Nation Topics - Student Movements
News and Features
It's been more than three months since twelve Florida State University
students were arrested for setting up a "tent city" in front of the
school's administration building.
A hundred days ago Wu'er Kaixi was a fugitive.... Yesterday, before an
audience of 800 Americans and Chinese at Brandeis University, he showed
what brought a 21-year-old Beijing Normal School student to the head of
an earth-shaking movement.
He sang a song about a wolf.
And he told people who had listened to two days of often-ponderous
analysis of the student movement that Chinese rock music composers Qin
Qi of Taiwan and Cui Jian of mainland China were more important to the
students than the dissident physicist Fang Lizhi...
The auditorium buzzed with the gasps and whispers of delighted students
and their bewildered elders.
(Boston Globe, September 18, 1989)
John Sebastian's famous lyric about the impossibility of "trying to tell
a stranger about rock and roll" notwithstanding, it was a special moment
indeed when Wu'er Kaixi--the flamboyant Tiananmen student
leader--attempted to do just that. I know. I was one of the strangers
who heard him sing Qin Qi's "Wolf From the North" and explain what its
celebration of individualism meant to his generation. The students
agreed with senior dissidents that institutions must change, he said,
but what they yearned for most was to live in a freer society. (The
anniversary of the Beijing massacre recently passed, on June 4.)
When I witnessed Wu'er's performance, even though I was no longer a
student and even though I had misgivings about any single activist
claiming to speak for the Tiananmen generation, I was definitely in the
"delighted" camp. One reason was that I was in Shanghai in 1986 when
demonstrations occurred that helped lay the groundwork for those of
1989. I was struck then by the Western media's tendency to overstate the
dissident Fang Lizhi's impact. Students found his speeches inspiring,
but other things also triggered protests: complaints about compulsory
calisthenics, for example, and a scuffle at--of all things--a Jan and
Another reason Wu'er's performance pleased me was that I was to give a
presentation at Harvard the next evening and planned to talk about a
song, albeit one without a backbeat: "Frère Jacques." Why that
one? Because Chinese youth often put new lyrics to it during pre-1949
protests, Red Guards did likewise in the 1960s and the Tiananmen
protesters had just followed suit. Wu'er used a new song to argue for
his generation's uniqueness. But I used an old one to show how often he
and others had reworked (albeit often unconsciously) a rich inherited
I also pointed out that the lyrics to the latest version of
"Frère Jacques" (which began "Down With Li Peng, Down With Li
Peng, Deng Xiaoping, Deng Xiaoping," and which went on to refer to these
and other Communist Party leaders as "bullies") expressed contempt for
corrupt, autocratic officials.
A desire for reform and personal freedom helped get students onto the
streets--not just in Beijing but in scores of Chinese cities. A major
reason that workers joined them there in such large numbers, though, was
moral outrage, widespread disgust with power-holders whose attachment to
the ideals of the Communist revolution of 1949 had seemingly disappeared
completely. The country's leaders now seemed only to care about
protecting their privileged positions. And this meant, I argued, that
there were topical as well as melodic links between 1989 and some
protests of the first half of the century. During the civil war era
(1945-49), for example, demonstrators criticized the ruling Nationalist
Party's leaders for being corrupt and abandoning the ideals of the
revolution that had brought them to power.
In the many books on the events of 1989 published in Chinese and Western
languages in the past dozen years, the uniqueness of the Tiananmen
generation, the root causes of their activism and the songs that
inspired them have all been handled in still different ways from the two
just described. Most notably, when it comes to music, many Tiananmen
books--including the two under review--have singled out for special
attention one of two songs that neither Wu'er Kaixi nor I discussed.
These are a Communist anthem (the "Internationale") and a composition by
Taiwan pop star Hou Dejian ("Heirs of the Dragon"). Students frequently
sang these songs throughout the demonstrations of mid-April through late
May. And each was sung a final time by the last group of students to
leave Tiananmen Square on June 4, during a pre-dawn exodus that took
them through the nearby streets, which had just been turned into killing
fields by the People's Liberation Army.
Zhao Dingxin's The Power of Tiananmen is the latest in a long
line of works to treat the "Internationale" as the movement's most
revealing song. He claims, in a section on "The Imprint of Communist
Mass Mobilization," that students were drawn to it because it is
"rebellious in spirit" and because a steady diet of post-1949
party-sponsored "revolutionary dramas and films" in which the song
figured had made singing it "a standard way of expressing" discontent
with the status quo. In this section, as elsewhere in his study, Zhao
stresses the importance of history in shaping 1989, but he sees only the
preceding forty years as directly relevant. In contrast to my approach,
which linked the pre-Communist and Communist eras, he distinguishes
sharply between (nationalistic) pre-1949 protests and the
("pro-Western") Tiananmen ones.
The Monkey and the Dragon mentions the "Internationale" and many
other compositions (from Cui Jian's rousing "Nothing to My Name" to the
punk-rock song "Garbage Dump"), but the gently lilting "Heirs" gets most
attention. This is to be expected. Linda Jaivin's book is not a
Tiananmen study per se (though 170 pages of it deal with 1989) but a
biography of Hou Dejian. This fascinating singer-songwriter grew up in
Taiwan and, while still in his 20s, saw "Heirs" become a hit (and be
appropriated for political purposes) on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.
Soon afterward, he surprised everyone (even close friends like Jaivin)
by defecting to the mainland--only to quickly become a gadfly to the
Hou ended up playing key roles in 1989 both as a songwriter (he penned a
song for the movement, "Get Off the Stage," which called on aging
leaders like Deng to retire) and eventually as a direct participant. He
stayed aloof from the movement at first, but from late May onward threw
himself into it with abandon. In short order, he flew to Hong Kong to
perform in a fundraiser, returned to Beijing to join other intellectuals
in a hunger strike, then helped negotiate a temporary cease-fire that
allowed that last group of youths to leave the square on June 4. In 1990
the party shipped him back across the strait, making him, as Jaivin puts
it, with typical irreverence and stylistic flair, "the first Taiwan
defector to be returned to sender."
Patriotism is the central theme of "Heirs" (the "Dragon" in its title is
China), and Jaivin argues that this explains the song's appeal to a
generation of Chinese students who (like many of their predecessors) saw
themselves as charged with an epic mission to save their homeland from
misrule. According to Jaivin, this patriotism occasionally blurred into
a narrow jingoism of a sort that appalled Hou--particularly because his
song was used to express it. Her discussion of "Heirs" thus plays up
1989's nationalistic side and links it both backward (to pre-1949
struggles by youths determined to save their country) and forward (to
such events as the anti-NATO demonstration that broke out when the
Chinese Embassy in Belgrade was hit by US warplanes in 1999).
These opening comments on music are meant to convey three things. First,
China's 1989 was a complex, multifaceted struggle (not a simple
"democracy" movement). Second, in part because of this, the events of
that year remain open to competing interpretations, even among those of
us who dismiss (as everyone should) Beijing's self-serving "Big Lie"
about the government's supposed need to use force to pacify
"counterrevolutionary" riots. Third--and this is a much more general
point--providing a clear picture of a multifaceted movement is never
This is because one has to grapple continually not only with big
questions of interpretation but also numerous small ones of
detail--right down to picking which songs to discuss. This is true
whether the protesters in question are American or Chinese and whether
the person doing the grappling is a former participant (like Wu'er), a
cultural historian (like me), a dispassionate sociologist (like Zhao) or
an impassioned, iconoclastic, frequently entertaining, often insightful
and sometimes self-indulgent
journalist-turned-novelist-turned-biographer (like Jaivin). Whatever the
movement, whoever the writer, contrasting approaches to small matters
can create big gaps in overall perspective.
Leaving China aside, consider how minor divergences can create major
differences in presentations of an American student movement--that of
the 1960s--depending on the answers given to the following questions:
When exactly did this movement begin and end? Which student activists
and which nonstudents (leaders of related struggles, radical
philosophers, singers, politicians) had the largest impact? How much
weight should we give to the protesters' stated goals? How much to
actions that contradicted these? Were countercultural elements central
or peripheral to the movement? Give one set of answers and Abbie Hoffman
gets a chapter to himself, but give another and he becomes a footnote.
The same goes for everyone from Mario Savio to Malcolm X, Herbert
Marcuse to Jane Fonda, Jimi Hendrix to Ronald Reagan. It also goes for
such events as the Free Speech Movement (too early?), be-ins
(irrelevant?) and the first gay-pride parades (too late?).
Accounts of student movements can also diverge, depending on the answers
given to more basic questions. If one has complete data and knows a lot
about "political opportunity structures" and "rational choice analysis,"
can one explain all dimensions of a movement? Or will some things remain
mysterious, such as the moment when a nonviolent event turns violent or
the process by which a song or chant assumes talismanic properties? Do
we need to leave room for spontaneous, even irrational individual
choices? To put this another way, do we need to make analytic space for
what might best be termed--for lack of a more precise word--magic? I
mean by this both the black magic that transforms a group of individuals
into a lynch mob and the glorious sort that leads to brave acts of
It may be true that the potential for divergence between accounts is
unusually great in that particular case, due to the struggle's
protracted nature and connections to other upheavals, especially the
civil rights movement. And yet, anyone who reads Zhao's study and then
Jaivin's book may doubt this. Tiananmen was comparatively short-lived
and self-contained, yet accounts of China's 1989 spin off in
dramatically different directions.
This is not to say that Zhao's and Jaivin's treatments of Tiananmen
never converge. You could even claim that for works by such different
authors--Jaivin's previous writings include a rollicking novel called
Eat Me, while Zhao's peer-reviewed scholarly articles are
peppered with charts and tables--their books have much in common. One
author may rely on things she observed and was told in 1989, the other
on interviews conducted later according to social scientific protocols,
but some of their narrative choices are the same. For instance, each
focuses tightly on Beijing as a site of protest (it was actually just
one of many) and of state violence (there was also a massacre in
Chengdu). And each pays relatively little attention to workers.
Still, it is the divergences between the discussions of 1989 that remain
most striking. There are people Jaivin discusses in detail (Cui Jian)
who are not even listed in Zhao's index. And there are aspects of the
struggle analyzed insightfully by Zhao that are ignored by Jaivin--what
Zhao calls "campus ecology" (the physical structures and social patterns
of student life) for instance. His treatment of the way this shaped 1989
is excellent, yet the topic falls outside the scope of Jaivin's
The two authors also treat previous studies very differently. Take
sociologist Craig Calhoun's justly acclaimed 1994 study Neither Gods
Nor Emperors. Zhao cites it several times (sometimes approvingly,
sometimes to criticize Calhoun for making too much of 1989's links to
pre-1949 events and patterns); Jaivin never mentions it. On the other
hand, she draws heavily on works by Geremie Barmé, a leading
Australian China specialist whom Zhao never cites. Jaivin's reliance on
Barmé is no surprise: The two co-edited a superb
Tiananmen-related document collection, New Ghosts, Old Dreams,
were married for a time (Monkey includes a diverting account of
their courtship) and remain close friends. What is surprising is that
none of Barmé's writings are listed in Zhao's bibliography. This
wouldn't matter except that some specialists (myself included) think him
among the most consistently insightful and on-target analysts of Chinese
culture and politics.
Switching from references to events, we again find divergences. For
example, only Jaivin refers to the 1988 campus riots in which young
African men were attacked. In these incidents, some male Chinese
students--of the same Tiananmen generation that would soon do such
admirable things--lashed out against African males whose freer
lifestyles they envied. The rioters also expressed outrage at efforts by
the black exchange students to establish sexual liaisons with Chinese
women. That only Jaivin mentions these racist incidents is illustrative
of a general pattern. Zhao criticizes the Tiananmen generation for
strategic mistakes, factionalism and political immaturity but otherwise
veers toward hagiography. Jaivin takes a warts-and-all approach to her
heroes. Hou gets chided for egotism and sexism, and the students for
their tendency to be elitist (toward workers) and antiforeign (on
occasion even toward Westerners).
Surprisingly, given Jaivin's greater fascination with pop culture, among
the many events that she ignores but that Zhao mentions is the Jan and
Dean concert fracas. I was glad to see Zhao allude to this November 1986
event (few analysts of 1989 have), but found his comments problematic.
He states that demonstrations began in Shanghai "as a protest against
the arrest and beating of students after many students danced on the
stage" with the surf-rock band. Soon, the movement's focus shifted to
"democracy and other issues," Zhao continues, when news arrived of
campus unrest in Hefei (where Fang Lizhi taught). The protests there
were triggered by complaints about cafeteria food and manipulated local
elections. This is accurate but leaves out a significant twist: The buzz
around Shanghai campuses had a class-related dimension. Students
complained that concert security guards had treated their classmates
like mere "workers," not intellectuals-in-the-making, the flower of
China's youth. And while this sort of elitism was tempered a bit during
the 1989 mass movement, it never disappeared.
In the end, though, where Jaivin and Zhao really part company has to do
with something more basic than choices about whom to cite or even how
critical to be of activists. It comes from the fact that only one
(Jaivin) leaves space for magic. Zhao is influenced by a recent (and
welcome) development in social movement theory: a commitment to paying
more attention to emotion. And yet, in his hands, this emotional turn
amounts to only a minor shift in emphasis. It is as though, to him, a
sense of disgust or feelings of pride can be factored into existing
equations quite easily, without disrupting a basic approach that relies
heavily on assessing structural variables, the sway of formal ideologies
and rational calculations of risk.
In Jaivin's book, magic--of varying sorts--figures centrally. Even the
book's title is a nod toward the magical, since the "Monkey" in it
refers to the most famous trickster character in Chinese culture, the
mischief-loving hero of the novel Journey From the West, with
whom Hou apparently identifies. A major characteristic of Monkey (in the
novel) and Hou (in Jaivin's biography) is an ability to transform
himself and contribute to the transformation of others--something often
associated with spells of enchantment.
When it comes to the magical aspects of Tiananmen, Jaivin stresses the
"magnetic pull" (Barmé's term) that the square exerted. And she
emphasizes that the 1989 movement was full of unexpected developments
that perplexed even those who knew Chinese politics intimately. In
addition, she gives a good sense of how often people did peculiar,
seemingly contradictory things. For example, she writes that Hou was
convinced by late May that the students should leave the square before
the regime cleared it by force. Only by living on could they build on
what they had accomplished and continue to work to change China, he
felt, as did many others. And yet, Hou flew to Hong Kong, even though he
knew the funds raised by the concert there would help the students
extend their occupation of the square. He could never explain why he did
this, and I doubt any "model" can do justice to his choice. Moreover,
Hou was not the only one to find himself doing inexplicable things as
magic moments followed one another at a dizzying speed that spring.
Those who know little about Tiananmen can learn more from Zhao than from
Jaivin (even if they find her more fun to read). And specialists will
come away from his book with more new data. In the end, though, I think
Jaivin gets closer to the heart of 1989. I say this in part because I
agree with her on several points (the role of nationalism, for example).
But my main reason for preferring her book is my conviction that with
Tiananmen--and perhaps many mass movements--you have to take seriously
not just structures and calculations of interest but also passion and
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With over 100,000 members in college and university chapters, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was the largest and most significant of the 1960s New Left organizations in the United States. While its history has been told before in a few well-known titles--Kirkpatrick Sale's SDS, James Miller's "Democracy Is in the Streets," Todd Gitlin's The Sixties and Thomas Powers's Diana among them--SDS is finally getting visual treatment as well with Helen Garvy's intriguing film Rebels With a Cause.
Garvy, a former assistant national secretary of SDS, reveals an insider's history of the organization with her film, built around the voices of twenty-eight of its leading activists, including Tom Hayden, Carl Oglesby, Casey Hayden and Bernardine Dohrn. And despite a sparse use of visual images, narration and music, Garvy has created an affecting picture. She avoids the "talking heads" danger inherent in documentary technique through tight editing--one interviewee picks up right where another leaves off. The effect is that of a seamless and compelling narration to the unfolding history and issues.
While other films about the '60s capture the energy and excitement of student rebellion with footage of protests and confrontation, this one captures the thought that went into the activism. It is the best film record we have of the intellectual motivations of the New Left in the United States.
The SDS story as Garvy tells it begins with its founding in 1960 as an organization concerned with racism, poverty, democratization of American society, the cold war and the danger of nuclear confrontation. SDS sought to identify itself with the left but avoid the traditional leftist pitfalls of sectarianism and dogmatism. The Port Huron Statement, drafted two years later by Tom Hayden, began with an expression of the generational anxieties to which SDS was responding: "We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit."
Despite the great concerns and ambitions of its founders, SDS was at first nothing more than a loose network of activist friends on a few college campuses (Michigan and Swarthmore, in particular) and in New York City. Then the contacts began to expand; I first heard about SDS in 1963 as a freshman at the University of Oklahoma, where we were concerned with ending both segregation in the surrounding community and compulsory ROTC on campus.
The most important initial organizing thrust of SDS was to serve as a Northern student adjunct to the Southern civil rights movement. But it quickly moved from supporting the Southern struggle to attempting to spark parallel struggles in the North. Through its Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP) the organization embarked on a series of ambitious community organizing campaigns in nine Northern cities with the avowed aim of creating an interracial movement of the poor. "We were very serious organizers," Sharon Jeffrey says in the film. "We intended to change the world." Within a couple of years, though, the escalating Vietnam War began to divert the energies of SDS away from its domestic community-organizing agenda. The ERAP began to wither, as did a number of civil rights projects in the South.
Nineteen sixty-five was a critical year in this transition. On April 17 SDS held the first March on Washington to protest US intervention in Vietnam. Exceeding all expectations, 25,000 people participated. Then more than 100,000 took part in the October 15 International Days of Protest and the November 27 second March on Washington sponsored by SDS and a range of other organizations. The number of SDS chapters on campuses multiplied from a few dozen to well over a hundred. Thousands of new members joined up. National and international media descended upon the Chicago national office, where I was working at the time, thinking that they had located the epicenter of the antiwar movement. In reality, by this time, SDS was just one of many organizations responding to a groundswell of opposition to the war.
The war was the new reality. At this time, SDS was actively struggling against America's foreign policy as well as its racial and economic policies at home. Then, in December 1965, Casey Hayden and Mary King, both highly regarded organizers and informal leaders from the civil rights movement, opened up yet another front. They circulated a letter, titled "Sex and Caste," that called upon women in SDS (and the movement in general) to initiate dialogues over "the problems between men and women." This call added gender to the inequalities of race and class that the organization sought to redress. It also marked the beginning of women's activism in the movement.
For the next four years, SDS played a prominent role in the growth of a freewheeling and militant new radicalism. But the movement defied any kind of central control, and a succession of national SDS leaders struggled to establish a clear role for the organization.
An initially small faction dominated by the Progressive Labor Party (PL), a pro-China splinter from the Communist Party, made inroads into SDS year by year, and its opponents among the national leadership grew increasingly rattled as they sought to fashion nonsectarian alternatives to PL's brand of Marxism-Leninism. The 1969 SDS convention in Chicago broke into warring factions--one controlled by PL, another by the emergent Weather Underground and others, including the Revolutionary Youth Movement. The Weather faction controlled the national SDS office until early 1970, then closed it down before going underground. That marked the formal end of the organization.
In many ways SDS succumbed to the very sectarianism that it had sought to avoid. "There was a process of one-upmanship on rhetoric," Bob Ross says, "that eventually one-upped us right out of touch with either students or the mass of the people."
Most of the tendencies of the radical politics of the seventies, including clandestine guerrilla organizations and the attempts to build Marxist-Leninist parties, can be traced from the breakup of SDS. Some members, however, came out of SDS committed to electoral politics and moving the Democratic Party to the left. A significant number also continued to pursue grassroots organizing strategies.
Although the SDS name continued to be employed by PL for several years, it was not the same organization and has never been recognized as such by original SDS activists. Consequently, Garvy does not include the PL "SDS" in her treatment. However, she does describe the Weather Underground experience, since its leading activists had roots in SDS. A number of these, including Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers and Cathy Wilkerson, speak in the film.
Garvy treads cautiously in this part of Rebels. Since the Weather campaign of terrorism continues to be an issue of sore dispute among SDS veterans, Garvy tells two sides of this story. She includes both a point-blank denunciation of the Weathermen as unrepresentative of the movement by former SDS president Todd Gitlin and a sympathetic interpretation--that the Weather tactics grew out of frustration with the failure of large-scale marches and other nonviolent tactics to stop the war. "In some ways," Jane Adams says, "I felt that they were my agent despite the fact that I didn't agree with them. I could fully understand the frustration out of which their rage came."
But not all of SDS's long-term survival problems were due to its internal dynamics. Documents released through the Freedom of Information Act confirm what was widely suspected then: The FBI and other government agencies kept close tabs on SDS and disrupted its activities through the FBI counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO). The full extent to which government agencies contributed to destroying the organization's effectiveness remains unknown. There are still-unreleased files, and, as is typical, much of the content of the released material is blacked out.
Garvy situates SDS as a phenomenon of homegrown radicalism in the great tradition of American grassroots democratic movements. What she chooses not to show is that SDS was also a phenomenon of the American left.
SDS was as much an outgrowth of, and entangled in, the left-wing political tradition as it was a spontaneous response to issues of the time. A number of its original activists came from left-wing, including Communist, families. The organization began as the student affiliate of the cold war social-democratic League for Industrial Democracy (LID), which had a long history of intraleft warfare against Communism.
The LID parentage proved increasingly problematic as SDS got older, especially as the Vietnam War became a major issue. (Leading members of LID supported the war.) The final straw that broke the relationship came at the 1965 national convention when SDS voted to remove a clause in its constitution that barred Communists from membership. SDS's "anti-anti-Communist" stance could not be tolerated by the profoundly anti-Communist LID, and a formal separation was negotiated a couple of months later.
Throughout its history, SDS saw itself as an alternative to the traditional left-wing Trotskyist, Maoist and Soviet-aligned groups, which it dismissed as sectarian and largely irrelevant to the nation's political life. (It was in SDS that I learned the difference between an "-ist" and an "-ite." You used the former for polite descriptions, the latter for ideological enemies.) Nevertheless, it had both to struggle with those groups and to participate with them in coalition activities. Thus, historical events of the left, from the split between communists and social democrats to the Sino-Soviet split (via the PL), contributed to creating the organizational environment in which SDS functioned.
Garvy can be forgiven for leaving out this part of the story in the interest of producing a film for wide consumption--how many ordinary people would want to sit through hearing SDS veterans onscreen reminiscing about their differences with Trotskyism or other leftist tendencies? Still, those differences did make up a part of the nitty-gritty struggles of the day and were a significant part of SDS history.
Rebels With a Cause can best be described as oral history in the form of a film. As such it is a faithful record--without the left-wing context--of that part of the 1960s movement. It is especially valuable as an antidote to the cynical interpretations that dismiss the 1960s activists as either misguided idealists or hedonists consumed with sex, drugs and rock and roll. But beyond establishing an accurate record, the film's contribution is its transmission of historical memory to later generations. It is an especially valuable resource for current activists who wish to link their struggles to those of the recent past.
I was therefore curious to know what this generation of students, who had not been born when the 1960s movement took place, would think of Garvy's film. There had been no overt censorship to prevent transmittal of the memory. But would other mechanisms keep students from knowing this history? Would they consider the events to be too remotely in the past to have any relevance to their lives?
I showed Rebels With a Cause at the university where I teach--Eastern Connecticut State, a working-class campus not at all known for student activism. As one might expect, reactions and interests varied. What I was most struck by was that while all the students had heard of the civil rights movement, many had not heard of the antiwar movement.
The media and schools have enshrined the civil rights movement, as they should, as a good example of a social movement in American history. The antiwar movement is another matter. It is largely ignored by the media and schools because it is still controversial--both in terms of whether citizens should have protested that war and, most important, for the "dangerous" example it set for how citizens might respond to present and future wars engaged in by this country.
In Rebels With a Cause Helen Garvy has given us a resource for keeping alive the radical memory of such dangerous examples and dreams in American history.
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