New Protests in China Won’t Be the Last

Marches by laid-off workers and the arrest of protest organizers in several Chinese industrial cities made headlines some weeks ago. These events are worth thinking about now as we turn our minds to the thirteenth anniversary of the massive Tiananmen demonstrations that inspired and the June 4th Massacre that horrified television audiences around the world.

It’s natural to use 1989 as a reference point when trying to make sense of outbursts of unrest in China, and this is what Western journalists did earlier this year when crowds of up to ten thousand marched in northeast China. Unfortunately, as in the past, the soundbites typically stressed just one sort of continuity with the days of Tiananmen: Beijing’s readiness to use draconian measures to quell organized opposition.

This is too limited a way to use history when trying to make sense of China’s complicated present. Another kind of continuity between 1989 and today also should be emphasized. Some of the same grievances that led demonstrators out into the streets then are still doing so.

Why were these continuities ignored last March? Because this time the demonstrators were workers, not students. Their concerns were economic, not political. Rather than use the symbolism of the Statue of Liberty, as students had in 1989, workers carried portraits of the long-dead Chinese leader Chairman Mao. And they expressed nostalgia for a time when China was more isolated. Some even complained about their nation’s entrance into the World Trade Organization. By contrast, the students in 1989 were cosmopolitan figures, given to quoting American heroes.

The problem with assuming that these contrasts made the protests of 1989 and 2002 completely different is that the assumption is based on a distorted memory of 1989. The Tiananmen movement was complicated. Many different kinds of people joined it, and they did so for many different reasons. But when most Americans hear the word “Tiananmen,” all that comes to mind is an image of students inspired by Western ideas shouting “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death,” then being killed.

This image is only partly right.

In fact, most of the people soldiers killed on June 4 were workers, not students. Patrick Henry was sometimes quoted by protesters in 1989, but so was Mao, who warned that suppressors of student movements come to bad ends.

Some Tiananmen manifestoes called for free elections, but more complained that official corruption was destroying the nation. This idea resonated as powerfully with workers as it did with intellectuals, which is one reason so many people who were not students joined educated youths on the streets of Beijing and scores of other cities in 1989.

We shouldn’t forget that a Goddess of Democracy statue appeared in Tiananmen Square thirteen years ago, but we should also remember that some marchers carried portraits of the long dead Communist leader Zhou Enlai. And a key meaning of those images then, as of portraits of Mao this year, is the same: to suggest that China’s current rulers are less morally worthy than their predecessors.

Economic as well as political grievances angered the Tiananmen students. They wanted more personal and political freedom. But they also worried, as workers in state-run enterprises do now, about their future security in a changing economy.

Once these aspects of the Tiananmen protests are recalled, the contrasts between the demonstrations of 1989 and 2002 do not disappear. But they become less stark.

March 2002 was not a replay of April-June 1989. In this year’s protest wave, students stayed on the sidelines, only a few cities were affected and no one was killed. Still, the recent unrest had much in common with that of thirteen years ago.

China has changed dramatically since 1989. We cannot hope to predict what will happen in the next thirteen years without acknowledging this. But it is equally misleading to assume that the only link between 1989 and the present is the endurance of a regime that jealously guards its monopoly of political power.

The anniversary of the June 4th Massacre is a good moment to take stock of another continuity: the anger that many Chinese feel over official corruption. This anger inspired millions to take to the streets in 1989 and it has inspired many smaller protests since that time.

It is essential for foreign observers who want to understand China to keep this in mind.

It would be better still for the regime to take a lesson from all of these protests and instigate bold steps to root out nepotistic practices and make China’s leaders more accountable to the “people” in whose name they rule.

The marches of 1989 should have alerted the regime to just how serious a source of discontent corruption had become. And more recent demonstrations should have reminded Beijing that, even after years of economic growth and token anti-corruption campaigns, the anger that fueled the Tiananmen protests continues to bubble beneath the surface.

If the regime fails to take new approaches, still more protests will occur. Some will be as small and localized as were those of March. But sooner or later, bigger and more widespread outbursts will come. And when they do, the parallels with Tiananmen will become impossible to ignore.

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, a writer for the History News Service and the author of "China's Brave New World -- And Other Tales for Global Times" (2007).