8964: thoughts on social unrest and democracy in China

The Goddess of Democracy. Image from China Digital Times

21 years ago today, Chinese military forces cracked down upon a protest led by students and workers in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. Throughout a tumultuous spring, contentions and demonstrations had been building up in the Chinese capital. Deng Xiaoping had ordered the vast and imposing square be cleared by midnight on June 4th “at any cost.” China’s military opened fire on its own people, with the actual death toll remaining unknown today.

Aside from the tragic loss of life, Tiananmen is an important reminder not only of how social contentious can boil dramatically, but also the severity of China’s strategies of dealing with unrest. Today’s leaders remain so haunted by June 4th that maintaining social stability is their paramount aim.

However, in the West there is often tendency to romanticise the events of June 4th as a nationwide push for democracy. This is misleading for two reasons. Firstly, the reality is that the protests were divided into one group seeking fewer democratic reforms (workers) and other group seeking more (students). Secondly, the very notion of democracy in China is not one most Chinese might identify with. It is a grey area, a far cry from the black-and-white discourses that so often come out of the West.

Despite growth in various incomes, the 1980s saw a rise in widespread discontent amongst workers who felt Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms had gone too far. Inflation hit rates of around 18% and even peaked at 30% in urban areas by 1988-9. For the majority of China’s population, this was the first experience of such economic downturn, panic buying and the threat of unemployment.

Corruption was also rife, in part a result of the shortages in employment. These shortages triggered black marketing and smuggling, often organised by cadres or their children, weakening the already waning citizen faith in leadership. Although such unrest was also recognised at top levels – rectification campaigns in the mid-1980s sought to rid the leadership of nepotism, corruption and expenditure of public funds for higher officials’ personal gifts – the lack of any concrete change meant political instability could coalesce.

In light of this, students and intellectuals, in particular, felt Deng’s reforms had become stagnant. The discord between the government and these groups had been brewing since the mid-80s: for instance, a large student demonstrations in 1986 in Hefei, Anhui Province, which called for greater democratisation in China was swiftly repressed.

The catalyst came with the death of Hu Yaobang in April 1989, two years after his resignation from the position of Secretary General. Since the Anhui unrest, he had called for rapid reform in China. Around 30,000 students gathered to mourn him in Tiananmen Square, demanding continued liberalisation and the founding of unions for students and workers, as well as to simply mourn in public freely.

The course of the spring saw non-violent protest escalate into petitions being made to the Standing Committee of the Politburo, hunger strikes, the boycotting of university classes and instructions to state media from Secretary General Zhao Ziyang to spread more favourable coverage of the chaotic events.  Martial law was eventually declared, and despite initial civilian resistance, by dawn on 4th June Tiananmen Square had been emptied. Estimates of those killed range from 300 to tens of thousands.

To brand this tumultuous spring a ‘pro-democracy movement’ is wrong. Although the movement was a grassroots one, it did not cover or come from all of the lower stratas of society.

This leads us deeper into the contentious issue of democracy in China. Simply, China’s breakneck economic growth, which has led it to being the third largest economy in the world, has presided over political reforms. This has largely been met with pride, rather than resentment, from the Chinese public: the fact that China has achieved an economic superpower status at such a rapid speed and against a historical backdrop of a ‘century of humiliation’ (namely the Opium Wars, the Japanese occupation, the loss of Taiwan and America’s bid to contain the PRC) has bolstered public nationalist sentiment.

Further, these economic reforms have lifted around four hundred million out of poverty since 1980. It is of little surprise that maintaining new living standards presides over pushing for abstract democratic reforms. Han Han has summarised this:

To a lot of Chinese people, the value of seeking such things [freedom, truth, justice] is not nearly as high as seeking an apartment building or an online game to play.


This is a race of people who can eat genetically modified grain and oil distilled from recycled food scraps, drink melamine-infused milk, and take inferior vaccines. Their tolerance is higher than you can imagine. Their needs are lower than you can imagine.

This is not to say, however, that Chinese citizens are completely socially or politically apathetic. The country’s contentions have indeed been multiplying, from netizens’ appeals for social justice to environmental demonstrations, from unrest over the restrictive hukou (household registration) system to recent labour strikes. But democracy as a concept is sought by only a few: it is for this reason that the daring Charter 08 did not resonate widely beyond an intellectual urbanite collective.

It is therefore safe to ask, should China be expected to follow a Western track of democratisation, given that the majority of its society does not demand it? Pan Wei has argued that the CCP’s single party rule could be made more efficient and corruption lessened by the rule of law, an impartial civil service and an independent judiciary. These top-down reforms would avoid both the collapse of the CCP and an evolution toward Western style electoral democracy, in theory creating greater government accountability without de-legitimising the CCP’s monopoly on power.

China will not, cannot and should not transform into a democracy overnight. But incremental legal changes, as suggested by Pan Wei, are of the essence, especially since this particular anniversary occurs at a time of unrest and when social inequalities triggering macabre acts of revenge. Indeed, China’s very contradiction is that antiquated mechanisms of hardline suppression are still being used to deal with newly brimming contentions, which are now coming from a wider variety of actors than ever before.

If Tiananmen has taught the CCP anything, it is that more sustainable and effective strategies of dealing with unrest need to be developed that go beyond repression. These are necessary if the CCP is to legitimise one party rule and lessen any chances of political or social instability. Otherwise, social contentions will continue to ferment. While these may not add up to another Tiananmen, they will certainly increase the volume of one question: when will political reform catch up with economic deliverance?

To commemorate the anniversary, China Digital Times will be posting a series of original news stories from the spring of 1989.


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