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Looking Back and Looking Forward

June 4, 2009

Wang Dan

What sustained impact has the June Fourth crackdown had on Chinese society over the past 20 years? Wang Dan, one of the student leaders of the 1989 Democracy Movement, argues that, in ushering in a time of political terror, the June Fourth crackdown has caused people in China to avoid political participation, thus enabling Chinese leaders to continue economic reform without political reform. As a result, unchecked corruption—one of the major grievances that ignited the 1989 protest—continues to ravage Chinese society 20 years later and threatens its stability. Wang, however, is optimistic about a future China that is built on prosperity, stability, freedom, and social justice, one that will be a responsible member of the international community.

Twenty years have passed since June 4, 1989. Some people in China today do not talk about what happened on that day, whether for fear of political repression or because they have simply forgotten about it, but the issues raised by the 1989 Democracy Movement still loom large in China’s political life. I would like to use the occasion of the twentieth anniversary to, first, look back on the 1989 Democracy Movement in view of what has happened in China since; second, assess the situation in China today; and, third, introduce some ideas regarding the future of China.

During the past 20 years, discussions about the reasons for and the significance of the 1989 Democracy Movement have never ceased, but they have failed to relate the movement to the social transition that occurred in China in the 1990s, especially after Deng Xiaoping’s trip to the South in 1992.1 This, I believe, is their serious shortcoming. In this respect, I would like to offer three insights.

First of all, the rethinking about June Fourth nowadays emphasizes the demands for democracy, while ignoring another important demand of the time: the demand to eradicate corruption. In fact, one of the basic reasons why we students and the intellectuals raised the issue of democracy was because we thought that the only way to eliminate corruption would be through the establishment of democratic institutions. Since June Fourth and up to this very day, it is obvious that the corruption keeps getting worse, and it is currently the greatest obstacle in China to further development. I think that one of the reasons for the rampant institutional corruption today is the violent crackdown on the demand to wipe out corruption in 1989. This is because, in the aftermath of the June Fourth crackdown, the Communist Party refused to embark on any political reform. As a result, it has been impossible to establish anti-corruption institutions, and any movement to eliminate corruption has remained within the establishment. All activities and suggestions for fighting corruption that come from outside the establishment are regarded as a challenge to the Party’s authority. In addition, pressures from civil society against corruption have diminished after the students’ demands were suppressed, because of fear of political terror. The people’s avoidance of political participation throughout the 1990s can be seen as an expression of such fear. Thus, we can see the crackdown on June Fourth as not only a victory for authoritarianism, but also a victory for corruption.

I think that one of the reasons for the rampant institutional corruption today is the violent crackdown on the demand to wipe out corruption in 1989.

Furthermore, some people argue that the students’ demands were largely fulfilled during the period of reform that followed Deng Xiaoping’s trip to the South in 1992. They claim that the Communist Party of China (CPC) has already learned its lesson from June Fourth. But I don’t think that the reform in the 1990s moved in the direction demanded by the students in 1989, in spite of what it might have looked like on the surface. The fact is that because of the crackdown on so-called “liberal thought,” the market economy in China has been developing without participation and oversight by the people. The real purpose of Deng’s trip to the South and the CPC’s promotion of further economic reforms has been to strengthen the political power of the Party and to maintain its internal unity, at the expense of the interests of the people. There has been no political reform since 1992, because the authorities are no longer interested in or willing to establish a democratic China. The reform has been transformed into a license to openly steal people’s property. I would thus argue that since 1992 the reform has basically died. What we see instead today is a process of dividing people’s property that collectively benefits one small group. This has produced serious social injustices, regional inequalities, and growing rich/poor and urban/rural gaps. These were exactly the issues that we were concerned about in 1989. I still remember some people pointing out at the time that market economy reforms, without the establishment of democratic institutions, would ultimately be transformed into a process of dividing up benefits. This is the reason why we appealed for democracy in 1989. Unfortunately, China today is taking a development path based on social injustices because the CPC did not learn the lessons of June Fourth.

Finally, some people argue that the students in 1989 had good intentions, but that their good intentions had negative effects; that it was the 1989 Democracy Movement itself that caused the CPC to cut short its plans for reform, including its plans for political reform, and that the 1989 Democracy Movement can be blamed for halting progress with respect to reforms. I disagree. The truth is that the student demand for further reform scared the leaders of the CPC, and they resorted to brutal military means to stop it. In fact, compared to the democratic movements in Eastern Europe and in Taiwan, the 1989 Democracy Movement in China did not raise very radical demands. When the students embarked on their hunger strike, they had only two conditions. One was that the government amend the April 26 editorial2 and not refer to the student movement as turmoil. The second was to open a public dialogue with officials to discuss the reform. When we were planning the hunger strike, I suggested that we add a third condition: that He Dongchang, who at the time was the Minister of the State Education Commission, step down. But this suggestion was rejected by other student leaders because they thought that we should not push the government too far. From my experience I know that the students were both rational and moderate.

Had there really been reform factions within the CPC with plans for further political reform, the students’ actions could have undoubtedly provided them with a good opportunity to do something and given them strong support. Had the authorities accepted the demands of the students and been willing to engage in  a dialogue with the society, a rational reform process could have been undertaken. How could the CPC call this a big turmoil? The responsibility for what occurred should be placed entirely on the shoulders of the Chinese government. It refused to accept a golden opportunity and halted the process of political reform. Those who claim that it was the students’ actions that brought an end to the plans of the reform faction within the CPC have a very one-sided opinion about internal Party affairs. In 1989 they put all their hopes on Zhao Ziyang.3 After 1992 they put their hopes on Zhu Rongji.4 And now they pin hope on Hu Jintao5 and Wen Jiabao.6 But they must have been disappointed, over and over again. There was no student or any other movement to upset Zhu Rongji’s plans. Yet, what did he ever do for political reform? And we can see what is going on in Hong Kong today. Hong Kong is a society with a very stable social situation and a large middle class. So why did the current Chinese government refuse to allow general elections in 2007?7 Obviously, the blame for this cannot be placed on the students.

The heavy cost for the unbalanced development of the political and economic sphere will be paid for by future generations.

I know that it is not up to us dissidents and former student leaders to decide when there will be an official reassessment of the 1989 events. Only the CPC has the power to overrule its position on the Democracy Movement. But what we must all do nevertheless is protect the historical truth.

As I reflect on June Fourth and look at present-day China, three important points also come to mind. First, the basic social crisis that led to the 1989 Democracy Movement has never been resolved, and it continues to simmer and seethe beneath the surface. 1989 provided the best opportunity in Chinese history for the state and society to operate together to bring about political reform. But, unfortunately, the CPC failed to seize this opportunity. After the June Fourth crackdown, the focus of the reform shifted from political and economic concerns to address only economic issues. The heavy cost for the unbalanced development of the political and economic sphere will be paid for by future generations.

Second, I realize that there has been rapid economic growth in China and, as a dissident, I highly praise the achievements of the Chinese government in promoting economic reforms. Yet while Deng Xiaoping’s contribution to economic growth cannot be ignored, I still do not think that he can be forgiven for the crime of cracking down on the peaceful and non-violent movement. Economic growth without political change is insufficient. One hundred years ago when Max Weber analyzed the development of Germany, he pointed out that a backward nation that experiences sudden economic growth will face serious dangers if the political system does not mature in conjunction with the economic system. The development of Germany in the following 50 years confirmed his prediction. Similarly, the future of China, with its high-speed economic growth but without a modern political system, is not necessarily optimistic.

Third, the splendor of modern-day urban development should not blind us to the fact that Shanghai is not China. In 2005, Ding Yuanzhu, a Peking University professor, conducted research about the prospects for China’s future over the medium term. Of the 77 experts and scholars he surveyed, 51 expected that a large social crisis would erupt on the mainland before the year 2012. The respondents in the survey were not dissidents or critical intellectuals; rather, they were scholars and experts working within the establishment. Their opinions may carry more weight than mine, and they lead to only one conclusion: that economic reform alone, without an accompanying political reform, will not ensure the future stability of China. Not only does China need political reform, China must have political reform. And if there is to be political reform, it should begin with a reassessment of June Fourth.

Finally, let me turn to the future of China. Despite the many looming difficulties and crises, I am still optimistic that sooner or later China will democratize. It is very important for the generation that experienced June Fourth, what we now call “the ’89 generation,” to rethink and remember the past. But even more importantly, our generation must look forward and create something new for the future. This includes initiating both ideological and institutional changes. We advocate four basic values: prosperity, stability, freedom, and social justice. The CPC cares only about prosperity and stability. In contrast, the members of the ’89 generation know that without freedom and social justice there cannot be sustained prosperity and stability. As for institutional change, we advocate four “-isms”: liberalism, with social justice at its core; federalism, aimed at resolving problems between the central and local governments, as well as issues regarding Taiwan and Tibet; nationalism, of a moderate and democratic kind, aspiring to meld together a new national spirit; and constitutionalism, as the framework of the new political system. Based on these four values and four “-isms,” we are looking forward to a new, “third republic” in China, which will be different from both Sun Yat-sen’s first republic8 and Mao Zedong’s second republic.9 This new republic, I believe, will be a good friend and a responsible member of the international community.


1. Deng Xiaoping stepped down as Chairman of the Central Military Commission in 1989 and retired from the political scene in 1992, but he was still regarded as China’s “paramount leader” with backroom control. To reassert his economic agenda, he made his famous southern tour of China in the spring of 1992, visiting Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Zhuhai, and spending the New Year in Shanghai. ^

2. “Bixu qizhi xianmingde fandui dongluan” [必须旗帜鲜明地反对动乱] {It Is Necessary to Take a Clear-cut Stand against Disturbances}, People’s Daily [人民日报], April 26, 1989. ^

3. Zhao Ziyang was Premier of the People’s Republic of China (1980–1987), and General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (1987–1989). ^

4. Zhu Rongji was Premier of the People’s Republic of China from 1998 to 2003. ^

5. Hu Jintao is currently the paramount leader of the People’s Republic of China, holding the title of General Secretary of the Communist Party of China since 2002, President of the People’s Republic of China since 2003, and Chairman of the Central Military Commission since 2004. ^

6. Wen Jiabao is Premier of the People’s Republic of China (2003– ). ^

7. In April 2004, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC) of China adopted a decision ruling out the possibility of universal suffrage for the upcoming elections of Hong Kong’s chief executive in 2007. ^

8. Sun Yat-sen is known as “The Father of the Republic of China.” He played an instrumental role in overthrowing the Qing Dynasty in 1911, and was the first provisional president when the Republic of China (ROC) was founded in 1912. He later co-founded the Kuomintang (KMT) and served as its first leader. The KMT lost control of China in 1949 to the Communists, thereby ending “the first republic” on the Mainland. ^

9. The People’s Republic of China was established in 1949 by the leaders of the Communist Party of China (CPC), when Mao Zedong famously proclaimed from the podium in Tiananmen Square: “The Chinese people have stood up!” ^