Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Tiananmen Square remembered

By Jamie Loo
Panel reflects on 20th anniversary and future of political change in China.

By Jamie Loo
First Amendment reporter

EVANSTON— Unfurling a protest banner in Tiananmen Square is likely to put you on the other side of the law.

Without official approval from the Chinese government, public displays of dissent could land you in jail.

It’s one legacy the spring of 1989 left on China, when thousands of students, workers and Beijing residents converged on Tiananmen Square for several weeks to call for government reform and economic change. The protests culminated in a massacre on June 4, when the Chinese military used violent force to wound and kill civilians with guns and tanks. The actual death toll from the incident remains unknown and estimates range from hundreds to a few thousand.

Even as China grows in international status as an economic superpower, the Communist Party’s repressive control over citizens remains strong 20 years after the Tiananmen Square massacre. Northwestern University held a symposium this week to reflect on the impact of the historical event and whether political change is possible in China.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released a statement Wednesday urging Chinese authorities to openly examine the massacre and to provide a list of those who were killed, detained or missing. Clinton said the 20th anniversary is an opportunity for Chinese authorities to release people who are still in prison serving sentences in connection with the 1989 protests.

“We urge China to cease the harassment of participants in the demonstrations and begin dialogue with the family members of victims, including the Tiananmen Mothers,” she said. “China can honor the memory of that day by moving to give the rule of law, protection of internationally-recognized human rights, and democratic development the same priority as it has given to economic reform.”

Victor Shih, a Northwestern University assistant professor of political science, said Tiananmen Square showed the Chinese government that they needed to find less violent ways to suppress uprisings and dissent. New technology and training has allowed the government to be more effective in monitoring and repressing its citizens. In the past 20 years, Shih said the government has trained a variety of different police forces, which have a visible presence in Beijing around Tiananmen Square. Anti-riot gear, gases and rubber bullets are among the equipment that police forces now have at their disposal to suppress protests. Local agents are trained to contain uprisings at all costs, Shih said, sometimes begging protestors or buying them off. Even the most provincial capitals have their own Rapid Reaction People’s Armed Police Force, which can be deployed with equipment such as helicopters and armored personnel carriers any where in the province in 24 hours.

Although the Internet can be an avenue for more coordinated protest efforts, Shih said the government has also spent a lot of money on Internet censorship. He said the government can plant cookies in computers to monitor what Web sites people visit, track cell phone calls, and regulate Internet access.

“There’s always this technological arms race,” he said.

In the days leading up to anniversary, China blocked access to Web sites and news stories with references to Tiananmen Square, according to media reports. Twitter, a social networking site, blogs and other chat sites were also reportedly inaccessible to China’s residents.

Prior to and after the Tiananmen Square protests, government forces recorded mass incidents, which are protest gatherings of 50 to 100 or more people. Shih claims these mass incidents have been increasing, estimating that were a few thousand in the early 1990s and tens of thousands by the early 2000s. He said many of these protests happened in rural areas, ranging from peaceful protests to violent affairs such as the burning of a police station.

But it doesn’t matter how many protests are staged, Shih said, because the government has the ability to suppress them. Carrying out this repression, however, requires the cooperation of local agents, he said, which he envisions will become more difficult in the future. Although the government pays these local forces to do their bidding, Shih said local agents bear emotional and psychological costs from being hated by people in their communities. He said if there’s a “shock” in the system, such as a massive economic downturn things can change very quickly. At some point police forces won’t be willing to suppress protest any more, he said, which is what happened in places like eastern Europe when the Soviet Union was collapsing. In 1989 during the Tiananmen Square protests, Shih said many local officers refused to act because they didn’t want to shoot at people they knew personally.

Right now many things in China are tied to money, said University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor Ed Friedman. Broader economic freedom and more private space have provided an opportunity for Chinese citizens to be less concerned about political change in their day to day lives. Stefan Henning, visiting professor in Northwestern’s anthropology department, said most of the mass incidents in China today are centered on economic and quality of life issues, not democracy. He said as long as people’s lives are bearable these incidents will likely decrease and won’t necessarily lead to a call for democracy. Shih said if the government missteps­­--for example confiscating property and re-selling it to speculators--then mass protests may lead to political change.

Friedman said China wants to be seen as a moral power in the world but the nature of the authoritarian regime prevents this internationally. If democratization started in 1989, Friedman said China would probably be seen as a global leader today. Friedman feels the Tiananmen Square massacre has “constrained China’s rise” and has made other countries leery of it as the country’s economic power grows. It also affects diplomatic relations, Friedman said, because China is suspicious of all U.S. approaches at cooperation. For example, when President Barack Obama suggested that the two countries work on climate change, Friedman said the Chinese government reacted with concern that the U.S. may be trying to undermine China’s growth or embarrass it on the world stage.

Wang Dan, one of the key student leaders in the 1989 movement at Tiananmen Square, said before true political change can take place there needs to be a cultural change in the way Chinese citizens view nationalism and the communist party. To the younger generation, Wang said nationalism means the government shouldn’t be criticized. He said there’s not much of a separation between loving your country and the government. Friedman said the Chinese have a deep desire to be patriotic and to be on the government’s side. When the international community criticized China for its treatment of Tibetans last year, Friedman said many Chinese were angered and stood up for the Communist Party. He said many people feel the rise of China globally and economically is more important than democracy.

“There is a kind of nationalism which does not want to face up to the realities of China as just another state in a nasty world of nation states,” Friedman said.

There’s no telling how China’s political system will evolve, Friedman said, and it could turn into a global power with soft authoritarian rule like Singapore. He said the historical significance and memory of June 4, 1989 will be shaped by what direction China takes in the future. Wang said what happened within the Chinese government is one of the biggest missing pieces in the Tiananmen Square story. Although the recent publication of former Chinese general secretary Zhao Ziyang’s memoirs highlight some of the government’s internal struggles at that time, Wang said the government’s full story is still unknown.

The historical significance of Tiananmen Square has been lost on many of today’s youth in China. Abraham Wang, who was born in China and spent his childhood years there, said aside from elementary school rumors he didn’t learn about what happened at Tiananmen Square until he was in high school overseas. Wang, 25, said his generation has no collective memory of the incident and some of his elementary school friends either don’t care about it or believe “it’s some kind of conspiracy.” Because the government denies the massacre happened and public discussion about it isn’t allowed, he said he doesn’t blame his friends for feeling this way. Wang said he agrees that an economic crisis could change the way Chinese citizens view the government and political change.


Post a Comment

<< Home


Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Subscribe to
Posts [Atom]

About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

Powered by Blogger