It was springtime in China and, once again, students were taking to the streets and making headlines. Some youths held aloft official flags bearing the names of their schools, while others carried banners covered with passionate phrases written out in Chinese characters or Roman letters. Campuses throughout the country were festooned with wallposters, also in varied languages, the contents of which ranged from elegant poems to crude caricatures, some of which likened a current political leader to Hitler. The propaganda accompanying the movement had a decidedly cosmopolitan and contemporary feel, since students employed the latest technologies of communication, borrowed symbols from protest movements that had taken place recently in other parts of the world, and made allusions to current Eastern European events. Nevertheless, there were many things that the students did and said that linked them to China’s past. For example, when they called on all Chinese to help jiuguo (save the nation), they were echoing a cry of earlier generations. It had been heard, for example, in 1903 (when Tsarist Russian threatened Manchuria), 1935 (when Japanese incursions into North China triggered the December 9th Movement), and 1947 (when the Anti-Hunger, Anti-Civil War Movement broke out). When they worked the phrase ‘blood debts must be repaid in blood’ into their posters, they were doing something that their predecessors of the 1920s had often done as well when there were patriotic martyrs to be honoured. And some of the march routes they followed and songs they sang were well-known to educated youths of the pre-1949 era.

Links between the new protests and those of the past were established through more than just this common—no doubt sometimes unconscious—reliance on a longstanding, though ever-changing, basic repertoire of rhetoric, symbolism, and action. Some participants and observers also made conscious use of historical analogies. There were students, for example, who took pains to link this struggle to specific moments in Chinese history. Most notably, protesters insisted that they were following in the footsteps of those who led the May 4th Movement of 1919, the anniversary of which had just been marked with considerable fanfare, as it always is in China, especially in years like this that end with a nine. Sympathetic journalists accepted and promoted this idea, but critics of the movement countered by looking for parallels between the present and a discredited part of the past. Contemporary youths, they argued, were not comparable to the heroes of 1919, enlightened patriots who had protested against the terms of the Treaty of Versailles that transferred control of parts of China from Germany to Japan and called for the dismissal of corrupt and oppressive Chinese officials. Instead, these students were acting just like the violent Red Guards of the 1960s who had plunged China into the darkness of the Cultural Revolution. To reinforce this negative image, instead of describing mass marches as ‘spontaneous demonstrations’, these opponents of the students referred to ‘riotous’ gatherings in which gullible youths were being ‘manipulated’ by nefarious hidden hands.

I have chosen my words carefully above, so that it is impossible to tell whether the spring being described is that of the famous 1989 protests or the one that has just passed, during which students demonstrated against nato’s destruction of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. This is, I admit, a rhetorical sleight-of-hand. Had more details been provided, it would have been clear whether I had meant the period leading up to and immediately following the June 4th Massacre or the aftermath of what is now sometimes called the ‘May 8th Tragedy’, in honour of the date, Beijing-time, that three Chinese journalists were killed. A comment about the size of the marches would have been enough to indicate which spring I had in mind: the largest recent demonstrations involved a few thousand people, those of 1989 approximately a million. So, too, would have a mention of whether it was a Chinese Communist Party (ccp) leader (Li Peng) or an American President (Bill Clinton) whom the students were most fond of likening to Hitler. Also revelatory as to which year was being described would have been a reference to whether the educated youths taking to the streets had ever protested before. A series of short-lived student struggles—anti-Japanese rallies in the autumn of 1985, demonstrations triggered by varied grievances in the winter of 1986–87, and so forth—preceded and helped set the stage for the June 4th Movement. But the marches of 1999 were the first student-led protests in almost a decade.footnote1

Moreover, any number of specific details about propaganda would have shown clearly which spring was in question. Had students rallied around a Goddess of Democracy figure, which was modelled in part on the Statue of Liberty as well as on various Chinese icons? Or had students carried banners that showed the Statue of Liberty with blood on her hands? When looking abroad for slogans and symbols, had the Chinese protesters borrowed the originally Philippine term ‘People Power’ (1989) or placed Serbian-style target signs on their t-shirts and posters (1999)? When it comes to references to specific Eastern European events and people, was it the spring when angry Chinese mused about the injustice of Heaven having provided Russia with a Gorbachev, while they only got a Deng Xiaoping, or the one when ‘Resist America—Support Yugoslavia’ was a slogan? Just what sorts of ‘technologies of communication’ were novel that year? Was it the spring when international news reports faxed from abroad were first distributed on campuses, or that when wallposters began to contain url addresses that students were encouraged to visit either to disrupt (us government websites) or to obtain information (www.serbia.com)? Were the ‘blood debts’ alluded to ones that had been acquired by foreign powers (May 1999) or China’s own leaders (June 1989)? And when the phrase renquan (human rights) was used, was it often placed sarcastically in quotes—as in a 1999 banner I saw that asked if ‘bombing embassies’ was the American meaning of this term?

References to history could have been used as well to indicate whether I was referring to 1989 or 1999. Perhaps most importantly, I could have stated whether it was clear that the protests in question had earned a place in the historical record as a major turning point. This is definitely the case with the 1989 protests, which continue to stand out, along with the crackdown that followed them, as marking a watershed moment in China’s recent history. It is doubtful, by contrast, that the anti-nato struggle will be looked to, a decade from now, as an event of the first importance. It is possible that it will not even be remembered then as the most significant series of demonstrations of 1999, since the long-term impact of the Falun Gong sect’s sit-ins and related events remains to be seen.