Twenty-five years ago today, on the night of 3 June 1989, tanks moved into central Beijing to crush the ‘counter-revolutionary rebellion’ underway on Tiananmen Square, leading to the ‘massacre’ which made headlines around the world. This infamous incident is often seen as a unique moment, but actually it was a conscious part of a long tradition of Chinese democracy reaching back to the May Fourth Movememt of 1919.

The 1989 protests had begun in mid April after the death of Hu Yaobang. Hu, a liberal reformer, was dismissed from his post as General Secretary of the Communist Party because of his support for pro-democracy student demonstrators in 1986-1987. Students seized on his passing to restate their demands for freedom of speech and assembly. Their protests gathered strength in the weeks that followed, and when the Politboro decided to impose martial law on 17 May, an estimated million demonstrators occupied the Square and its vicinity.

159409428_6759edf29b_zTo Western eyes, the Tiananmen protests looked like a spontaneous uprising: one act in a global revolt against totalitarian regimes which reached from the shipyards of Gdansk to the entrance to the Forbidden City. The phenomenon of worldwide democratic revolution in 1989 certainly encourages comparisons between Eastern Europe and East Asia. Yet by looking at linkages across continents we can miss the local historical contexts within which each upheaval occurred. Here, it becomes clear that Chinese democracy was much more than a fleeting expression of a revolutionary zeitgeist (or for that matter a Guns N’Roses album), but rather an idea with a history the Tiananmen protesters enlisted in their cause.

Demonstrators in 1989 marched under the slogan of science and democracy: a self-conscious borrowing of the rhetoric of the May Fourth movement of 1919. Eight years earlier, in the Revolution of 1911, the Republic of China had risen on the ruins of the Qing Dynasty. The new nation, however, quickly descended into fracticidal conflict, with warlords (or as revisionists now term them, militarists) carving out fiefdoms in the interior and imperial powers dividing up the main port cities. A weak central government took China into World War I on the side of the Entente, but despite backing the winning horse (and sending 96,000 largely-forgotten labourers to the Western Front), the Republic’s negotiators secured little at the Paris Peace Conference. When news filtered through that the Versailles Treaty had failed to expel China’s colonisers, 3,000 students and teachers gathered at Tiananmen Gate, and demanded national unity and an end to imperial encroachment.

The May Fourth movement that emerged from the protest was a youthful revolt which aimed to place China on an equal footing with other nations. Nationalism, however, was closely tied to a yearning for liberalism and democracy, as critics attributed the failure of both the Qing emperors and their militarist successors to their absence in a society mired in Confucianism. Before 1919, the New Culture movement was already demanding the rejection of traditional values, and calling for new forms of learning. The leading intellectual at the time and the founder of the Chinese Communist Party, Chen DuXiu, coined terms that would echo on Tiananmen Square seven decades later. ‘Only these two gentlemen’, he said of ‘Mr. Science’ and ‘Mr. Democracy,’ ‘can save China from the political, moral, academic, and intellectual darkness in which it finds itself.’ Because the People’s Republic claimed descent from the May Fourth protesters – and because of Chen’s impeccable Communist credentials – the rhetoric of science and democracy proved a potent force in 1989.

Chinese democracy had strong support among radicals and liberals after 1919, but conservatives too sometimes endorsed the principle, seeing popular sovereignty as a basis for political cohesion. But democracy was a fuzzier concept than science. Where the latter could be safely institutionalised in universities and military academies, the former required deliberation and dissent. Intellectuals and politicians fought over ideas like the general will, majority tyranny, anarchism, and the relationship between political and social equality, while struggling to reconcile a desire for democratic rights with designs for a state capable of unifying and modernizing the nation. By the late 1920s, two major parties put forward different visions of a democratic China. The Chinese Nationalist Party believed a period of political tutelage under a dictatorship would serve as a prelude for making citizens of the nation’s illiterate masses.

The Chinese Communist Party on the other hand argued true democracy would only come from abolishing private property. For the next two decades, these parties vied (with Japan) for control of China, until the Communists eventually won out under Mao in 1949, and the promise of a social democracy gave way to the horrors of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Even now, though, the Chinese Nationalist Party remains a potent force on its island redoubt of Taiwan (or the Republic of China, to use its official name), where after several decades of dictatorship and martial law, popular protest helped bring about democratic reform in 1987. In one part of China 1, at least, the late 1980s did see a lasting transition to pluralistic party politics.

Analogies between 1919 and 1989, as historians have pointed out, should not be overdrawn. But the point remains that protestors on Tiananmen Square could go back to the early years of the Republic to find a precedent for their actions. Chinese democracy was not a new idea, but had a long and conflicted history: one the protesters that year were capable of turning to their advantage.

Tehyun Ma is Lecturer in Chinese History at the University of Exeter specialising in state-building and propaganda. Last year, Tehyun taught in the History Department at the University of Sheffield. You can find her on twitter @TehyunM

Header image: Arrested students from the May Fourth Movement returned to school on 7 May 1919 [Wikicommons]
Inset image: The ‘Unknown Protestor’ stops tanks entering Tiananmen Square (5 June 1989) [©Jess Widener, Associated Press, via Flickr]


  1. To the U.S., Taiwan remains a province of China, though this does not extend to recognising Beijing’s claim to the island. A Taiwanese nationalist party, which claims independence for Taiwan as a sovereign state, is the main opposition to the Chinese Nationalists there. Taiwan held China’s U.N. seat until 1971, when a thaw in Sino-American relations saw the seat switch from the Republic of China to the People’s Republic.
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