China: 10 Years After Tiananmen FREE    Join the HRW Mailing List 
Tang Boqiao, Hunan Student Leader

Tang Boqiao was a leader of the student movement in Hunan province in 1989.

"The 1989 democracy movement and the June 4 crackdown cut off any meaningful movement toward political change." Before 1989, he pointed out, there was official public discussion of political reform, including separation of the powers of government and Party, and the scope of social research widened. If the Tiananmen Square protests had not taken place, he believes, men such as Zhao Ziyang, the reformist premier; Bao Tong, his chief aide and architect of many of his reforms; and Chen Yizi, an advocate of rural reform, might have prevailed. Instead, he said, the government was able to identify the sources of dissent and crack down on them. As a result, Jiang Zemin was able to consolidate his power within the Party, the government, and the military.

While Tang agrees that Chinese people today enjoy personal liberties they lacked ten years ago, such as the right to relocate or choose a job, he argues that granting those liberties was the only way China's leaders could preserve their own power. As a result of the 1989 movement, many Chinese realized that their government lacked absolute control and was vulnerable to pressure. The government, in turn, realized its citizens would continue to demand their rights and also recognized that another movement could topple the entire structure. The result was an increase in personal freedom without any progress on political rights, despite the efforts of a dissenting minority.

The head of the now-banned China Development Union is jailed because the Party could not tolerate the rapid expansion of an organization devoted to social concerns that the Party considered its prerogative. The Chinese Democratic Party was anathema to the Chinese Communist Party from the beginning. In short, Tang said, there is still no right to explore the negative aspects of Chinese society and no right to organized dissent.

Tang said that political reform was not an initial concern for the student protestors. Corruption was the major issue, followed closely by the social inequities encapsulated in the privileges of the "princelings," the sons and daughters of officials. Students also wanted to see deposed Communist Party secretary Hu Yaobang rehabilitated, and increased benefits for intellectuals. It was only in the last stages of the movement that the issues of democracy and human rights emerged, and even then only in the most general terms.

Students were advocating for the right to freely associate on campus and to choose their own leadership. Free expression became more of an issue as intellectuals joined the movement, but no one was calling for a multi-party system.

Tang says in retrospect, he would have advocated for more specific goals such as free elections, and would have worked to help the general public better understand the complications of each goal. In 1989, he said, people had few models and little to learn from. He has learned much over the last ten years and would now urge people to oppose the government's "rule by law" instead of "rule of law." He argues that the regulations in force in China are nothing but the government's interpretation of the law, used to control the populace and tell it what it cannot do. Instead people should be made aware that they have fundamental human rights and can and should challenge the government in defense of those rights.

Furthermore, Tang would urge people to think strategically, having learned from 1989 when to compromise and when to back down. He said in Hunan, the distance from Beijing permitted more innovation than the Beijing students showed, including more overt intellectual support, greater student/worker cooperation, and better tactical strategizing. The lessons were useful for furthering democracy and human rights goals. But Hunan activists also paid a price. At least fifty remain jailed and hundreds more have had their educational opportunities and careers cut off.

Speaking of himself, Tang said in 1989 he was about to graduate from college with three good government jobs to choose from. He would have been successful, he believes, at any one. Instead, in exile in the U.S., he thinks of nothing but the movement. Of course, he said, he longs to return home.