The movement began with mourning the death of the strongest advocate for social reform the students had in the Communist Party, Hu Yaobang. He had taken the fall for student protests in 1986. The Party hard-liners denounced Hu’s “bourgeois -liberalism” as encouraging the students. He was retired from leadership, and the students lost their legal right to spontaneous demonstration, a right guaranteed by their Constitution.
Hu’s death on April 15th, 1989 marked the moment people would be allowed to gather in mourning and hang wreaths on the Monument of the People’s Heroes in Tiananmen Square. History was repeating itself. The students’ parents’ generation had mourned Zhou Enlai, who they had considered the most moderate voice in the Party.
That funeral became a podium for crying out against the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution. The event became known as the Tiananmen Incident of 1976 when the thousands of grieving, angry citizens were brutally beaten by truncheon-wielding police. Two years later, the Democracy Wall movement began spontaneously in Tiananman, and these same future parents had a voice with which to share in the lament. They saw their movement quashed; the leaders arrested. Now, they worried for their children’s welfare as they watched the new student movement of 1989 become the largest citizen demonstration in Chinese history, and thus, I would venture to guess, in the world.
The students sitting peacefully on Tiananmen Square in 1989 were the bright stars, the hope of the future for the Chinese people. Their achievement of college admission made them elite. They studied hard to get there. They wanted to make China a better place. They came from villages in the mountains, Autonomous Regions in the north, and from all over. It was the tradition of the Confucius Exam continued. In the Confucian tradition, the scholar’s place in society was to advise the rulers of China on matters of state.
But when the fresh students with stars in their eyes arrived on campus, they found the infrastructure in disrepair. It also soon became clear that their job prospects after graduation were dim, and their pay would be low. The lack of respect for intellectuals their parents had experienced during Mao’s regime seemed to be continuing into the Four Modernizations of Deng Xiaoping’s era of reform.
Did these contradictory realities cause a crisis of faith and a call to action for the generation raised on an open-door policy? They chose to march. They were very brave, determined, romantic, and naive.
Their paradigm came from a childhood interacting on the fringes with the West and its pop culture. Jan and Dean had toured several cities in 1986. The youth of the ‘80s had spent their high school years reading philosophy, science, and literature. They heard lectures by famous Chinese intellectuals preaching democracy and liberty. Central government propaganda and thought reform didn’t work to sway their minds toward the Party cause. The dogma they had been raised with was economic reform and an open-door policy. They had embraced that already; now they wanted something substantial. They wanted the Chinese Constitution to be honored. They wanted basic human rights.
edited by Christopher Ross