Tiananmen Square Protest Leader: 1989 Massacre Left an Anti-Democratic “Legacy of Fear”, 04. June 2021

In a 2019 article commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, human rights advocate and former protest leader Wang Dan reflects on the democratic movement and its legacy. Though he believes the movement can act as an exemplar for democratic and human rights-based reform in China, he grieves the ruthless military crackdown against the protestors as having strengthened Chinese Communist Party (CCP) totalitarianism.

The student pro-democracy protests in 1989 constituted the last major, public democratic movement in recent years in the People’s Republic of China. Initially sparked by the death of Hu Yaobang, former reformist General Secretary of the CCP, the movement was broadly supported across all Chinese classes and social spheres. It was famously crushed by the People’s Liberation Army on June 4, 1989, killing and wounding many.  

“What if the 1989 democracy movement had succeeded?”

Wang Dan, once a leader of the movement, ponders this question. What would have happened if, as hunger strike protestors demanded in May 1989, the government had engaged in “substantive and concrete dialogue on equal footing” with the student delegation, and recognised the “patriotic and democratic” nature of the movement? 

“A successful democracy movement”, Wang Dan writes, “would have fortified the reformist faction within the CCP,” lending “new momentum” to market-oriented economic reforms. Likewise, liberal political reforms, especially those concerning freedom of press, would have continued with “strong public support”, potentially stifling the spread of the widespread corruption present in the Chinese system today. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, he alleges it would have “set a precedent for dialogue between China’s government and its society”, something he believes has since “vanished” in China.   

Yet, despite its failure, Wang Dan contends that the movement initiated a Chinese civil society, giving supporters of democratic reform and human rights a distinctive political opposition to identify with. This, he believes, is encouraging regarding prospects of future reform in China, though he sadly notes that these sentiments are obstructed by the “legacy of fear that has inhibited popular resistance to totalitarianism” that was established by the military crackdown.

Thus, for Wang Dan, the legacy of 1989 is one of both hope and despair. While it may act as inspiration for future democratic reformists, the CCP leadership has proven itself adept at preventing the “spirit of 1989” from gaining traction. 

Nevertheless, Wang Dan has no regrets about his activism. Despite having lost many friends and any chances of a ‘normal’ life to the movement’s defeat, he affirms that “When one is young, embracing social ideals is not a matter of rational choice, but rather something closer to an emotional necessity.”

Wang Dan, a native of Beijing, is a leading figure of the Chinese democratic movement. Once a student leader of the 1989 protests, he has since obtained a PhD at Harvard University, become chairman of the Chinese Constitutional Reform Association, and founded the think tank Dialogue China. 

Wang Dan
Wang Dan. Source: NYT.