Students in China now are far better off and have far more to lose than their predecessors did in 1989. Then, isolation from the outside world and soaring inflation helped turn the students' demonstrations into a nationwide protest, with workers across the country staging strikes to both support the students and put forward their own demands. But after two decades of rapid economic growth, many students are willing to give the government more time to pursue the country's current development path.
That's not to say that students at Beijing University, the seedbed of the protests 20 years ago, are entirely apolitical. But unlike in 1989, many today believe that the government, gradually, is taking the country in the right direction
The Globe and Mail Beijing correspondent Mark MacKinnon took questions on the legacy of the Tiananmen Square protests.
Before being posted to China, Mr. MacKinnon was the Middle East correspondent and before that, Moscow bureau chief. He has covered wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya and Lebanon, as well as the popular revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine. Mr. MacKinnon who has been at The Globe and Mail since 1998, is a two-time winner of the National Newspaper Award. His first book, The New Cold War: Revolutions, Rigged Elections and Pipeline Politics in the Former Soviet Union, was published in 2007 by Random House.
Mr. MacKinnon was on-line earlier for a discussion with readers.
Philippe Devos, deputy foreign editor: Welcome Mark, and thanks for joining us. I'll open it right away to readers' questions.
Guidi asks: I recently attended a lecture given by Stuart Franklin, the photographer who took the famous "Tankman" photo that summed up what everyone felt about Tiannamen Square. According to Franklin, the Tiananmen Square protest was NEVER about wanting democracy but a revolt against the incredible corruption that was part of China at the time. Today, while corruption no doubt still exists (as it does everywhere), possibly it is not so endemic. You'll note that the government is quick to point fingers now at whomever is considered to be responsible (melamine in milk, lead in toy paint, $$-taking bureaucrats, etc.) and the corrupt are seen to be punished. That defuses a lot of tension.
Mark: Hi Guidi. Thanks for the question.
The question of what motivated the Tiananmen protests of 20 years ago is a complex thing. Certainly, in the beginning, they were not about democracy, they sprang simply from the desire of students to mourn the death of Hu Yaobang, a popular reformer who had been ousted as Communist Party chief two years earlier.
As the protests grew, they morphed into an anti-corruption movement which was something that nearly all Chinese could support. Towards the end, many students began demanding democracy and an end to Communist Party rule, as symobolized by the erection of the very Statue of Liberty-like "Goddess of Democracy" facing Chairman Mao's portrait on Tiananmen Square.
I, too, have heard the argument that the Tiananmen protests were never about democracy, but rarely from those who were there on the square on June 4. They knew what they were there for, and by then - after six weeks of protests - it was much bigger than corruption or Hu Yaobang.
As for the idea that corruption has faded as a concern, I'm not sure I can agree with that either. Several of the students I talked to in researching this article were quick to point out that China was ranked as the 72nd least-corrupt country in Transparency International's 2008 ranking, compared to 52nd in 1998. Of course, there were more countries in the 2008 ranking, but the fact university students had such numbers at their fingertips suggests that corruption was certainly a top-of-mind issue for them.
(That mood was darkly captured last week after the suicide of former South Korean president Roh Moon-Hyun, who was being investigated for corruption. Chinese netizens - and these comments were even reproduced in some official media - had a field day with comments along the lines of 'if only our corrupt leaders were as honourable as Mr. Roh...')
Philippe: Thanks Mark. Here's another question from our on-line comments.
Shannon Hall asks: Baby steps to democracy are far better than one giant leap - met with disappointment. Therefore, shouldn't we look at this as a turning point in China, rather than a failure?
I think it's a little crazy to expect a full fledged Communist system to turn into a democracy in one year. Had the revolution succeeded, China would have suffered the same fate as Russia.
There has to be a gradual period of transformation if you want it to succeed
I have all the confidence that China will become a positive influence on the world, and will see expanded freedoms within. I don't think the same can be said for Russia. One got democracy overnight, the other didn't.
Mark: Hi Shannon. That's a great question and one I - as someone who lived and worked in Moscow for three years - have pondered often since moving to Beijing.
China, in many ways, is following the path and the pace that Mikhail Gorbachev wanted to take with his reform of the old Soviet Union. Economic openness was to come first, followed by eventual political reforms once Russia was "ready" for them. The problem Mr. Gorbachev discovered was that once he let the genies of glasnost and perestroika out of the bottle, he couldn't force the cap back on.
You could also argue that what Vladimir Putin is trying to do 20 years later is create a system in Russia that mirrors to a certain extent what China's rulers have developed - a sort of capitalist authoritarianism where individuals can start businesses, travel abroad and live much better lives than previous generations of Russians and Chinese, but where the running of the country (and the truly lucrative industries) is still concentrated in the hands of a select few.
That said, one key difference - at least in my mind - is that Russians experienced democracy and a free press before voting for Putin and his back-to-the-future ideas. While many in the West may dislike Putin, he can claim with a straight face to have some sort of mandate from the Russian people. China's leaders have never sought or obtained the approval of the people they govern.
If China is such a success story - and you can certainly argue that it is and back it up with all kinds of economic figures - why won't its leaders tolerate a freer press that could examine China in all its colours? Why are they so quick to squash even the tiniest signs of political opposition? What's so terrifying to them about 300 intellectuals signing their names to Charter 08, a call for more political openness?
John Lombard via e-mail asks: Two questions. First, the title of this article says that the dream is "dead in one generation." Is that a title that you chose? And do you agree with it?
Second question, building on the first. In the 1960s, millions of Americans marched in protest against racial discrimination, demanding change. Many of those people were beaten, and even killed, for trying to do so. In fact, if we were to total the number of people who died as a result of participating in various protests in the U.S. at that time, I'm confident the figure would be higher than that in Beijing. Yet today, we don't say that Martin Luther's dream is "dead" just because people no longer march on Washington in their hundreds of thousands to protest racial inequality. Its not because the modern generation has lost the dream, or lack the will. It is because the situation has changed, and even though racial inequalities still exist, the situation is much better than it was then, and is continuing to improve.
Same thing in China. The situation in today's China is hugely different than that in 1989. Many reforms and improvements have taken place; and Chinese have good reason to believe that those changes and reforms are going to continue, albeit slowly. The desperation that drove Chinese to protest in 1989 is no longer present. And far from 'losing' the dream, modern Chinese are helping to make it a reality ... they are simply using different tools. Is it not a terrible disservice to this modern generation to simply dismiss them as apathetic, or materialistic, or selfish, simply because they aren't doing the same things that students did 20 years ago? Are you, or anyone else involved in this article, seriously suggesting that protests and/or revolution that would almost inevitably lead to more crackdowns and more deaths are somehow superior or desirable?
Philippe responds: I'll answer the first question. Reporters don't usually write the headlines, although they often make suggestions. Headlines are written by editors. In the paper, that's usually a copy editor. On-line, that's usually the editor who posts the story. In the case of this story, that was me (the headline in the newspaper was slightly different).
The "Tiananmen dream" that is "dead" is the dream of quick political change. The young people Mark talked to seem more comfortable with China's slower-paced approach.
Mark responds: Headlines, by their nature, often oversimplify things, and perhaps this one does that, though I reject the idea that it was chosen to fit some political agenda.
As for the second part of your question: I should start by saying that I'm not a fan of the comparison you offer. Since you go back to the 1960s and Martin Luther King to make your argument, I feel it needs to be stated here that far, far more people died during Mao's Cultural Revolution than in all the race riots the U.S. has ever experienced.
I will agree, however, that China is vastly different today than it was in 1989 and that the desperation that drove the students to protest back 20 years ago is no longer present. In fact, that's the thrust of my article: that today's Chinese students, while not necessarily 100 per cent happy with the direction their country is going in, are largely content with the progress that has been made in their lifetimes. As such, most are wait for/push for change from within, rather than fight on the streets for radical overhaul.
Fear still plays a part in that decision - only a third of the students I interviewed were willing to give their names, and one leapt up to search the campus cafeteria for police before talking to me - but ignorance no longer does. Ten years ago, The Globe's Miro Cernetig met Beijing students who told him the Tiananmen Square massacre was a Western invention. Thanks to the Internet, the students I talked to by and large knew their history, at least the broad strokes. Most saw what happened as you do - as something that happened at a different time in China's development, when students faced a completely different set of conditions and the government ruled in a very different environment.
So no, I'm not advocating bloodshed and revolution. I'm just just trying - after a very enjoyable stretch hanging around Beijing University campus talking to students - to share what I was able to garner about today's generation of Chinese students. No more, no less.
Daniel Pan asks: Has the communist party of China ever offered any formal apology or compensation to the victims of the June 4 massacre? In your opinion, do you see any substantial improvement in freedom of speech and civil rights in China? What is the level of education of the average people of China on freedom of speech and civil rights? What other problems do you see in China that undermine the progress of democracy in China? Could you name a few you think are most important. Thank you very much!
Mark: Hi Daniel, and thanks for the barrage of questions.
The simple answer, unfortunately, is that neither the Chinese government nor the Communist Party (to the extent that those are different things) has ever offered any kind of apology for the events of June 4, 1989. Certainly none that ever reached the ears of the Tiananmen Mothers, a group representing the parents of many of the students that died that day.
I'll try and answer your other questions as best as I can, though each is worthy of a lengthier answer than I can give here.
Has their been improvement in freedom of speech and civil rights in China in the last 20 years? Absolutely, and largely thanks to the Internet. The impact and influence of what are known here as "netizens" - citizen-bloggers and readers who comment on Chinese news sites - is amazing. The government and even the official media take keen interest in what's being said online.
In part, that's so they can censor certain topics and restrict access to websites that take on topics such as Tibet, Tiananmen Square or Charter 08, the pro-democracy charter that was drafted last year by a group of intellectuals. But the government also sees the Internet as a way of measuring what issues the public is most concerned about, and often takes actions that can be directly attributed to on-line pressure.
So freedom of speech is creeping into China, even if most netizens still won't put their real names to what they write, or repeat on the streets or at work what they say online.
What's standing in the way of greater openness and democracy? Well for starters I'd mention the Chinese government's obsession with control. I'm sitting here watching BBC World as I type this, and the screen goes blank every time the anchor starts to talk about the BBC's own piece marking the Tiananmen anniversary. How many ordinary Chinese are sitting at home watching BBC World in English ? Not too many, and those who are likely already know what happened 20 years ago. But the government is censoring the BBC anyway.
The same goes for anyone who dares to publicly oppose the regime. Most of the 300-plus people who originally signed Charter 08 were visited by police, and the main drafter, Liu Xiaobo, has been in jail ever since the manifesto was first circulated back in December.
But, and I think this needs to be said here, I'm not sure that most Chinese would say that democracy - at least in the Western sense of the word - is the end goal here. Many Chinese take issue with how their country is run, but replacing the Communist Party with American-style elections where some say the person with the most money wins? Many Chinese snort at that idea too.
James Bone asks: First, thank you for taking your time to help Canada understand and remember what happened twenty years ago.
Recently, the memoirs of Zhao Ziyang were transcribed from audio cassette and translated to English, and published as Prisoner of the State. I have been reading this book with deep fascination at its insight into the hidden life of China's political elite. Do you think that there could be fallout for Zhao's family as a result of this publication, or will Beijing simply quietly ban its publication in the mainland and pretend the book does not exist? Is there any chance of rehabilitation for Zhao, and is there anyone presently in government in Beijing who could be seen to resemble his drive for reform in politics and jurisprudence?
Mark: Hi James. Thanks for the kind words. I'm envious that you were able to get your hands on Mr. Zhao's memoirs - they certainly aren't on sale in Beijing so far, though they're apparently available in some Hong Kong bookstores.
I did, however, recently get a chance to sit down with Mr. Zhao's former aide , Bao Tong for a fascinating chat at his apartment, where he has lived under effective house arrest after serving a seven-year jail sentence for siding with the students back in 1989.
As for fallout from the publication of Prisoner of the State, I think the government will try and ignore the book completely. Just to put that to the test (again), I tried to visit two or three webites that I'm told featured reviews of the book. Each returned the now familiar result on my screen: "Connection Interrupted. The connection to the server was reset while the page was loading. The network link was interrupted while negotiating a connection. Please try again."
In other words, Prisoner of the State has predictably landed on the other side of the Great Firewall of China. Out of sight, out of most people's minds.
However, life may be about to get even more difficult for the brave Mr. Bao, who is portrayed in many quarters as being behind the leak of the Zhao tapes.
Philippe: I'll ask the closing question. Over the years, you've covered many protests, from the Orange Revolution demonstrations in Ukraine to the Hezbollah protests in Beirut. While there may not be the vigour for pro-democracy protests in China now that there was 20 years ago, the Chinese don't seem afraid of protest, taking to the streets recently over the tainted milk issue, the response to the Sichuan earthquake, and several local grievances. What's the tolerance in China today for public protest and how does the government deal with protests now?
Mark: Thanks for the question Philippe, and thanks to all our readers for taking part in what has been (for me) a lively exchange.
You're right - while there certainly doesn't seem to be any appetite for a repeat of the kind of protests that happened back in 1989, smaller demonstrations take place in China all the time. There were 87,000 "mass incidents" (as the bureaucrats here call protests of any kind) in 2005, the last year such a figure was released. Some have predicted that 2009, because of occasions like this week's 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square and October's 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic, could see an even larger number than usual.
That said, most of the demonstrations are small-scale and quickly dealt with by authorities. The protests in recent years have been isolated events, lacking national organization of any kind. And unlike 20 years ago, China's leaders are now adept at defusing these situations before unrest in one city spills over and creates trouble in other parts of this vast country.
In other words, don't expect student protesters from around the country to again flood Tiananmen Square any time soon.
As, you mention, I've been lucky enough to experience first-hand the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the Rose Revolution in Georgia as well as the less-successful (and poorly named) Cedar Revolution in Lebanon.
But I would argue that China - despite a political scene that looks static from the outside - is changing faster than any of those countries. A quieter Chinese revolution is under way and has been for years. But we won't know its outcome - or be able to give it a catchy name - for quite a while yet.
Philippe: Thanks for taking the time, Mark, especially so late in your day in Beijing where it's 12 hours ahead. For those looking for more from Mark, check you his blog, Points East, and his Twitter updates . The discussion is now closed, but feel free to add comments.