students and intellectuals, the central government has presented a remarkably united front in recent years. The media and Internet are heavily censored, and movements like the one in Hong Kong have been quickly condemned through party mouthpieces.
Despite the fact that Beijing tends to blame “outside forces” for stirring up “trouble,” when one looks back in history, it is often Chinese leaders who have initiated debate and activism by opening political space from above. Whether it was Mao’s call to let a hundred flowers bloom, Deng’s electoral reforms, or Beijing’s promise of free elections to Hong Kong, the Chinese people, in turn, have enthusiastically responded. The boundaries set and promises made by the central government matter, and they remain strictly limited in mainland China today. So while we see students actively leading efforts for political reform just outside of the mainland’s borders, we can expect those on the inside to remain still for the foreseeable future.
Patricia M. Kim is a Research Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School and a PhD candidate at Princeton University.