The Chinese Democratic Movement Changed the World

-- Wei Jingsheng

The 1989 democratic movement started in China and spread throughout the entire communist world.  The communist regimes of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe collapsed; and new democracies succeeded in many countries.  The world has changed so much, and even the former US President, Mr. Clinton mistakenly stated that "because of the diminishing of the communist regimes, the cold war comes to its end".  Although the communists are still in power in China, North Korea, Cuba and Vietnam, the world has indeed been changed. 

This democratic movement that changed the world started in 1978, went through its ups and downs over the next 10 years, reached a historical high point in 1989, and was brutally crushed by the Chinese government. 

In the fall of 1978, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) went through a severe power struggle.  The leaders of the CCP were focused on the internal power struggle and paid less attention on controlling the general public.  More and more people who had no place to voice their suffering under the communist regime came to Beijing and posted their writings on walls all over the city.  Several large transportation centers became centers of the posting.  A wall of about 200 meters long in Xidan (near Tiananmen Square) was a major posting center.   It was the place later named as the Xidan Democracy Wall. 

After the Culture Revolution, many of the young people started to re-think about the then Chinese society, including questioning if the Chinese political system should be changed.  Soon, these ideas and follow-up discussions were posted on the Democracy Wall.  Deng XiaoPing, in the middle of a power struggle, used the "public opinion" and defeated his enemy -- the then Communist Party Central Committee Chairman Hua Guofeng, who gathered all the highest power.  The main argument that Deng had with Hua was if Mao's economic and political policy should be changed, or continued.  Almost all the postings on the Democracy Wall supported Deng that Mao's policies should be changed.

On the other hand, the thoughts of the youth who posted on the Democracy Wall went much further than Deng.  They believed that only a democratic system could modernize China, and make China's development into the right track.  Some of the moderates believed that the communist system could be improved to achieve democracy.  But no one believed that the social and political issues could be resolved without democracy.  My article, "The Fifth Modernization - Democracy", created a major impact, and become the representative work of these youths of the Democracy Wall.  The article was copied by hand and spread all over the country, thus making the Democracy Wall a well known name and democracy a hot topic among the people.  After all, at that time a democracy without a one-party totalitarian system was a topic no one dared to talk or even think about.  

It was this multiparty democracy thinking that Deng and some of the hardcore communists could not tolerate.  Their lifetime ideology and all their benefits in reality all came from the Chinese Communist's one party totalitarian system.  They could not allow the existence of any political power other than the communist.  The fact that these youths were extremely well received by the majority of the people, made the dictators uneasy and intolerant.  Therefore, after Deng claimed victory within the party and fought the Vietnamese to set up his authority, the first thing he did was to demolish the Democracy Wall.   They acted so quickly that the movement was suppressed in less than 5 months.  At the end of March 1979, I became the first one arrested due to the Democracy Wall movement.  This arrest was also because I sensed Deng was going to wipe out the democracy advocators and wrote an article to warn people that Deng would be yet a new dictator.  Three days after that article was published, I was arrested. 

The Chinese government took a series of measures after that to remove any memory left in people's mind about the Democracy Wall.  But they failed.  That wall was no longer there, but the Democracy Wall walked into the hearts of the people, into the universities, as well as into the Chinese Communist Party itself.  Through the entire 1980s, the democracy movement advanced further.  The demand for democracy rose not only among intellectuals, but also other people including party members. This movement isolated the conservatives headed by Deng who promoted "reforming the economic policies but not the political system".  Realizing a series of problems came with the "economic reform", which could only be solved by political reform, the reformists within the CCP represented by Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang encountered severe resistance from the conservatives.  The reformists had to rely on the support from the people, and even gradually became the majority voice within the CCP.  Yet, Deng, backed by the military, tried very hard to maintain the situation, until the winter of 1988.

A professor by the name of Fang Lizhi became very famous all over China because of his call for democracy in China.  Together with some well known Beijing intellectuals, Professor Fang wrote a letter to the paramount leader Deng Xiaoping at the beginning of 1989 asking for political reform and the release of Wei Jingsheng and other political prisoners.  This act triggered a series of democracy outcries within university campuses and serious discussions within the CCP.  A bitter argument broke out between Hu Yaobang, CCP's former Party Secretary who was forced to step down not long ago, and Li Peng, a representative of the conservatives and Premier then.  Hu died soon after of a heart attack.  This angered the people throughout the country.  Students rallied on the streets in the name of remembering Hu Yaobang and clashed with the military police, which outraged more people including some average CCP members. Millions of people came out and demonstrated for many days.  The students and citizens had control of Beijing for some time and the city was in better order than ever.  This showed the quality and dignity of the Chinese people, who had a simple goal, to make China a better place.

Afraid of being prosecuted by the government, there were few chances for Chinese people to exchange their political ideas.  Once they had some freedom of speech, most people found that they had very similar thoughts about the system.  Some of the students started with the belief that people were not against the CCP and that their own ideas were too aggressive.  Thus they showed banners saying "We Support the CCP".  In the opposite, encouraged by Professor Fang's letter, a few people hung a banner "Release Wei Jingsheng" on the monument in the center of Tiananmen Square.  Nevertheless, the students thought that average folks might not accept calling for the release of an "antirevolutionary", they yelled and took the banner off. 

Three youths from Hunan Province threw eggs filled with paint onto Mao's portrait hanging on top of Tiananmen.  The students were afraid that this might cause misunderstanding since they believed that most people still loved Mao.  After the students detained the three men and had a meeting with a vote, they handed the three men over to the police.  Even after the massacre during the rescue period, there were still students who believed that the three young men were too aggressive and not in accordance with the "peace, rational and nonviolence" policy of the movement.  Therefore, the three were not put on the rescuing list and suffered in prisons for years.  The students still had hope that they could have cooperation from reformists within the CCP lead by Zhao Ziyang, Deng would lose power soon, and they could join the reformists into the government to push for political reform.

However, the people who demonstrated did not stop at the moderate and reform level.  These included the workers and other citizens of the city, as well as most of those from government agencies.  The banners and slogans of the demonstration included not only those moderates for improvement, but more were asking the conservatives even the CCP to step down.  Many moderates found that their banners were obsolete after seeing what the others wrote on the banners.  For the first time over several decades, many people saw and knew what everyone else was thinking.  They found out that their thoughts were very similar to each other and that there was no need to hide.  This is one of the main reasons why more and more people joined the demonstration and keep coming out to the streets everyday.

This mode also encouraged those inside the CCP, especially the media. Although all media, Newspapers, TV and radio, were controlled by the CCP and there was no freedom of press, many journalist and editors joined the people and published / broadcast anti-communism speeches.  They also found that among colleagues who could not tell the truth, there was misunderstanding and their thoughts were very close.  Once the chains binding their thoughts were off, all the public opinion stood together with the people.

Normally, one would think that Deng and those conservatives would hand over power and step down under this situation. However, these old hardcore communists who retained power by worshiping force and had control of the military did not want to give up.  Deng staged a military coup and they took over the highest power of the government against people's will.  Soldiers with tanks and machine guns were ordered in, and students and citizens were massacred.  The reformists represented by Zhao dared not openly to challenge the massacre.  They were afraid of what happened later in the former Soviet Union could happen in China, and the CCP's one party dictatorship would be overthrown by the people.  They let the soldiers go with the massacre on the streets. 

The Chinese armies are not professional military forces. Soldiers were told to "obey the orders from the CCP and fight for the people".  Even so, being ordered to kill students and civilians was difficult to take, both mentally and rationally.  Deng had hard time to mobilize the army. Many generals found excuses or refused to take the orders.  For example, General Xu Qinxian, in charge of the 38th Regiment, refused to take the orders. He was forced down immediately and arrested.  Many other high commanders within the Central Military Commend who were against the massacre were forced down as well.  These include General Zhang Aiping, General Hong Xuezhi and Defense Minister Qin Jiwei.   However, without the directive from the General Party Secretary, no one could oppose Deng's authority.

Although this was the most difficult army mobilization in decades of Deng's military career (with objections even from many under his own command), many soldiers who had to march into Beijing fired into sky and refused to kill civilians.  Some commanders directly ordered their soldiers not to shoot civilians; yet there were those who carried out the order with machine guns and tanks towards the people who were bare handed.  Deng succeeded, the democracy movement that could change China's fate failed, and thousands of civilians paid the price with their lives.  However, with the encouragement from the citizens of Beijing, the people of former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe succeeded with their democratic revolution, which changed the world.

The Beijing massacre showed a bloody fact to the kind-hearted Chinese people who realized that by the very nature of the communist totalitarian regime, it will not yield power to follow the need of the society, and that CCP is the largest obstacle to the advance of the modern China.

Today's China is not what it was 20 years ago.  The Chinese democracy advocators are working with the people, to build their ideal democratic society.  Using their courage and wisdom, they are still willing to pay dearly to reach their goal, as they have done for many years.

Published on June 3, 2009 by Liberal of Fondazione Liberal of Italy.  The original Italian version is in the attachment.  Publisher's website is:

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