On May 10, as tens of thousands of students rallied here for the third day of government-approved protests against NATO’s bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, magazine editor Cao Jiahe was taken to a small room in another part of the city, where he was blindfolded, tied with belts and beaten by security officials. When he was released four days later, according to an open letter by his friend Jiang Qisheng, his “whole body was bruised, and his skin was lacerated. He was too horrible to look at.”
Police did this to Cao because in early May he collected signatures to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the June 4, 1989, massacre near Tiananmen Square. While sanctioning anti-American demonstrations, the government has also launched the most severe crackdown on pro-democracy activism since the period immediately following the 1989 protests. Jittery over the upcoming anniversary and escalating social unrest, the government has arrested or detained since January nearly every prominent activist, especially those connected with the dissident-led China Democracy Party. Liberal publications have been closed down, experimental art performances canceled and the press warned against writing on sensitive topics like worker unrest. During anti-NATO demonstrations, dissidents were detained to prevent them from shifting protesters’ attention to problems at home. After releasing the letter protesting Cao Jiahe’s treatment, Jiang Qisheng was arrested as well.
Indeed, since the NATO bombing, the government has intensified its pre-June 4 crackdown, denouncing concepts of democracy and human rights as synonymous with US hegemony. The People’s Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece, ran an article in late May condemning overseas democracy activists as traitors to their country. In a rare public mention of the events of 1989, the article said that if the Tiananmen Square protests had succeeded, China would have been “turned into a dependency of the hegemonies.” Dissident Zha Jianguo told the South China Morning Post that when he was detained during the anti-NATO demonstrations, security officials warned him to be extra careful, because now “the Chinese government will no longer need to worry about foreign pressure over human rights issues.”
This backlash was reflected in the slogans of many student protesters, who put national sovereignty above concerns for the liberal values embraced by their counterparts ten years ago. “We still respect many things about America,” a master’s student in political science at Beijing University said, as he joined protesters on campus. “Human rights, democracy, the legal system. But we absolutely cannot tolerate an infringement on our country’s sovereignty.” A wall poster nearby echoed his sentiment: “We want human rights,” it read, “but we want sovereignty more.”
Yet the ideals of human rights and national self-determination were not always seen as irreconcilable, as many students tried to claim ostensibly “Western” values as their own. In one widely applauded posted letter, the anonymous writer urged students to “take the spirit of Gandhi and Mandela and, together with Americans, build an alliance that opposes war and hatred and becomes a true protector of the great power of peace, human rights and democracy.”
Despite the obvious government manipulation, the recent protests were a vivid reminder of the power of an enraged public. Southern Weekend, a popular weekly newspaper, ran a special edition emblazoned with a photo of protesters and the headline, a force more powerful than a bomb. The usually tranquil campus of Beijing University was transformed as thousands of students gathered to peruse wall posters, debate what should happen next and offer their voice to the chorus, just as they did in the spring of 1989. This previously apolitical generation of students has learned that taking to the streets is a legitimate way to get their voices heard.
Meanwhile, in villages and factories throughout China, the disfranchised masses have learned a similar lesson, albeit in a different way. Without independent unions or peasant associations to protect their interests, workers and villagers regularly stage public protests against corruption, unemployment and economic disparities that allow the rich to get richer while the poor frequently can’t even get their paychecks. But when protesters point out the sources of their problems and demand democracy and legal protection of their rights, authorities are quick to crack down.
For these protesters, claims that their demands reflect US hegemony are irrelevant. In a small village in Guizhou province, for example, peasants have been fighting unsuccessfully for compensation since 1992, when local leaders illegally sold public land in a corrupt deal. The organizer of the protests was recently arrested after he and more than 200 villagers took their fight to the provincial capital, where they carried a banner declaring, “We Need Democracy and the Rule of Law.”
In 1989 ordinary citizens, especially workers, played a significant role in the protests, and some observers have partly blamed the students’ unwillingness to unite with these groups for the failure of the movement. Today, dissidents inside and outside the country are increasingly unifying their demands with those of China’s workers and peasants. The China Democracy Party, the largest opposition party in Communist China’s history, supports independent trade unions, an end to official corruption and economic justice for farmers and laid-off workers. Although the group is illegal, CDP supporters range from 1989 student leaders and former Democracy Wall activists to factory workers and businessmen. Such alliances, if organized and galvanized, could pose a real challenge to the regime. As a worker told Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, “If there was another explosion against corruption like the business back in 1989…far more workers would get involved, and the end result would be very different!”
The government is doing everything it can to prevent that. When the dust clears from the anti-NATO protests, Chinese citizens will be left with spiraling unemployment, rampant corruption, intensifying social inequalities and a government that does little to protect their rights. Perhaps NATO protesters will then remember how it felt to be part of a unified movement, taking the future of their country into their own hands. For those who witnessed Tiananmen Square, the memory is a familiar one: a force more powerful than a bomb.