There are some essential lessons we can learn from the student occupation of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, which took place 25 years ago. The 1989 protests began as a demonstration by university students to mourn the death of Hu Yaobang, the reformist Communist Party chief who had been forced out by Deng Xiaoping. The protests swiftly expanded to include demands for an end to corruption, for press freedom and for democracy. At their height, perhaps a million people were in the square. The protests were crushed on the night of June 3-4 when some 200,000 soldiers, backed by tanks and armored personnel carriers, attacked. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unarmed demonstrators were killed.
Lesson No. 1. A nonviolent movement that disrupts the machinery of state and speaks a truth a state hopes to suppress has the force to terrify authority and create deep fissures within the power structure. The ruling elites in China, we now know from leaked internal documents and the work of a handful of historians, believed the protests had the potential to dislodge them from power. Monolithic power, as we saw in China, is often a mirage. Some of the internal documents that exposed the fears and deep divisions within the ruling elite have been collected by the Princeton University Library.
Lesson No. 2. An uprising or a revolution usually follows a period of relative prosperity and liberalization. It is ignited not by the poor but by middle-class and elite families’ sons and daughters, often college-educated, whom Mikhail Bakunin called déclassé intellectuals, and who are being denied opportunities to advance socially and economically.
Lesson No. 3. Radical mass movements often begin by appealing respectfully to authority for minimal reforms. The students, gathering in Tiananmen Square to mourn Hu, asked that the Chinese constitution, with its guarantees of rule of law and freedom of speech, be respected. Radicalization within the movement happened in the midst of the demonstrations. Once a movement educates itself about structures of power, and once those in state authority display their indifference to the tepid demands of the demonstrators, a movement becomes bolder and wiser. The Tiananmen Square occupation, begun as a spontaneous reaction to a death, swiftly evolved into a revolt. Students eventually drafted what became known as the Seven Demands.
Lesson No. 4. Once déclassé intellectuals make alliances with the working class a regime is in serious danger. The protest by the students resonated throughout China. Thousands of people, many from the working class, held their own demonstrations in cities across the country. Workers in Beijing rallied to the students. The state’s relentless demonization of the protesters, something we saw in the United States in response to actions of the Occupy movement, was aimed primarily at preventing a student/worker alliance. Once the crackdown was complete, many workers who had taken part were executed. Student leaders, who came from families with connections and privilege, were usually given prison sentences.