Tianamen's legacy of boldness

Citizens have grown more vocal about their rights, even though China's political outlook hasn't changed much since 1989

Christina Hu/Reuters
Public rally: A participant cheers at a Tiananmen Square gathering that honored Sichuan earthquake victims, marking one year since the disaster struck last May.
Ng Han Guan/AP
Protest: An officer restrains a protester in Beijing. Democracy activists say Chinese have grown more aware of their personal rights.

On the evening of May 14, Jiang Qisheng, widely seen as one of China's most courageous dissidents, drafted and e-mailed to a friend a public statement commemorating the victims of the Army crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square 20 years ago.

The next day, policemen raided his one-room apartment and confiscated his computer.

Ten years ago, a similar statement earned Mr. Jiang four years in prison. He had already served two years for his role at Tiananmen. Today, again, with his declaration circulating on Chinese-language websites, "I know I face the risk of arrest," he says.

In some respects, as Jiang's experience suggests, not much has changed in China's political landscape over the past two decades. "The great promise for expanded democratization is unfulfilled," concludes a recent study by the Carter Center's China Program, based in Atlanta.

But in other ways, the prospect has shifted, say democracy activists. Citizens in all walks of life have grown more aware of their personal rights and bolder in asserting them.

the tens of thousands of popular protests they stage each year against local injustices, and the private lawsuits they bring against public officials are the harbingers of democracy, argues Cui Weiping, a professor at the Beijing Film Academy.

"If people cannot get to the square anymore, they take other routes," says Professor Cui, a leading voice calling for the government to repent for the June 4, 1989, crackdown. "They know they have to work from the bottom up."

There is no sign that current Chinese leaders are taking steps toward what outsiders would recognize as democracy. Wu Bangguo, the second-most senior Chinese leader, said bluntly last March, "We will never ... implement a system of multiple parties holding office in rotation, a system with the separation of the three powers."

Once, when the government instituted direct elections for village committees, it gave the impression it would later introduce such votes at ever higher levels of government. That turned out to be false.

"I think they are stuck because they are afraid of political change" and scared that liberal reforms would take the country, and the ruling Communist Party, down the Soviet path to destruction, says Larry Diamond, an expert on democracy at Stanford University.

At the same time, he suggests, "the economic boom has bought them time and legitimacy, and June 4th bought them control, so they got comfortable on the path they are following."

Officials at all levels argue that political stability is essential for economic growth, and that any move toward electoral democracy would endanger that stability.

Democracy activists turn that argument on its head, warning that only greater democracy will ensure long-term stability. "Some people in local government, who face the people every day and know their needs, know that to preserve social stability, people have to be allowed to express and organize themselves," says Li Fan, head of the World and China Research Institute in Beijing and a leading advocate of democracy.

Eventually, says Dr. Diamond, "the system will be a victim of its own success. When people are much better educated, more urban, and enjoy more pluralism of information, it will have to move towards more democracy or it will implode."

Some observers expect the authorities to move cautiously toward greater democracy on the grounds that it is a more effective form of governance. "It will happen because a government without procedural choice or institutionalized accountability cannot rule efficiently," argues Liu Yawei, head of the China Program at the Carter Center, which works with Chinese officials on democratization projects.

Jiang, who in 1989 was deputy head of the Tiananmen student delegation named to negotiate with the authorities, has his doubts. "Deep in their hearts," he says of China's leaders, "they are afraid of real democracy."

Jiang pins his faith for change on people standing up for their rights, whether it is peasants challenging compulsory purchase of their land for development, bloggers suing Internet servers who censor them, women refusing to submit to licentious local officials, or parents demanding to know why their children died in last year's Sichuan earthquake.

"This looks like another democracy movement, a civil rights movement," says Mr. Li. "This rights-protection democracy is growing stronger and stronger."

Though protests are isolated for the time being, and the authorities energetically prevent activists from networking, "there is space for people to defend their rights," Jiang says, "and their actions help move us toward electoral rights. This is a path worth following."

Nobody is holding his breath, however. "In the short term, I am not very optimistic about how much influence this kind of event has on the overall progress of Chinese democracy," says Cui, who last month took part in a daring seminar about the Tiananmen events, the proceedings of which were published on the Internet.

There can be no democracy in China without a functioning civil society, she argues, "and this is 20 years away, no earlier."

While the Tiananmen protests led to a military crackdown that put hopes for political reform on indefinite hold, historians will see 1989 "as a basis that could be acted on to achieve results," says Diamond.

"China's failure in 1989 was inevitable" because of the demonstrators' lack of experience, laments Jiang. "But that does not mean it should not have happened, nor that we cannot succeed," he adds quickly. "Nineteen eighty-nine built the foundations."

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