Tiananmen Square crackdown

1989 student leaders, intellectuals still divided over China's path to democracy

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 June, 2014, 8:44am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 June, 2014, 3:16pm

After a quarter of a century, figures who once took the centre stage of Tiananmen Square in 1989’s student movement have their own reflection on democracy they dreamt for China.

Wang Dan and Wuer Kaixi, then student leaders at Tiananmen Square and now living in Taiwan, showed up this March at the island’s legislature chamber occupied by students. The students were protesting Taipei’s handling of a service trade pact with Beijing.

Wang, now teaching humanities and social and political sciences at two of Taiwan’s universities, said Taipei’s protest reflects the growing desire for a so-called fifth right – the civic right of every individual – to prevent democracy from being damaged if the four pillars of democracy – political parties, the parliament, elections and the media – fail to uphold their roles.

“Development of individual civic rights is thus highly important to oversee if any areas of those systems have gone wrong,” he noted.

Watch: Wang Dan: China lost legitimacy after Tiananmen

For Zhou Duo, one of the four intellectuals who launched a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square on the eve of the crackdown, and later negotiated with the troops to allow students leaving the square on June 4, said street movements will not help promote democracy on the mainland – for fear that it could easily lead to populist figures coming into power.

Zhou, who remains living on the mainland, said democracy should develop gradually there. The rule of law and the power of the constitution should be strengthened first to ensure basic individual freedoms, and restrict the power of the ruling authority.

“Civil society in China is not fully developed, and under such conditions, mass movements will easily result in an uncontrollable and radical situation that no one can stop,” he said. “It will become a tyranny by the majority of people and dangerous.”

Efforts should be taken to consolidate the “middle-wing” political camp, making radical thoughts and believes sidelined.

Despite recent arrests of dissidents on the mainland, including veteran journalist Gao Yu and rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, Wuer Kaixi said he still believes that democracy can flourish on the mainland.

“This is what we call the darkest moment before the dawn – a popular phrase used by the Chinese Communist Party,” Wuer Kaixi said.

But political reform was more difficult now than in the past decade, Zhou said. Corruption is more rampant, and elites who are capable of reform are deviating themselves from the authority.

“There is also no consensus on reform. Not many people support reform, there is more suspicion of it and opposition to it.”

Still, Zhou believes the current leadership is determined to carry out reform, as shown by the massive anti-corruption campaign.