Beijing Spring, 1989: Confrontation and Conflict: the Basic Documents

By Michel Oksenberg; Lawrence R. Sullivan et al. | Go to book overview

costs would not necessarily be keyed to levels of participation: they could be imposed on mere bystanders. The most prominent and radical of protesters feared for their lives on June 4. But when the army opened fire, any person in the streets had good reason to fear no less. Prior to June 4, people could assume that the potential costs of protest were roughly predictable and that they would vary by degrees of involvement. The massacre invalidated those assumptions. It introduced unprecedentedly high costs and left virtually to chance the question of who would bear them. This combination of severity and near randomness is the essence of political terror.92


Conclusion

The logic of the 1989 protests and massacre is one of players pressed into a duel. Protesters and hardliners began with mutually contradictory assumptions and estimates about the implications of mass political participation. Responses from hardliners and the existence of an alternative soft line drove protesters into more extreme positions and tactics; these in turn confirmed the hardliners' view that the protests were deliberately malevolent. With better information about the actual norms and costs of protest, it is almost certain that students would not have chosen to escalate the protests. Although massacre ultimately dominated other choices for hardliners, it is clear that they too were "reluctant duelists."93

The protests are often described as a prodemocracy movement, although democracy was only one of many issues aired. Yet it is not an inaccurate characterization of the movement, as it sums up the real point of contention: how do the people rule? The protests assumed the existence of a new and thoroughly unorthodox kind of politics at the same time as protesters borrowed from orthodox notions and rhetoric to voice their demands. Their forms of protest assumed the legitimacy of bottom-up mass politics, institutionalized in real mass organizations, rather than the elite-dominated mass mobilization of the past, the mass consultation of post-Mao reform policy, and the "mass organizations" of the Communist Party.

Could Chinese leaders have offered more significant concessions to the protesters? Obviously, yes--if they had been prepared to abandon basic assumptions and the old politics of elite monopoly for a new kind of leadership. The protesters might be appeased for a time, but the new mass politics would be strengthened. Concessions to end the protests would probably have signaled nothing less

____________________
92
Dallin and Breslauer define political terror as "severe and arbitrary coercion or its credible threat." See Alexander Dallin and George W. Breslauer, Political Terror in Communist Systems ( Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1970).
93
My apologies to Daniel Ellsberg for using his term for a game rather different than the one he described. See his "Theory of the Reluctant Duelist," American Economic Review 46, 5 ( 1956): 909-23.

-xli-

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