Contrary to their intention, commemorations of historical events are more often reminders of the power of forgetting: either official ceremonies that gradually lose their meaning, becoming public holidays like any other, or gatherings of tiny bands of militants or mourners, whose numbers dwindle to nothing as the years pass. In Los Angeles, you can see both kinds. If you ask people what Memorial Day stands for, virtually no one, not even professors of history, can tell you. As for the other sort, I myself stand every summer with a small band of friends outside the Chinese consulate in downtown Los Angeles, holding placards scarcely anyone notices. But what we commemorate has, unusually, not been forgotten elsewhere. It is now 18 years since soldiers and tanks entered Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Yet every year since then, on the night of 4 June, tens of thousands of people gather in Hong Kong and, whatever the weather, light candles in memory of what happened then, and those who died as a result of it. I don’t think any other mass commemoration has lasted so long. But what is remembered so powerfully in Hong Kong cannot even be mentioned on the other side of the border that separates the Special Administrative Region from the rest of the People’s Republic of China.

Eighteen years is not a short time; it’s long enough for a baby to become an adult. On 4 June this year, a strange incident occurred. In Chengdu, the capital of the province of Sichuan, a city with a population of 11 million, the small-ads pages of an evening newspaper contained a short item that read: ‘Salute to the steadfast mothers of the 4 June victims.’ The entry was noticed by some readers, scanned and uploaded onto the internet, where it rapidly circulated. The authorities jumped to investigate. Within days, three of the paper’s editors had been fired. How had the wall of silence been breached? The girl in charge of the small ads, born in the 1980s, had called the number given by the person who placed the ad to ask what the date referred to. Told it was a mining disaster, she cleared it. No one had ever spoken to her about 1989. Censorship devours its own children.

The mothers the ad was honouring are a small group of elderly women who have become the symbol of the event the country cannot refer to. Ding Zilin, who organised the women, is now 71. She used to teach Marxist philosophy at the People’s University in Beijing. In 1989, when Tiananmen Square was occupied by thousands of students, her 17-year-old son, who was still at school, got caught up in the movement. On the evening of 3 June, as the atmosphere grew increasingly tense, she feared the boy might join other demonstrators in the streets and locked him in her apartment. He escaped through a bathroom window, and was killed that night, when troops marched into the centre of the city. No one knows how many died alongside him. Government repression has been so complete that the number of victims remains a mystery. When Li Hai, a former activist from Peking University, tried to collect information about them in the early 1990s, he was sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment for ‘leaking state secrets’. Despite constant police harassment and repeated house arrests, Ding persisted in her inquiry, and in 1994 published, in Hong Kong, a verifiable list of victims. Every year the list has expanded, and it now has 186 names. More and more people who lost family members have gathered around Ding. Inspired by the example of the Mothers of the Disappeared in Argentina, and with help from human rights activists in Hong Kong, Ding and her friends some time ago named themselves the Tiananmen Mothers. Actually, the group also includes fathers, wives and husbands of those who were killed, as well as some of those who were injured during the repression. Qi Zhiyong, a worker, lost a leg from a bullet wound near Tiananmen. For trying to get redress and compensation, he has repeatedly been beaten by police thugs in his home; this year he was put under precautionary arrest before 4 June, and only released when the anniversary was over. His case is typical.

The government’s fears are not irrational. Over six weeks, what began as a student demonstration became a national political crisis, in which the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party’s monopoly of power was seriously challenged for the first time since the foundation of the People’s Republic. The government resolved the crisis by ordering regular troops, brought in from the provinces, to enforce martial law in Beijing, even at the cost of opening fire on the crowds and rolling tanks over peaceful protesters in order to seize control of Tiananmen Square, the most powerful symbolic space in modern China. For a whole week after the first gunshot, not a single political leader came out to face the nation, leaving the capital in the control of a professional army, a situation Beijing had not seen since the Allied Expedition against the Boxer Rebellion of 1900.

With Deng Xiaoping’s decision to crush the demonstrations the Party recovered its monopoly of power, but not its legitimacy or its authority. To fill the ideological void Deng set China on an accelerated path of economic change, announced to the nation by a speech in the southern city of Shenzhen in the spring of 1992, and expressed in the message ‘to get rich is glorious.’ Plastered on billboards across the country, the Party’s new slogan dismissed any possibility of discussion of ideas or principles, proclaiming simply: ‘Development is the Irrefutable Argument.’ Fifteen years later, China is the industrial wonder of the world. The average standard of living has improved, poverty has been reduced, urbanisation has exploded, exports and financial reserves are sky-high. Abroad, admiration for the People’s Republic has never been higher. National prosperity and pride typically go together. With such achievements to boast of, why should the Communist Party still be so fearful of something that happened an epoch ago? Why does it go to such lengths to distort and repress the past, and where it is unable to erase people’s memories entirely, why does it try to portray the demonstrations of 1989 as senseless turmoil and the movement’s activists as conspiring tricksters? But the real question is this: what was the conviction that led the protesters to stand up to the military machine?

Two opposing interpretations of the movement of 1989 have gained ground, mainly in the West but also to some extent in China. The first is socio-economic. In early 1988, the government pushed forcefully to free prices, but the inflation that followed provoked such strong reactions throughout the country that it was compelled to reinstitute food rationing in the big cities in January 1989. Some American scholars have argued that this was a factor in the massive social unrest that manifested itself in the spring of 1989. In China itself, thinkers on the New Left have taken this argument a step further, seeing the military crackdown of 4 June as essentially paving the way for the marketisation of the economy, by breaking resistance to the lifting of price controls (they were removed again, this time successfully, in the early 1990s). According to this view, the driving force behind the mass movement, even its inspiration, was the refusal of reforms that would deprive the population of established standards of collective welfare. What the gunshots in Beijing shattered were the last hopes for the ‘iron rice bowl’ of socialism, clearing the way to a fully-fledged capitalism in China.

Another school of thought turns this argument upside down. In this account, the mass movement, far from clinging to the socialist past, looked boldly ahead to a liberal future. The growing number of banners written in English, and the styrofoam statue of a ‘Goddess of Democracy’, modelled partly on the Statue of Liberty, erected on Tiananmen in the last days of May, all show that America was the demonstrators’ real dream: not the iron rice bowl, but the market and the ballot box. Last month, George Bush presided over the erection in Washington of a monument to the Victims of Communism, in the form of a scaled-down bronze replica of the styrofoam goddess.

It is true that socio-economic discontent, especially following on the rapid inflation of the summer of 1988, played an important role in generating support for the student protests of the next year. But these economic grievances were unambiguously transformed into political protests in the movement of 1989. Their target was the way Deng Xiaoping and Zhao Ziyang, then secretary-general of the Communist Party, ruled the country. Particularly powerful in mobilising protest was Zhao’s description of his reforms as ‘crossing a river by stepping one by one on stones under the water’. If all you can do is test the stability of unseen stones on the riverbed, what entitles you to a monopoly over policy-making? Why should we wait while you pick your way through the current, now and then finding yourself on the right stone, and letting us drown when you step on the wrong one? That was more or less the feeling of the movement. The economic slogans of 1989 were mostly attacks on past policies that had gone wrong, and especially on corruption among high officials. But these never took the form of specific economic demands, nor did any demands of that kind come into the many attempts at ‘dialogue’ – i.e. negotiations – between protesters and officials, before talks finally broke down. What dominated were unequivocally political demands for freedom of speech, civil rights and citizen participation.

As for the movement’s ideology, one must remember that this huge social upheaval erupted very quickly. When a hunger strike among the students put pressure on the government in mid-May, the news media, including the People’s Daily, enjoyed a week of press freedom unprecedented in the history of the PRC. On the streets people from the most varied social backgrounds were suddenly able to voice their ideas and debate among themselves. In the ensuing hubbub, it was easy to overinterpret a few isolated symbols. Popular imaginings of America are an example. A highly abstract idea of the US, based on very little knowledge, became one of the vehicles – a shell, if you like – in which people’s imaginative energy was invested. This shell was filled, however, with understandings – and critical reflections – based on life in the socialist, or semi-socialist, society of the previous decades. Socialist discourse and notions of an idealised America were mixed together in people’s minds. This can be a disappointment for today’s intellectuals, who occupy much more clear-cut ideological positions, liberal or leftist. Yet below the Goddess of Democracy, armbands on the picket line were red. The historical significance of the upheaval of 1989 in Beijing does not lie in one paradigm or another, espoused by this or that spokesman or leader. It lies in the space the movement opened up for creative imagination and the opportunities it offered for experiment. The focus was always on the right of citizens to participate in the public life of the country, and the channels that would enable them to do so.

However important economic developments or ideological cross-currents in the making of the crisis, the incontestable fact is that the millions who demonstrated in Beijing between April and June 1989 formed what was essentially a political movement. What was its aim? On several occasions in this past year, Party officials have, at last, publicly broached the topic of democratic reform. It seems they think that time, and repeated lies, have created enough of a barrier to stop people from relating the word ‘democracy’ to the protests in Tiananmen. However, I have always believed that the courage of the demonstrators came from the power of a mass movement’s desire for democracy.

The movement was, of course, led by students, although by the end they made up only a modest proportion of those who took part, and they have consistently been singled out for criticism, not only by the government, but by a number of intellectuals in China and abroad, who claim that had they taken power, they would have exercised a more extreme dictatorship than the Party itself. In reality, most of the students were troubled by the question of the democratic legitimacy of their actions. They did go beyond inviting public sympathy for their protests, but they never meant to overthrow the government or to usurp its authority. Although they lacked practical experience, owing to the vigilant ban on non-governmental organisations, they benefited from the more open and reflective intellectual atmosphere of the 1980s. Ideas of democratic reform had been widely spread by the dissident physicist Fang Lizhi and others. The political principles of autonomy and transparency were hot topics at the time.

Less than a week after the death of the reformist Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang in mid-April 1989, those who gathered to mourn him began to form independent organisations. On campus after campus, as soon as one individual took the initiative, many students followed. That, in effect, is how the Beijing Autonomous Association of College Students, the core organisation of the 1989 protest, came into being. Every university had student representatives who used their real names rather than sheltering in anonymity – a great difference from the student movements that had emerged since the late 1970s. I was among them.

With their college IDs as identification and their names out in the open, the students had to take responsibility for what they were doing, and to recognise their own positions of power as representatives of the student body. Under tremendous political pressure, as well as pressure of time and space, the student organisations encountered numerous obstacles in their efforts to learn about and practise procedural democracy. Some students’ status was representative in name only, and would not withstand scrutiny. Yet faced with the final decision whether or not to withdraw from Tiananmen Square, the student leaders still relied on a vote to persuade their followers, as well as themselves, of the rightness of their course of action. The internal working of their organisations was always dependent on democratic legitimation.

This is not to claim that every twist of events was democratically determined. There were many imperfections in the students’ exercise of practices that were so new to them. Among today’s intellectuals in China, one sometimes hears a distinction being made between a republic and a democracy. Adapting it, I would use the term ‘republic’ for the united will that establishes a political collectivity in the first place, and ‘democracy’ for the procedures that govern it once unity is established. Ideally, the two should be complementary, for without republican unity there is no framework for democracy, and without democracy the original spirit of a republic is never guaranteed. At one level, the students knew this. They demanded democracy, but always assumed it would be realised in the context of the People’s Republic, and this was how they justified their confidence in marching through the streets. But at another level, the connections were not always well understood. The group of hunger-strikers, for example, paid little regard to the larger student body represented by the Beijing Autonomous Association of College Students. In effect, it functioned as a little ‘republic’ of its own. The hunger strike had an electrifying effect in the city, but when the strikers attempted to speak on behalf of the students as a whole, sidestepping the BAACS, something I argued against, there was inevitably confusion and a crisis of legitimacy. Many students were aware of the contradiction, and desperately tried to figure out the conceptual problems confronting them in the little time they had. But it is fair to say that virtually all of them shared some basic understanding of democracy, as the right to express different opinions and to participate in public decision-making, to elect representatives or to recall them; and these simple principles were quite sincerely, if at times awkwardly, practised.

A different criticism that has often been made of the students is that they did not merge with the citizenry, once the population of the capital took to the streets in vast demonstrations. Had the student organisations consciously sought to lead a mass movement, it would certainly have been the wrong approach. What their ‘exclusivity’ showed was their reluctance to abuse their power: they were aware of the limits of their own legitimacy. Not all the student leaders were flawless – how could they have been? – but I am certain that if the government had fallen, no student-led autocracy would have followed. Instead, student organisations would have asked the people to elect their own representatives, not least to reduce the already unbearable burden of responsibility. The National People’s Congress would have been the most likely agency for the next steps in a long process of democratisation.

What of the citizens themselves? During the 20 days of the student occupation of Tiananmen Square, huge numbers of them paraded under the banners of their different work-units and affiliations, as if this helped to justify their actions. But when night fell, they went out on the streets individually, representing only themselves. Many confronted government officials face to face. These different ways of participating, by day and by night, gradually merged. Once the government declared martial law, and stepped up control of all workplaces, people realised that the socialist structure tying their economic and political rights together into their work-unit was collapsing in front of their eyes, and took a clear stand as citizens, casting off the ambiguous safety of their institutional affiliation, confident that the government was in the wrong.

What brought the people out onto the streets was not only the wish to express sympathy with the students, but also the denial of their rights as citizens. Whether it was the unexpected success of the 27 April march, the proclamation of martial law on 20 May, or the first gunshots on the night of 3 June, the largest response was always in reply to the government’s toughest measures. Without this huge outburst of energy, the upheaval of 1989 would never have taken place.

These days, you can see many short videos on the internet commemorating the events in China in 1989. What is most striking about them are the expressions on people’s faces – excitement, anxiety, hope, determination and compassion – across all groups and generations. The demonstrators were interested in democracy, not in overthrowing the government. Only if one recognises this can one understand why, throughout weeks of protest, people displayed so much self-discipline. This did not come from a fear of government revenge, but from a strong feeling of pride in their ability to take their fate into their own hands – visibly a legacy of the Chinese revolution and a socialist past. The crime rate in Beijing fell sharply. Not a single incident of looting or vandalism was reported. In Beijing and Chengdu at least, even the thieves went on strike to protest against the government. Spontaneously, there was order everywhere. On 17 May, in an atmosphere of crisis, there was a televised discussion between the prime minister, Li Peng, and some of the student leaders about the ‘anarchy’ of the movement. An argument broke out over who was responsible for the scenes in the square, interrupting one of Li’s patronising speeches, and I watched his face turn red and then white as he clutched the armrests of his chair with both hands. I remember insisting, when my turn came to speak, that the students were demanding rights guaranteed them by China’s constitution, and that what characterised the movement was the opposite of anarchy: calm orderliness, confidence and self-restraint. Of course, this was what the government was really afraid of.

Three days later, martial law was declared, and there were tanks on the outskirts of the city. For two weeks, the people held them off. No one who was there, as the people of Beijing confronted troops in trucks and APCs, will ever forget their spirit. When the crackdown came on the night of 3-4 June, most of the victims were not students, but ordinary citizens. Strangers helped each other without asking questions, and some were killed as they tried to save the lives of others. The world remembers the image of a single man standing alone, in front of a column of advancing tanks. The city was full of such courageous people that night. The reason for commemorating 4 June each year is not simply to remember its tragic cost, but to recapture the magnificent spirit of the movement, rarely seen in China in recent centuries.

That this was the real meaning of the social movement of 1989 can be seen from the government’s lasting fear of it. Had it been spurred mainly by economic grievances, it would have little resonance in today’s China, where the standard of living in the cities is so much higher than it was then. If it had been moved by a desire for things American, satisfaction has in many ways been more than granted: fast food, Hollywood films, television quiz shows are everywhere, business principles are exercised more vigorously at all levels of administration than in the US itself. The reason the memory of 4 June still haunts officialdom is that it was about something that high-speed growth and giddy consumerism have not altered. For despite all the economic records it is setting, China today is not a sea of social calm. Soaring inequality, collapsing welfare systems, environmental disasters, land seizures, mistreated migrants, labour ruthlessly exploited, children abducted and enslaved, the unemployed cast aside, and – in many ways the most hated thing of all – rampant corruption, have bred widespread discontent. Local explosions of popular anger, especially in the countryside and smaller towns, where social conditions are worse and police control is stretched more thinly, have multiplied in recent years. In this poisoned social environment, in which the crudest profiteering by crooks and officials, typically in league with each other, is a daily reality, the root of such evils is clear. It is the monopoly of power by the ruling party, which makes it impossible for people to check the abuses from which they suffer. Only democratic rights could make the holders of power accountable for their actions and release the popular energies needed to achieve all the things of which they are incapable. That is why, even today, whenever indignation over injustice or corruption boils over, the collective memory of 1989, we can be sure, lurks in the minds of the rulers, and – how often we can only guess – in those of the ruled.

The situation is not unchanging. This year, Professor Ding was for the first time allowed to commemorate her son’s death on 4 June. Followed by a squad of plain-clothes policemen, she went from her apartment to the spot beside a subway station where he was killed, and laid flowers on the pavement. Photographs of the scene found their way onto the internet, where also for the first time this year, an online gathering in memory of the victims of 1989 was held through a web-server based overseas, but which could be accessed from the mainland with the help of special software. This is a small advance; much more will have to come. Chinese society needs to acknowledge the tragedy, condemn the killings, accept and respect the families of those who died, and honour the work of the Tiananmen Mothers in preserving the memory of the collective national past. It has not been in vain. When it was learned that the young subeditor at the Chengdu Evening News had not known what the date of 4 June referred to, many young Chinese born in the 1980s made it clear on the internet that they did know.

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