3 June 2009

The Tiananmen moment

Over on Open Democracy, Kerry Brown has an article on how the crisis of 1989 on Beijing represented a brutal lesson for China's elite in long-term political control.
In some ways, it can be interpreted as the moment when the Communist Party, rather than the government, confronted a play-off between its rhetoric on opening up and what it actually intended to do. For years it had surfed around with the ideas of freeing up civil society, the media, even village elections (which started in early 1988). But when the searching questions were sharply posed in 1989 about how the party (at least for the elder leaders) might respond to proper dissent, there was only one response: the gun. It was a brutal reminder that, for all the warm words and cosmetic changes, the heart of the party was unchanged.
Let it not be forgotten, though, that the events in Beijing were intertwined with the developments in eastern Europe. The movement was sparked in April by the death of pro-market, pro-democracy and anti-corruption official, Hu Yaobang. If it was not a conscious movement of dissent the protests represented nonetheless a widespread disaffection, the seed bed from which dissent springs. If anything the catalyst for the transformation of disaffection into dissent was the visit to the Chinese capital by Mikhail Gorbachev on 15 May, when huge groups of students occupied Tiananmen Square and started a hunger strike. At the same time, the protests in Beijing were being followed avidly in eastern Europe.

Ironically, as Chinese security forces began moving against the demonstrators on the night of 3-4 June 1989, Dr B and Pastor J (he then not a doctor and she not yet a pastor) were at a conference in Oxford about the social movements in eastern Europe. The Sunday schedule was then rapidly rearranged to allow a panel discussion including Tariq Ali and Dan Smith to discuss the implications of the events in China for the movements in eastern Europe. However, if in May 1989 the movement in Beijing had represented a moment of hope for activists in East Germany, by September 1989, the "Tiananmen moment", the suppression of the democracy movement by armed force, was the threat that hung over the mass demonstrations.


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