There are some essential lessons we can learn from the student occupation of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, which took place 25 years ago. The 1989 protests began as a demonstration by university students to mourn the death of Hu Yaobang, the reformist Communist Party chief who had been forced out by Deng Xiaoping. The protests swiftly expanded to include demands for an end to corruption, for press freedom and for democracy. At their height, perhaps a million people were in the square. The protests were crushed on the night of June 3-4 when some 200,000 soldiers, backed by tanks and armored personnel carriers, attacked. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unarmed demonstrators were killed.
Lesson No. 1. A nonviolent movement that disrupts the machinery of state and speaks a truth a state hopes to suppress has the force to terrify authority and create deep fissures within the power structure. The ruling elites in China, we now know from leaked internal documents and the work of a handful of historians, believed the protests had the potential to dislodge them from power. Monolithic power, as we saw in China, is often a mirage. Some of the internal documents that exposed the fears and deep divisions within the ruling elite have been collected by the Princeton University Library.
Lesson No. 2. An uprising or a revolution usually follows a period of relative prosperity and liberalization. It is ignited not by the poor but by middle-class and elite families’ sons and daughters, often college-educated, whom Mikhail Bakunin called dÃ©classÃ©intellectuals, and who are being denied opportunities to advance socially and economically.
This is what happened in China. Chairman Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 saw Deng Xiaoping assume leadership. Deng instituted political and free market reforms. The reforms created a new oligarchy. It led to widespread corruption, especially among the party elites. For workers there was a loss of job security and social benefits, including medical care and subsidized housing. University graduates were no longer guaranteed jobs, and many could not find employment.
The political liberalization that followed the terror of the Cultural Revolutionexpanded internal freedoms. A mixture of declining expectations, especially among college graduates, and the political opening provided the classic tinder for revolt. Political theorists such as James C. Davies and Crane Brinton have found that a period of relative liberalization coupled with declining prospects for advancement commonly precedes revolutions.
Once a regime abolishes civil liberties and acts in the middle of an uprising to restore “order,” resistance becomes more dangerous. The Chinese government, after suffering more than a month of protests, declared martial law on May 20, 1989. Nonviolent mass demonstrations, while costly in human terms, often are more effective in totalitarian societies. Fear and forced submission to power are the only weapons left in the arsenal of the ruling class at such a point; when people are no longer afraid, the regime loses control.