Written by Niv Horesh.

Historically, perhaps the saddest thing about 20th-century student movements was that, while they could seriously unnerve colonial powers or topple unpopular regimes, they did not always effectively groom a future national leadership. Such leadership seems, by and large, to grow out of debate clubs or student-union machinations, not out of street skirmishes with police. In President Obama’s case one can think of community organising too. Yet, in reflecting on June 4th from a European perspective twenty-five years on, one might still wishfully seek out personalities akin to Green-party stalwart and former German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer.

In a way, Fischer turned out the exception to the rule in that he had come of age politically in the riotous 1960s, and kept company with then-notorious figures likes of Cohn-Bendit. Arguably, Cohn-Bendit, who is most readily associated with the Paris ’68 student riots, is today part of the German establishment as well, albeit less prominent.

Then, from a student ‘trouble-maker’ Fischer would eventually become a Green pragmatists and an establishment insider, serving as Vice Chancellor between 1998-2005. Formally joining the greens in 1982, the actual turning point for Fischer was 1977 when he renounced leftist violence in protest of the Baader-Meinhof atrocities.

Can we point to any June 4th veterans who might have effectively infiltrated the Chinese establishment in a similar fashion with the aim of changing it from within? The question is purely of academic nature of course in view of the vast differences between the PRC in 1989 and Germany back in 1967, and between those responsible for the violence in either setting. Nevertheless, one cannot escape the feeling that, of the talented and impassioned young people who had taken to the streets in 1989, none had actually transformed into a charismatic leader àla Fischer, either within China or in exile. To be sure, China’s best known dissident, Liu Xiaobo, did take part in the Tiananmen Movement. Serving a long jail sentence, Liu has arguably turned into more of an intellectual and spiritual luminary than an opposition leader.

On the other hand, there are some who after run-ins with PRC law came back from the woodwork to assume posts in academe. Surprisingly, a few of these professors have by now disavowed their 1989 pro-Western liberal leanings to espouse a neo-Maoist agenda. The most notable example is Professor Wang Hui, a literary scholar from the elite Tsinghua University in Beijing, who has been better known as one of China’s most controversial public intellectuals. An expert on Lu Xun’s (1881-1936) literary work by training, Wang was awarded PhD in literature from Nanjing University in 1988, and would immediately afterwards take part in the 1989 Tiananmen student movement. Following the repression of the movement, Wang was sent for “re-education” in Shaanxi, and it was there that the plight of China’s disenfranchised peasants and migrant labourers captured the focus of his attention. A frequent and much-admired visitor to US academia, Wang nevertheless became one of the most vocal critics of American neo-liberal policy prescripts as applied to Chinese economic reform. An editor of the high-brow journal Dushu, Wang cemented his position as patron of China Neo-Maoist Left until his ouster from the journal in 2007. Though named in 2008 as one of the world’s top 100 most influential thinkers by Foreign Policy, his reputation as prolific writer and public speaker has since been marred by allegations of plagiarism.

Wang Hui is atypical, however, in that the individuals most closely associated with June 4th now live in exile or are in prison, and remain staunchly liberal and pro-Western. The best known ones are perhaps Wang Dan, now teaching at Taiwan’s National Tsinghua University (not to be confused with Tsinghua in Beijing). Wuer Kaixi and Han Dongfang both split their time between Hong Kong and Taiwan, and contribute to Radio Free Asia. Chen Ziming and Wang Juntao, who have spent much of the last two decades either in hiding or behind bars, are perhaps better known in the West than in China itself. Similarly reviled and marginalised by the CCP are human rights lawyers Pu Zhiqiang and Xu Zhiyong, who had also came of age politically around 1989.

Either way, it seems that none of these June 4th veterans has yet been able to rally mass following in opposition to the CCP. For the most part, the party machine has also been able to prevent these dissidents from turning into household names, just as it had been able to undermine the collaboration between students and Han Dongfang’s independent labour union in Beijing back in 1989. What is more, Chai Ling, the best known female student leader in Tiananmen in 1989, converted to Christianity after moving to America, and has recently published a letter partly forgiving her CCP assailants. Chai is today better known as entrepreneur and feminist motivational speaker than as a dissident.

Does that mean the CCP can rest on its laurels, and continue dodging an apology for its actions in 1989? Not necessarily. We know more than half of China’s defence budget is spent on domestic surveillance and troubleshooting of literally thousands of local protests each year, very often violent. That these local protests do not always invoke the 1989 student movement — or dwell for that matter on the horrors of the Mao era — should offer little comfort to party elders. In the short run, the CCP leadership is exceedingly cagy about the yawning inequality between rich and poor, and rumours of the wealth amassed by princeling families, which has alienated so many ordinary Chinese. In the long run, however, the CCP will need to decide whether apologising for 1989 from a position of relative strength is really such a bad idea.

Niv Horesh is Associate Professor and Reader in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham. His Chinese Money in Global Context was published by Stanford University Press last year.


  1. Interesting reflection, Prof Horesh. However, one should keep in mind how complex it would be for the CCP to apologise for the 1989 crackdown. In the 1990s the leadership repeated its interpretation of the protests as an anti-revolutionary movement that threatened stability. But especially in the last ten years they have seemed to be unwilling to even mention the event at all. Mentioning Tiananmen in the media is forbidden and if you search for 天安门 on Weibo you’re informed that according to the relevant laws and regulations the search results cannot be shown. My point is: Before they can apologise for an action, you need to let people know about the action first. If the CCP ever intended to apologise, first of all mention of the event would be allowed again and, crucially, the “anti-revolutionary” verdict would be discussed, critiqued and eventually rejected. A critique of the verdict by the leadership could send the signal that it is acceptable to critique the official narrative of contemporary history. Not only this is unthinkable for a Party that claims to have all the right answers and the perfect understanding of the past, present and future; it would probably need some kind of political change (and factional struggle), such as those that preceded the (inadequate, half-forgotten) official criticism of the Cultural Revolution in 1981. In the final analysis, the CCP can only hope for the event to be forgotten and just go away. But the CCP has one mighty enemy in the pursuit of this goal: the CCP and its ham-fisted efforts to make people forget. As Sam Crane tweeted yesterday, “in working so hard to impose historical forgetting, PRC leaders create incentives for historical remembrance”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *