Professor Huang Jing’s class of 17 students at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy swelled to more than 30 earlier this year on the day he taught about the June 4th incident.
The additional students were all from China, in their late 20s and early 30s. They wanted to know more about the 1989 tragedy, the seven weeks of protests by students on Tiananmen Square that ended in bloodshed on the night of June 3-4 when the government turned its guns on the unarmed protesters. The incident has been reduced to one line in their high school texts back home. Not having got enough during the 31/2 hour seminar, they invited the professor, himself a participant in the demonstrations, to dinner.
“I used to think the younger generation (of Chinese) does not know anything about June 4th,” said Prof Huang. He is pleasantly surprised to find through his conversations with Chinese students that despite an information blackout, they not only know about June 4 but are also very interested in it.
“They try to learn from June 4, to find out what they can do, to find a tolerable way, to promote democracy,” he noted. The young today, he thought, were idealistic but practical, wanting to protect themselves as well as work towards their ideals. They are more politically mature than he and the Tiananmen generation were, he said, the result of the greater openness of the Chinese society today.
Indeed, there have been criticisms of late of the student demonstrators of 1989. Their hotheadedness, it is said, made things worse, causing the liberals within the Chinese Communist Party to be purged and putting a stop to the political debates taking place at the time.
The 1980s were a decade of intellectual ferment as China emerged from the Cultural Revolution and began to open up to the world. Intellectuals and students discussed philosophy, politics and culture, and ideas such as democracy and humanism. It was an age of idealism although, towards the end of the decade, reforms faltered, inflation soared and corruption grew. Urbanites found themselves disadvantaged against peasants, the so-called 10,000-yuan households, who because of rural economic reforms were making more money than urban salaried workers.
The first wave of student demonstrations agitating for a faster pace of reforms took place in 1986. Those demonstrations brought down Hu Yaobang, then the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, who was accused by party elders of being soft on bourgeois liberals. Hu’s death in April 1989 sparked a new wave of protests as tens of thousands of students and other disaffected people converged on Tiananmen Square to mourn his death and demand the rule of law and an end to corruption.
The BBC in a recent radio documentary on June 4 called the students’ occupation of Tiananmen Square just when Chinese leaders were preparing to host Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev a “tactical blunder”. The demonstrators embarrassed the party’s liberals, the very same people they were trying to support.
Then CCP General Secretary Zhao Ziyang was ousted for siding with the students, martial law was declared on May 20 and on the evening of June 3, the tanks moved in.
Mr Shen Tong, now 40, was a leading organiser of the 1989 protests. In recent interviews, he said he was not sure if he and his fellow protesters made any difference at all. Yet many would say June 4 had an immense impact.
Mr Shen himself noted that the CCP began to transform itself from a totalitarian regime into an authoritarian one. Indeed, economic and other reforms accelerated soon after Tiananmen as the government sought to legitimise its rule through development and by enhancing its capability.
Chinese leaders realise after Tiananmen that people would not be satisfied with better living standards and would demand other things such as political freedom, noted Prof Huang. So the government works hard now to maintain stability but also gives people room to breathe and to vent their dissatisfaction. Certainly, Chinese society has become much more open today and there is greater personal freedom now than there was in 1989. The government has also sought to co-opt the economic and intellectual elites.
It can be said that June 4 helped lead to a decade of explosive economic growth in the 1990s and to the current decade of new intellectual activity and the development of a civil society.
Arguably, June 4 also made the government more paranoid, nipping any new movement – such as the Falungong – in the bud. There is heavy Internet censorship and in the run-up to this 20th anniversary of June 4, there has been a blackout on news of the incident in all media.
An entire generation of young people was touched by June 4, either directly or indirectly. One blogger, commemorating the 20th anniversary of the incident, confessed that he was a carefree person who played mahjong every day before June 4. The shooting of unarmed demonstrators angered him and led him to think more deeply about politics and the direction that China should take.
The young idealists then are in their late 30s to early 50s now. Some are now leading intellectuals, including Professor Wang Hui of Tsinghua University, who has developed a leftist critique of government policy that came to be known as the New Left. They are human rights lawyers like Pu Zhiqiang, environmental activists, non-government organisation workers. Many have also become entrepreneurs because they were not able to find careers in government and state-owned enterprises. In whatever capacity, they are influencing younger generations of Chinese. They will be in positions of high power in time to come.
The legacy of June 4 is still unfolding. There are grounds for optimism that the still unfolding aftermath will justify the blood that was shed.