In 1989, the news about protesters being massacred in Tiananmen Square reached my downtown Manhattan neighborhood, and I joined in a public art protest, with community members painting righteously in solidarity. With a grade-schooler’s energy, I splashed a canvas with a blood-red flame erupting over a swath of ocean, flecks of each color jumbled together in a storm of screaming American-flag colors.
With twenty-five years hindsight, it all seems a little childish. The flames of Tiananmen have been stamped out, the scorched square revarnished with over two decades of well-manicured authoritarian capitalism. My protest art was papered over by a cheery Chinese traditional painting in my parents’ apartment.
Looking back, we see that the West’s framing of the “June 4 incident” was selectively narrow. As Steven Hsieh points out, the media lens trained onto idealistic pro-democracy students and overlooked the workers, who apparently suffered some of the heaviest attacks.
The workers’ dissent took on a different tone than the students’. The uprising and crackdown followed a devastating inflation crisis that emerged during China’s first phase of economic “opening.” As salaries remained depressed while price controls were lifted, urban workers reacted to both material deprivation and a sense of betrayal by the regime.
As for the pro-democracy activists, Jeffrey Wasserstrom noted in a 2009 essay, “The students did celebrate the virtues of minzhu (democracy), but they spent even more energy denouncing corruption.” Democracy was a useful rhetorical platform for airing frustration with a rotten regime, but the immediate issue was less ideologically inflected than Americans like to imagine—the dissidents were less concerned about casting ballots or upholding inalienable rights, and more about just having a government that would allow their economy and everyday lives to function.
So the drama of China versus the West playing out in an epic battle on Tiananmen Square is not quite as flat as it seems on the surface. Nor is the narrative of dissent limited geographically or historically to the events on June 4. About a generation into the post-Tiananmen capitalist transition, anxious Chinese youth today, whether university students or migrant workers, have much in common with frustrated young workers across the world: as China throttled into global capitalism, the 1989 uprising marked the first stirring of resistance to the monstrous inequality that neoliberalism had driven (and has since continued to expand). And as structural wealth gaps and social deficits expand worldwide in tandem with economic globalization, the shock of social inequality may be even more resonant today.
So is the uncertainty about the promise of democracy. The dilemma many Chinese face today, though—particularly middle-class urbanites—is that they don’t see democracy as a solution, because, like the regime, they may be frustrated with the powers that be, but they also deeply fear the alternative—the masses seizing power from below. The frustrations of students and workers converged in 1989 on what they saw as the state’s failure to realize the promise of economic reform and deregulation, and by extension, the political oppression associated with social crisis. But after twenty-five years of relative prosperity, when faced with change versus stability, the middle-class in China today are paralyzed by mistrust. As University of Michigan professor Mary Gallagher explained on Marketplace, “When they think about democracy, they think about majority rule. And I think majority rule is scary to them.”