During Mother’s Day weekend on May 10th, a number of intellectuals in Beijing organized a seminar discussing 20 years of the democracy movement in China. The seminar started with a moment of silence, paying tribute to the Tiananmen Mothers.
From 1989 to 2009: 20 Years of Evolution in Chinese Thought (conference paper for “2009, Beijing, and the June Fourth Democracy Movement.”)
The events of June 4th, 1989 shocked China and the world. It was a watershed within Chinese history and politics, as well as a watershed for thought. June 4th did not change the Chinese political system, but it changed the basic conditions for thought, and it was a foundational starting point for changing the political system.
Advocating “people’s democratic dictatorship,” China’s political system have already been comprehensively exposed as anti-citizen, anti-humanity and fundamentally out of sync with human civilization. This is evident in the so-called “land reform” and “anti-counterrevolutionary movement” of the 1950s; the anti-rightist movement, the Great Leap Forward, and the commune movement. It reached its peak in the Cultural Revolution. But the Chinese people are a people accustomed to suffering through authoritarianism and hardship. On top of that, the regime in charge has created a seamless trap of fantastic ideology. Over the years, with the exception of those with foresight such as Lin Zhao, few have reflected critically on the level of system and understood the necessity for a fundamental change. The June 4th incident (at Tiananmen Square) caused the situation to change. The knives, bullets and spilled blood cultivated a tragedy that awakened and educated the people to much more effect than any Enlightenment movement, a hundred Enlightenment thinkers or ten thousand Enlightenment books.
For China to leave behind authoritarianism and totalitarianism, there needs to be a deep change. Furthermore, social and political change must follow a change in thought. The key tenets of a standard of thought can be described in the following three points: 1. a legalized understanding of the incumbent power 2. an understanding of the accepted values of human political civilization 3. an understanding of the goal and methods of reaching the goal. Besides these standards, we must have the courage to fight back. We could see a symbolic new beginning in both standards of thought and courage in 1989, and for the past twenty years we’ve witnessed both difficult thought exploration and rapid improvement.
June Fourth Forces the CCP to Lose All Legitimacy
After experiencing the massacres of June 3 and 4, everyone seems to describe their memories and emotions surrounding the beginning of the bloodshed in the same way: “The soldiers raised their guns and shot methodically. We had already thought they might do so: They would most certainly warn and suppress us, they would fire rubber bullets, and we had braced ourselves for the terrible pain. After the guns sounded, some among us even continued to laugh softly. But suddenly, we discovered that people next to us had fallen to the ground, and could not get up again. Some had broken legs, some had holes in their stomachs. And at that point, the people suddenly yelled, ‘Oh my god, they’re real bullets!’”
The above situation demonstrates that people had expected suppression, but massacre was completely unexpected; the people had directed criticism and protest at the government, but had most certainly not considered the government an enemy to the death. We could make the following analogy: The people saw the government as a parental figure who is stubborn, despotic and used to doing everything. But they never thought that this parent would kill its own children. The illusion of family fell to ashes in an instant: If the government saw the people as an enemy, then the people would have to reciprocate.
The June Fourth suppressors had possession of heavy arms, but they had no sense of history. They never thought that the student movement with Tiananmen Square at its heart and embodied by college students was, like the May Fourth movement, in possession of a natural legitimacy and a quality of “patriotism and democracy.” To suppress the students was to not only become an enemy of the people, but to earn the scorned epithet of “counter-revolutionary.” They didn’t even think of the fact that, only 13 years ago, on the same square, they were among the Chinese people who were a part of a similar mass movement, and who were were mercilessly suppressed by the “Gang of Four of Ten Thousand Evils.” And that previous bloodbath paled in comparison with this one.
The legitimacy of those who held highest office during June Fourth attained a portion of their legitimacy from their victimization and varying levels of resistance during the Cultural Revolution. They fully used, even blew out of proportion, this bit of political capital, connecting their own comebacks with slogans such as “ending fascism” and “the second liberation of the Chinese people.” But the June Fourth massacre proved that they were no different from the “Gang of Four.” If there were a difference, it would be that they dared to do what the “Gang of Four” did not dare do: to set the military loose with an order kill while the whole world’s attention was focused on Beijing.
Even if we do not discuss the constitutional legality of the students’ demands, leave out the sympathy and support of citizens at large, and even consider that the students may have been at fault, that does not constitute a justification for massacre. To massacre civilians is to flout justice, and with this act, the leaders have lost all legitimacy. Unless their successors dole out exonerations and make amends—in the way that Taiwan’s Kuomintang dealt with the “228 incident”—it will be impossible to achieve legitimization.
[Update: Read Part II of this essay.]