In her vivid evocation of the atmosphere in Beijing in late April 1989, Wang Chaohua recounts how ordinary citizens demonstrated their support for the protesting students, offering them food and water, applauding at every passing university flag. ‘Marching towards the south gate of the university’, she recalls, ‘the students held their flags high up in the air and began to sing “The Internationale”. They received a warm welcome, with fireworks. A huge banner was draped from a dormitory window: “History will remember this day!”’ The Internationale was one of the anthems of the students and workers at Tiananmen. They sang the song when they were marching to the Square, rallying around the People’s Monument and in the final hours, when they faced the tanks and troops. Later, at diaspora commemorations of the rising, people would spontaneously start to sing it, rekindling collective memories. Wang discovered from old video and audio recordings that the Internationale was also sung in 1990 by the student protesters of the Wild Lily movement in Taiwan, where anti-communist sentiments still dominated official ideology. Ironically, it is in the People’s Republic of China that the Internationale has now become unwelcome; singing the song in public can invite police harassment.
A line from the Chinese version of the Internationale, ‘There are no saviours above us’, provides the title for Wang’s collection of essays on the pro-democracy movement, Conglai jiu meiyou jiushizhu. The comparative reach and political urgency of the book make a stark contrast to much mainstream scholarship on Chinese politics, in which the Tiananmen clampdown is treated as a regrettable but self-explanatory incident. It stands apart, too, from the majority of Tiananmen-participant memoirs, which tend to focus on the author’s starring role and neglect broader critical concerns. International symposia on the subject still occur, often timed to coincide with commemorations by former activists and a handful of sympathetic Sinologists. The Chinese historiographer Wu Renhua has also compiled a panoramic day-by-day documentary archive of the movement and uncovered detailed information on the martial-law troops; valuable as this is, the meaning of the material remains untheorized. In this context, Conglai jiu meiyou jiushizhu stands out for its conceptual range, analytic trenchancy and grasp of the complexity of history in the making, combined with an insider’s often self-critical reflections on the students’ hopes and dilemmas.
Wang herself was one of the 21 ‘most wanted’ Tiananmen student leaders sought for arrest by the authorities after the massacre. She went into hiding for nine months on the mainland before being smuggled to Hong Kong and subsequently granted refugee status in the us. Based at ucla, where her doctorate focused on modern Chinese intellectual history, she is best known in the West as the editor of One China, Many Paths (2003), a landmark selection of contending voices from the critical Chinese intelligentsia. nlr readers will know her powerful contributions to debates on Chinese history and her striking theoretical essay, ‘A Tale of Two Nationalisms’. She was born in 1952 to a family well known in intellectual circles; her father was a professor in literature at Beijing University, highly respected for his study of literary history in the classical Wei-Jin period and for establishing the foundations for the research of modern Chinese literature. Wang was fourteen, studying at one of the best schools in Beijing, when the Cultural Revolution began in 1966. With 200 schoolmates, she was dispatched to work on a military farm in Heilongjiang, in the far northeast, and stayed in the countryside for five years. Later she studied civil engineering as a worker-peasant-soldier student and worked for six years as a construction engineer. In 1985, now a young mother, she was hired as an editor at Bolan Qunshu magazine, a literary monthly under the aegis of the Guangming Daily. In 1987, she was accepted as a graduate student in literature at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (cass). When the student protests erupted in the spring of 1989, Wang was elected as the cass representative to the standing committee of the Beijing Students’ Autonomous Federation and threw herself into organizing the movement.
Conglai jiu meiyou jiushizhu collects 33 essays on Tiananmen, written over the three decades since 1989. Many were published in magazines outside China to commemorate the successive anniversaries of June Fourth. They are prefaced by a helpful chronology and by a prologue, originally delivered as a speech in Taipei in 2011, which explains the internationalist vision of the title. It is worth summarizing Wang’s account of the events, before diving into her in-depth reflections and analysis. Unlike most Tiananmen scholars, who take Hu Yaobang’s death on 15 April 1989 as the start of the movement, Wang’s chronology begins on 6 January, when the astrophysicist Fang Lizhi wrote an open letter to Deng Xiaoping, urging the Chinese leader to release Wei Jingsheng, a political dissident who had been jailed for ten years for advocating democracy as the ‘fifth modernization’ and for calling Deng himself a ‘new dictator’. Three open letters of support followed, signed by over a hundred prominent public intellectuals, poets, writers, scientists, educators and journalists, demanding amnesty for all political prisoners. One of these called for political reform and guarantees of constitutional freedoms.
The intellectuals’ open letters resonated with a group of students at Beijing University who were closely following democracy movements in Eastern Europe. They had just launched a campus magazine, New May Fourth, which covered the 1989 Polish Roundtable Talks, the petitions for reform circulating in Czechoslovakia and the decisions of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party to re-evaluate 1956 as a people’s uprising and adopt a multi-party system. This international contextualization not only helps to evoke the atmosphere of the time, a political mood palpably ready for revolt, but also maps the Tiananmen protests onto broader historical and geo-political axes. Democratization in Eastern European countries supplied a comparative lens to assess the achievement of the Chinese Communist Party. Generations of dissent were brought into perspective in the country’s long modernization process.
This was the context in which the news of Hu’s death on the morning of 15 April elicited immediate reactions. Though a protégé of Deng, as General Secretary Hu had been loth to discipline students protesting against Party corruption—not least that of Deng’s children—and had been dismissed in 1987, replaced by Zhao Ziyang. Within hours of Hu’s passing, students had hung wreaths of white paper flowers in Tiananmen Square and put up wall posters in the Triangle area at Beijing University. On 17 April, students marched from different campuses to the Square. Their requests took shape as the Seven Demands, including ‘allow unofficial press and permit freedom of speech’, ‘end restrictions on demonstrations in Beijing’ and ‘declare income and assets of state leaders and their family members’, reflecting popular aspirations for civil liberty and discontent with the profiteering and corruption that plagued the country’s economic life.
The students occupied the Square overnight. The next day, they gathered before the Great Hall of the People and made several attempts to deliver their demands to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. In the evening, three representatives came out and received the petition. Some students, arguing that the npc was nothing but a rubber stamp, proposed delivering the petition to the government. They marched from Tiananmen to the Xinhua Gate of Zhongnanhai, the headquarters of the State Council and the Central Committee of the ccp. There the sit-in lasted for two nights, before they were forcibly cleared out at dawn on 20 April. The police violence enraged a broader layer of students. Self-organized student associations sprang up simultaneously on several campuses. On the evening of 23 April, representatives from 21 universities in Beijing met near the ruins of the Summer Palace to form the Beijing Students’ Autonomous Federation (bsaf). A massive boycott of classes started in Beijing the next day.