Tiananmen Square, Spring 1989: A Chronology of the Chinese Democracy Movement

Tiananmen Square, Spring 1989: A Chronology of the Chinese Democracy Movement

Tiananmen Square, Spring 1989: A Chronology of the Chinese Democracy Movement

Tiananmen Square, Spring 1989: A Chronology of the Chinese Democracy Movement


"Revolution is only superficially an event. Fundamentally it is a process." In this respect, the 1989 student democracy movement in the People's Republic of China (PRC) was an attempt to consolidate a wave of grievances that had been building up to the Tiananmen crackdown ever since the scars of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), This movement is historically important because it was a popular movement, managing to gather active support from all walks of Chinese life -- even perhaps the military. The mass protests gave the government every reason to believe that their legitimacy was being questioned.

Throughout history, developing China usually meant threatening its social stability. The first-generation revolutionary rulers of present-day China knew this; remembering the country's past with vivid apprehension, they held tenaciously to their rule while preventing any inkling of possible chaos. Yet against the hardened wall of the government's entrenched bureaucracy, a group of enthusiastic university students felt they should play a leading role to correct the problems that have continually spread throughout their country. China's youth demonstrated because they believed that the country's political structure had to change if long-awaited social and economic reforms were to be realized.

In one sense, the students' demands were aimed toward abstract goals consisting of freedoms and a general liberalization of the political system. Western watchers were quick to note the idea of democracy, which appeared to be the students' ideological platform. Yet closer scrutiny of the movement shows that the students called for concrete changes. They demanded an end to bureaucratic corruption and the severe inflation. They also wanted more press freedom and freedom of assembly. At the outset of the movement, the students seemed to have a strategy: to legitimize the popular movement as a legal entity. Perhaps the most fervent of demands by the students was the government appraisal of the movement as such. Frustrated, the students believed that only a challenge to the dictatorship of the Party would force the regime to allow more competent participation in government and access to civil liberties.

The movement was also evaluative. The government was blamed for extortion and bribery. Students questioned top Party leaders about their positions, incomes, and family incomes. They vilified Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng as aging technocrats who could no longer ameliorate the social and economic problems facing the country.

How did the government respond? How could they? Replete with factional infighting, the Party and government apparatus could never act as a whole. The conservative faction saw the legitimacy of their authority at stake while the moderates and liberals saw a need to enact major reforms to correct social and economic problems. Yet the government had a more fundamental concern about its own power and the role of the Communist Party as the vanguard of the revolution. The Party was fearful that the students posed a threat to all the economic reforms and successes of the recent past -- a great leap when compared to the failures of Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution.

The international response to the movement was tremendous. Watchful friends in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Western world encouraged the protesters . . .

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