1989 Chinese Student Movement (1989)

The Lokashakti Encyclopedia of Nonviolence, Peace, & Social Justice

1989 Chinese Student Movement

Being sentenced, I will speak my piece,
saying to the world, “I accuse!”
And although you trod a thousand resisters under foot,
I shall be the one-thousand-and-first.

—Bei Dao

Avoiding the line of march so as not to be branded “a foreign instigator,” I accompanied the students and faculty each morning in late May 1989, as they left the gates of Nanjing University to walk to Gu Lou Square at the center of the city. The Bell Tower above the square where they gathered for speeches and, eventually, a fast, was immediately recognizable to anyone in China, though not as well-known to the rest of the world as Tiananmen Square, where protests against government corruption originated several weeks before.

Deeply moved by the students’ protest, their discipline and intelligence in explaining the nature of their protest to workers and townspeople, I knew—as they knew—the likely consequences of their nonviolent resistance to a repressive State. Yet even party members, including university officials, joined in the protest and publicly supported the students. Days later, groups of young people left Nanjing on “the long march” to Beijing, 700 miles north, to join their contemporaries and former schoolmates. After the June 4 massacre of students in Beijing, shot down by government troops on the edge of Tiananmen Square, however, faculty members and officials in Nanjing sent buses north to pick up the students and bring them back. Shortly afterward, university officials and Jiangsu provincial officials (governing an area the size of New York State, with 60 million people) closed the universities—a wise move to discourage intervention by the army, stationed on the outskirts of the city.

In the history of nonviolent social change, the Chinese students who initiated the campaign for reform in 1989 claim a special place. Their effort, “one of the largest and best-organized nonviolent political protest movements the world has ever seen,” as Orville Schell wrote, will be a subject for study and reflection by anyone seriously committed to constructing peace and to rebuilding the social order. So it is appropriate that the Albert Einstein Institution at Harvard University and peace research centers are engaged in an on-going study of the movement.

Observing those young people at close range, in Shanghai, Nanjing, and Harbin—before and after the June 4 suppression—I was often reminded of similar movements against corruption and oppression throughout the world, particularly those in the Southern United States during the height of the Civil Rights movement and in New England during resistance to the wars in Southeast Asia and the Persian Gulf.

Throughout China in the spring of 1989, as in the Southern U.S. in the winter of 1960, students gave meaning to democracy each day, taking their message to the wider community through wall posters, demonstrations, and speeches. As with those involved in voter registration in Mississippi and lunch counter sit-ins in North Carolina, young people gave voice to the hopes and grievances of their elders, many of whom had suffered previously under a repressive political system.

Although Nanjing had been the site of demonstrations in April 1989, university students in that “southern capital” (200 miles west of Shanghai, on the Yangtze River) had little formal organization prior to mid-May. During the initial stages of the protests, before being joined by thousands from other universities throughout the city, students “with their knees knocking” as one observer said, gathered at the Nanjing University gate for the first march to Gu Lou Square.

By mid-May, their contemporaries and close friends in Beijing—calling for an end to nepotism, government corruption, and press censorship—had clearly struck a note that reverberated in the hearts and minds of millions. In giving encouragement and support to students throughout the country, workers and peasants, as well as intellectuals, artists, and teachers, revived a tradition associated with another historic protest seventy years before. In the May 4 Movement, 1919, a previous generation of students had called their elders to account and by their effort had furthered the birth of modern China.

By late May 1989, people in every major city had joined the struggle with demonstrations and hunger strikes. A crowd of 100,000 people poured into the streets of Nanjing, blocking the pedicab carrying my driver, luggage, and me from the train station to the university, as I arrived from Shanghai. Quotations on posters and banners from Chinese poets, ancient and modem, as well as from Lord Acton (“Absolute power corrupts absolutely”) and Martin Luther King (“I have a dream...”) reflected the students’ impatience with the party leadership under Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng.

Like their parents and teachers, students in Nanjing knew well the effects of inflation and wide-scale government corruption that accompanied the previous decade of economic reform. Although some people had profited by a freer market and life generally had improved for many Chinese between 1979 and 1989, people on fixed incomes had to moonlight or to dip into small savings in order to pay the rapidly increasing prices for food and clothing. Public knowledge about party officials getting rich because of their control over the distribution of goods and services had made many people openly cynical about “the old men” ruling the national government.

In earlier student protests, beginning in 1986, student slogans about democratic reform had been rather vague and grandiose. Even the demonstrations in April 1989, after the death of Hu Yaobang, an official popular among university students, were festive rather than political. By May 18, the day of my arrival in Nanjing, the demonstrations focused upon particular grievances, including a party chief’s editorial denunciation of the student movement. Perhaps hardly noticed elsewhere in the world, in China, this development suggested a clarification of goals and purposes among young activists and the wider community.

In over 350 cities, as in Beijing, where a young woman, Chai Ling, had assumed leadership of the movement, many journalists working for the government-controlled media supported the students by joining the demonstrations or providing extensive coverage on radio and television—a noteworthy contribution to the nonviolent movement. Student successes in gaining popular support grew, as the young “intellectuals,” often resented by workers and townspeople, entered and leafletted factories and workplaces, explaining their campaign to everyone. As did many adults, I admired the students’ resourcefulness and restraint and their patriotic spirit. The movement grew.

Tienenman Square, 1989By late May, faculty, including members of the Communist Party, also signed wall posters and spoke at demonstrations. For a time, the government media transmitted accurate accounts of events at Tiananmen Square and elsewhere, whetting the people’s appetite for accurate information and precise details regarding reform. Then, the government imposed martial law; and although wall posters and slogans became increasingly hostile toward Li Peng, the crowds in Nanjing remained purposeful and calm in their requests that the government retract its denunciation of the student movement and initiate reforms. The movement had spread through numerous other cities to Harbin, 700 miles north of Beijing, where I attended an international conference on American literature in early June.

Then, on June 4, came the crackdown, swift and brutal, in the streets of Beijing, with threats of similar reprisals against the students and workers in other major cities. The re-writing of “history” to conform to the party-line began immediately, with government news agencies jumbling dates and scenes of the army’s entrance into Beijing. In interviews that appeared rehearsed, “ordinary people” gave their versions of the June 4 massacre and offered flowers and food to “heroic soldiers” who had “defended the nation” against “counter-revolutionary elements,” “rascals,” and “hoodlums.”

Following the killings in Beijing, some people cried out for vengeance against the government, smearing the Chinese character for “blood” across wall posters, drawing caricatures of government officials as Nazis wearing swastikas, particularly after news reached Harbin that four students from the University of Science and Technology had died in Beijing. Such responses were understandable, but in this case, as in most others involving citizens’ efforts against the State, the weapons for vengeance, for blood, were all on the government’s side.

Faculty everywhere wanted no students walking directly into another senseless slaughter. Then, as now, any direct confrontation with the government seemed not only unwise, but suicidal, though the struggle for freedom of the press and an end to autocratic rule and corruption in high places continued by other means.

Among the many people I spoke with in China, before and after June 4, no one—neither Chinese nor foreigner—anticipated the brutality of the government’s response. Gradually, however, people began to understand the historic, then tragic events within the context of recent history. The year before the struggle, in tracing the course of economic and political reforms since Mao’s death, Harry Harding had recognized, for example, that “despite the sometimes dramatic cycles in reform since 1978, the most difficult stage in the course of China’s second revolution may still lie ahead.”

Although even the most pessimistic observers doubt that the government will repeat the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, executions and arrests indicate that hard-liners within the party are against supporting basic human rights for their own people. Even in the face of a widely supported reform movement, the party was willing to openly betray its disorganization and viciousness.

Following the repression, many people outside China wondered how best to support those who had already taken such risks for political reform out of loyalty to their country and concern for its welfare. Returning from China later that fateful summer, I often remembered a Nanjing friend’s response when I asked him what a foreigner might do to keep alive the memory of the students in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere. In a late-night conversation, and again before I left for Shanghai and the long flight home, he focused upon this issue: some means of transmitting information by television to the people of China, some means of reaching the millions who rely for news only on official channels with their lies and propaganda.

During the student demonstrations, rumor had it that some soldiers in Beijing with access to international news decided not to fire on their countrymen and women. According to my Chinese friend, similar incidents in India, where people tapped into Western news sources, had strengthened the public to resist oppression there. In China, anyone listening to foreign broadcasts may retain some perspective on events, in the face of the government’s re-writing of history; but the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule may further reduce peoples’ access to these alternate sources of information.

“One of the worst aspects of living in brisk, dictatorial China,” as Paul Theroux has said, “is that you seldom have an accurate idea of what is really going on.” Where 70 percent live on the land, sources of reliable information are severely restricted. Even though students returning from the universities took word of the pro-democracy movement to their homes and communities, for example, they represent a small fraction of the population. And the nonviolent movement, particularly, depends upon broad dissemination of accurate information about issues and events.

On this site, in 1989, nothing happened.Because of its manipulation of the news, the government won a propaganda war and convinced many people that in Beijing the casualties were few. It even succeeded temporarily in re-writing the history of the movement. But too many people tasted the flavor of free speech to forget their appetite for a more open society. Or so it seems to anyone attentive to the costly victories of the students’ movement in speaking truth to power.

Since 1989, the Chinese have had, once again, to face hard choices and personal sacrifices in order to keep alive the spirit of the movement. But the courage and resourcefulness essential to nonviolent social change are evident in the daily struggle of intellectuals and workers, particularly, who supported the movement. Detailed accounts of strategies employed in confrontations with the government, including the army, have already contributed to our knowledge and understanding of nonviolence in that culture. As with Martin Luther King and his associates in the Civil Rights movement, Chinese students learned quickly as they went along, improvising and keeping alert in the face of overwhelming odds. Finally, in desperation and cynicism, people in power resorted to murder, as they have previously in China and elsewhere.

Someday, nonetheless, a space near Tiananmen Square will undoubtedly be set apart as a memorial to these students and workers—a reminder of their gifts to the people of China and, by extension, to citizens everywhere. “The sacrifice of the students at Tiananmen Square, in all its dignity and power,” Christopher Kruegler wrote in the New York Times, is rightly compared to that of the people who died at Amritsar in India or in Mississippi and other movements for social justice. In our hearts and memories, those young people deserve a very special place, particularly for anyone committed to nonviolent social change.

Dr. Michael True, reprinted with permission, from People Power: 50 Peacemakers and their Communities. Jaipur: Rawat Publications, 2007.

Selected material by Chinese Students
  • Li Lu. Moving the Mountain: My Life in China. New York: Putnam, 1990.
Selected material about Chinese Students
  • Black, George and Robin Munro, Black Hands of Beijing: Lives of Defiance in China’s Democracy Movement. New York: John Wiley, 1993.
  • Butterfield, Fox. China: Alive in the Bitter Sea, Rev. ed. New York: Random House, 1990.
  • June Four. A Chronicle of the Chinese Democratic Uprising. Jin Jiang and Qin Zhou, transl. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1991.
  • Joshua Paulson, “Uprising and Repression in China,” in Gene Sharp, Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential. Boston: Porter Sargent Publishers, 2005, pp. 253-69.
  • Schell, Orville. “China’s Spring,” New York Review of Books. June 29, 1989, 3-4, 6-8.
  • True, Michael, “The 1989 Democratic Uprising in China: A Nonviolent Perspective,” in An Anthology of Nonviolence: Historical and Contemporary Voices, ed. Krishna Mallick and Doris Hunter. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002.
  • Bios   ( 24 )
    Inspirational noteworthy figures in the history of nonviolence, peace, and social justice
  • Groups   ( 24 )
    Groups and organizations that have played significant roles in nonviolent movements
  • Concepts   ( 18 )
    Important concepts related to peace and nonviolence, especially in regards to nonviolent action
  • Movements   ( 26 )
    Movements and historical events where nonviolent action was used entirely or in large part
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