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Excerpted from "The Legacy of Tiananmen Square" by Michel Cormier (Goose Lane Editions, 2013)


The Montréal Review, April 2013


"The Legacy of Tiananmen Square" by Michel Cormier, translated by Jonathan Kaplansky (Goose Lane Editions, 2013)

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“Read this book if you want to understand why the Tiananmen Square crackdown still matters almost 25 years later and why the struggle for democracy continues.”

—Mark MacKinnon, Beijing bureau chief, The Globe and Mail, author of The New Cold War


More than twenty years later, the legacy of Tiananmen Square remains, an unsolved problem. The prominent names in the struggle, such as Wang Juntao, the mentor of the student leaders, or Wang Dan, leader of the Tiananmen student movement, live for the most part in exile in the United States, Europe, Hong Kong, or Taiwan. Their voices, for all practical purposes, have been stilled. In continental China, the struggle for democratization only survives underground. Any discussion on the country's political future outside the framework of the Communist Party is severely repressed. In such a context, what remains of the democratic ideal in which so many Chinese believed during the spring of 1989? What do they think today of their battle and of the prospects for democratization of a China that managed to carry out one of the most spectacular economic U-turns in history while officially staying the course of its unfinished socialist revolution? What are China's real prospects for democratization at a time when democracy has such bad press, given the parody it has become in the former USSR and the difficulties experienced by the West in making democratic reforms take hold in Iraq and Afghanistan? Should the struggle for democracy still be a priority for Chinese reformers, or must they first work at building a civil society and a rule of law capable of making democracy effective if and when it finally takes hold? These are questions that inhabit the daily lives of the exiled veterans of the Tiananmen movement and of those who still fight for political reform in China.

Today, the term Tiananmen Square remains a powerful symbol whose meaning varies diametrically depending on Western or Chinese points of view. For a good part of the international community, Tiananmen Square represents the symbol of a regime that chose to sacrifice the prime of its youth rather than accept change. The iconic image of a young man standing in the way of a line of tanks in the days following the massacre now appears for Westerners alongside scenes such as that of the Prague Spring in the gallery of pictures of twentieth-century Communist repression. But Tiananmen Square is also the battle for the triumph of liberal democracy, the inevitability of which many thinkers, especially in the United States, predicted with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet empire. Today, Tiananmen Square is still to a large extent the prism through which the West sees China. When Western leaders travel to Beijing and mention China's human rights record in the presence of Chinese leaders, the unfinished business of Tiananmen Square is perceptible, both as a kind of uneasiness and remorse. The fact that the West keeps repeating the mantra that the market economy will bring about China's democratization implicitly refers to the unresolved issue of Tiananmen Square.

Conversely, for China and its leaders, Tiananmen Square remains both a trauma and a taboo. The lesson Communist leaders learned from it is that opening the door to political reforms outside the limited framework of the party threatens the regime's very survival. To understand the fear that the prospect of democratization inspires in them, we have to return to the context that led to the events of Tiananmen Square.

In the 1980s, Mao's successor, Deng Xiaoping, had not only begun economic liberalization of the country but also allowed extensive discussion of the political reforms that were to accompany the transition to a market economy. This unexpected opening spawned discussion groups, journals, and magazines, and a committee was even set up to study various reform scenarios within the government. When the students took to the streets and occupied Tiananmen Square, their initial aim was to show support for Zhao Ziyang, the reformist general secretary who was fighting a conservative backlash within the politburo. The Tiananmen Papers, published in 2001 in the United States by two renowned American sinologists, Andrew Nathan and Perry Link, tells the story of the deep divisions within the Chinese leadership during the spring of 1989. 1 The book consists of a series of reports, transcripts, and accounts of conversations from the highest spheres of the Communist regime smuggled out of China after the massacre. They allow the reader to follow the day-to-day discussions, divisions, and positions of the government throughout the spring of 1989 and up to the days following the military intervention that put an end to the student protest.

These papers reveal the extent to which Deng Xiaoping was torn between the inclination to let the students express themselves and the reflex to quell their demonstrations. In the end, the old revolutionary could not come to terms with the idea that these youths, with the support of a significant portion of the population, could question not only the heritage of the Communist revolution but also, to some extent, the legitimacy of the regime.

In the fateful weeks leading to the bloody outcome of Tiananmen Square, Wang Juntao believed he was in a position to find a compromise between the students and the government and manufacture an agreement that would allow Chinese leaders to save face and the demonstrators to return home with their heads held high. At the time, Wang Juntao was one of the rising intellectual stars in China but also acted as an informal link to the reformist wing of the Communist leadership. Wang owed his notoriety to the fact that he had gone to prison for taking part in demonstrations commemorating the death of Zhou Enlai in 1976. He was only sixteen at the time. With his liberation and consequent rehabilitation, he became a symbol in China. To show how ready it was to make way for the reformers and victims of the purges of the Mao era, the new leadership of the party appointed Wang to the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League. Wang, however, continued to act in many capacities. In 1978 he became one of the most active but also moderate activists of the Democracy Wall. He launched, with others, the journal Beijing Spring , a scarcely veiled reference to the Prague Spring. People who contributed to it did not directly challenge the power of the Communist Party but campaigned for socialism with a human face. 2 They called for respecting the rights guaranteed by the constitution, particularly freedom of the press, an essential condition for keeping the party on the straight and narrow.

Wang Juntao was not only the most famous of the activists for democracy but also, with his friend and partner Chen Zeming, one of the few who had succeeded in business. The two embodied the spirit of the times when people could have ideas and make money, and even make money with ideas. They owned their own research institute and the first private polling firm in China. Chen used the profits he made with two correspondence course schools to buy, together with Wang, an economic research institute connected to the Academy of Sciences. They renamed it the Beijing Social and Economic Sciences Research Institute. This privatization of knowledge and analysis was a first in China. They carried out studies for public or private clients, published books, and conducted opinion polls on subjects as sensitive as the political attitudes of the Chinese. Starting in 1988, they also published a review that became very popular with young Chinese in which they tackled the themes of democracy and reform. According to Wang Juntao, the fact that their institute was financially independent from the government was crucial. “Since we owned a business, no one could control what we published: so we had complete freedom of expression.” Their institute rapidly became the crossroads for many reform proposals and ensured that Wang Juntao and Chen Zeming played a key role in the reformist discussion that swept over China at the end of the 1980s.

In contrast with others, who wanted to carry out a French-style revolution, Wang and Chen dreamed of a British-style transition, “where we would come to a new arrangement with the king; we weren't interested in drastic change,” says Wang Juntao. In their opinion, for democracy to work, it had to be supported by a civil society, institutions, and a rule of law. Demanding democracy without first laying the groundwork for it to function would lead to failure. In the course of their discussions, Wang and Chen reached an important observation: they wanted to be agents of change, not simply political agitators. To do so, they had to propose practical, pragmatic ideas on the reforms and cultivate alliances outside, but above all, inside the government. “If you want to have influence in China,” says Wang Juntao, “you must have a network inside the system and be connected to independent groups outside the government. That was our strategy.”

Wang and Chen worked at gathering together all those who wanted to change China: the intellectuals, students, journalists, and new entrepreneurs interested in politics. They organized seminars and published articles and books, all with the goal of creating a hub of reform in Chinese society. “Our intention was to build a political base for change,” says Wang. “To bring together all the independent thinkers and create public opinion in China.” Ideally, they would have liked to establish a political party, but that was impossible in Deng's China. For want of anything better, Wang said, their institute became a kind of informal party. Considering his notoriety, it is completely natural that Wang Juntao found himself in the heart of the events of Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989. He quickly became, with his friend Chen Zeming, one of the éminences grises of the student movement. But he also had close ties with reformers inside the government, notably Bao Tong, the assistant of General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, who led the committee on political reform appointed by Deng Xiaoping.

In the beginning, there was something festive about the demonstrations. Up to a million people would assemble in Tiananmen Square. But Wang Juntao knew that the spontaneity of the student movement was also his Achilles heel and that the hard-liners around Deng Xiaoping would not tolerate such an affront forever. “The problem with the student leaders,” he told me, “was that they didn't have specific demands that could have led to a negotiated compromise. They demanded more transparency from the government, the end of corruption, and a vague idea of democracy. I knew then that negotiation was basically impossible. Reformists inside the government said so to me: ‘But what do they want? Make a list, then we can have a discussion.' That had become impossible.”

At the end of May, the situation became critical. General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, the leader of the reformist camp, was arrested. Li Peng, the prime minister and new strongman of the regime, had just proclaimed martial law. Soldiers began to move into the outskirts of the capital. Wang Juntao knew that little time remained to defuse the crisis. But he also knew that the students themselves were divided. The moderate wing, represented by Wang Dan, a young history student who knew how to stir up crowds, wanted to free Tiananmen Square and avoid military intervention. He believed that the students had won a moral victory and to continue the demonstrations would jeopardize whatever gains they had made. With dozens of other students he had staged a hunger strike that had crystallized Chinese opinion in their favour. The more radical wing of the movement, however, refused to withdraw.

Wang Juntao was also very much aware it would be impossible to convince the hundreds of thousands of students who had been demonstrating for a month in Tiananmen Square to go home without winning concessions from the government. They were intoxicated by their struggle, by the support of the people, and by the notoriety they had outside China. On the morning of May 27, Wang Juntao, his colleague Chen Zeming, and other liberals met with the student leaders. They thought they'd found a way out of the crisis. They suggested that the students adopt a resolution demanding a special session of the People's Congress, the Chinese parliament that meets once a year. Congress had the power to revoke the martial law that had just been imposed and that was responsible for a significant escalation of tension. Wang and Chen hoped that this would allow for a return to calm and for a better climate for negotiation. In exchange, the demonstrators would agree to free Tiananmen Square. After long discussions, Chai Ling, the representative of the radical wing of the student movement, finally agreed to their proposal. Wang Juntao was relieved; the worst, he believed, had been avoided. Chai Ling said she would personally take care of informing the demonstrators of the decision. But once in Tiananmen Square, she could not bring herself to announce the end of the battle. She rallied those who demanded pursuing the struggle to the end. One week later, Deng Xiaoping gave the order to the military to put an end to the demonstrations. Wang Juntao became an outlaw; his photo was put up in public places as one of the most wanted men in China.

Translated by Jonathan Kaplansky


Michel Cormier is the Executive Director of News and Current Affairs at Radio-Canada. He was the CBC and Radio-Canada correspondent in Moscow and Paris and, from 2006 to 2010, in Beijing, where he covered events such as the Sichuan earthquake and the 2008 Olympics and followed China's meteoric rise to economic superpower. Cormier has also reported on major events in Europe, the war in Afghanistan and the deaths of Yasser Arafat and Pope John Paul II. His coverage of the toppling of Eduard Schevardnadze in Georgia resulted in a Gemini-award nomination. Cormier is the author of four books, including La Russie des illusions, which was shortlisted for the Governor-General's Award for non-fiction in 2007. He has also won both the Anick and Judith-Jasmin journalism awards. His latest book, The Legacy of Tiananmen Square, was originally published in French as Les héritiers de Tiananmen.


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