Thursday, June 11, 2009

From May Fourth to June Fourth 從五四到六四

Last time we talked about the 90th anniversary of May Fourth Demonstration when I was in Taipei. In a blink, the 20th anniversary of the June Fourth Tiananmen Square Protest has already passed. For those who are familiar with the history of Chinese Communist Party, the founding of it in 1921 (by Chen DuXiu陳獨秀and Li DaZhao李大釗) was a direct result of the May Fourth movement. It is ironic that Chinese Communist Party who is known for advancing its political agenda using student’s sentiment and movements ended up being humiliated and challenged 70 years later on June Fourth by another student-led protest. I suppose this is another validation of the old saying “Live by the Sword, Die by the Sword”.

After the bloody crackdown of the June Fourth Protest at the Tiananmen Square, persecutions and arrests for those who were involved in the “anti-government” activities began across China. The most well-known nation-wide men-hunt was the so-called “21 Most-Wanted List” originated from Beijing City Security Department. Most of them were around 20 years old and all but one were university students. In the May 31th issue of World News Weekly世界周刊, a Chinese publication in America, there was an article by Feng ConDe封從德that provided an update of those individuals.

It is useful to look at some statistics based on that article. Out of these 21 “most-wanted”, 7 successfully escaped the country to France or U.S. via Hong Kong within the following 2 years after the protest. Out of these 7 escaped, two of them now reside in Taiwan and the rest are in U.S. The remaining 14 were arrested, jailed and harassed regularly and 7 of them were subsequently exiled or escaped to U.S. The other 7 are still in China and at least one of them has openly declared that he does not wish to leave China. A majority of these 21 now are engaged in various fields ranging from science/technology to financial investments. While they continue to believe in the cause, only few of them appear to be able to devote significant amount of time or energy to stay active with it. It is also not clear despite the press and reminders, there is much traction or momentum inside or outside China.

Will the June Fourth protests be like a comet: a shinning flash over the sky and then forgotten? Why does May Fourth Movement still get discussed and its impacts felt after 90 years while June Fourth already shown signs of aging at 20 year old?

Although in both cases many leaders and participants were elite college students and intellects, I see at least three significant differences.

The first is the scope: May Fourth demonstration is a historical moment that accelerated the critical examinations of political, cultural, social systems and underlying theory in response to the need for modernization of China. On the other hand, the agenda of June Fourth protests was mainly on the reform of the authoritarian political system, as Chinese Communist Party under Deng’s reign had begun reforms of its economic system since 1978. While political freedom and empowerment is inevitable with a successful economic reform (that empowers and incent individuals to increase the productions), there wasn’t any serious discussion or consensus for the reform of its political system. While the progressives were sympathetic to students’ frustrations and feelings, the demands were definitely seen by the hardliners as a direct challenge to the party authority and power. The confusions within both sides and escalations helped put the mass and hardliners on a collision course that ended with a bloody crackdown in name of maintaining stability.

The second is the environment: In early 20th century China, there was tremendous chaos and many competing factions as the country had just emerged from a revolution that ended thousands of years of monarchies. There were so much to be done with the systems and so little resources and experiences. This affords opportunities for the intellectuals, politicians, and warlords alike to develop diverse views and directions. In contrast, before June Fourth, Communist Party has ruled China for half a century began with a totalitarian system. There has been an extremely tight control of access and communications to information and ideas and very little room for intellectuals and students to thrive.

The third significant difference is the development of leaders. Many of the student leaders of May Fourth Movement had continued their work and studies abroad and in China in relevant fields such as philosophy, literature, language, laws, social and political science after the demonstration. Some went on to become leaders in academics, research institutions, and political parties. Most importantly, they have passed on their torches to next generations through teaching, writing and public debates for a historical task. In contrast, many of the leaders of June Fourth Protest appear to have ended up making a living like the rest of the world in a variety of fields. Their talents can clearly be seen, independent of what they had chosen to do. This result could be personal choice and interest. It could also be due to the difficulty in getting financial and moral supports to stay on the subjects.

The reality is we should not have unrealistic expectations for this group of brave and bright young people of the June Fourth as we admire their courage. Many of them have paid a tremendous price and still bear the burden of a dream that has yet to be realized. The more important question is where should this energy be directed at? It is too early to write the history of June Fourth protests. However the only way June Fourth will be remembered with more than a candlelight vigil annually decades from now is for the leaders and the supporters to return to the fundamental issue: to crystallize the ideals and show the ways for reform of the Chinese political system. It is not too late nor too early as China is becoming prosperous. That would be the best way to pay tributes to those who put their bodies and minds on the line.

Talk to you soon!


ian said...

From what I can tell, one thing about the June 4th protests is that China has attempted to erase all memory of the event by blocking any access to information about it, via censorship in print and on the Internet. People might talk about it in private, but not being able to (legally) read about it probably removes some amount of legitimacy, and it seems that memory of the event is fading from people's minds.

iFROG said...

Indeed. There are other reasons and possibilities as well. Five years ago, there was an excellent article on TIME Asia by Hannah Beech at the 15th anniversary of June Fourth. It noted the fading memory and relevancy by following the bifurcated paths of Wang Dan in exile and Wang Lichao in Beijing, Wang Dan's loyal cousin and close friend. One interesting comment by Hannah Beech was "Wang Lichao stands for all that China has achieved, Wang Dan for all that remains to be done". You can find that article at