China: 10 Years After Tiananmen FREE    Join the HRW Mailing List 
Wang Juntao, Reformist Researcher

Wang Juntao was first jailed in 1976 at the age of sixteen for participating in protests against the Gang of Four. He stayed active in reform politics, including the Democracy Wall Movement (1979-81), while a student in the physics department at Beijing University. As a co-founder of the Beijing Social and Economic Research Institute, China's first private and unofficial research institute, Wang helped set up a network of institutes and acted as deputy editor of Economics Weekly, the institute's chief publication. Captured in late October 1989, Wang was sentenced in February 1991 to a thirteen-year prison term as a "black hand" of the democracy movement. He came to the U.S. in 1994.

"The 1989 movement was the only time in the twentieth century, and maybe in all of Chinese history, when democratic reforms could have been peacefully realized."

"There is no question of its impact, both over where China has moved over the past ten years and over the foreseeable future. The very fact that it mobilized the entire country means it was a success, and the fact that it happened has prepared Chinese people for the current struggle."

"For years, China's leaders asked people to suffer for Communism. As a result of the movement, Communist ideology lost legitimacy, and that loss triggered all other changes in the political environment. It also determined which players stayed in the political game."

"Deng Xiaoping fast-tracked economic development so that the Communist Party could retain power... But if now the Party was telling people that they would have greater opportunities to change their own conditions and find their own paths to happiness, it had to deliver -- and do so quickly."

Wang added that Deng undertook his famous 1992 "southern tour" to silence the still powerful opposition and demonstrate to the public his commitment to economic reform. The potent symbol he chose was a public ceremony in which the military took an oath guaranteeing the reforms.

"When the Party lost its legitimacy, so did the liberal coterie of seasoned communist leaders and respected supporters who had sincerely believed that socialist reform would save China. In 1989, it was this generation of communists who controlled all fields in China."

Wang listed four outcomes of the changed political landscape that he believed boded well for a democratic future in China. "First, an independent civil society is emerging because the government doesn't have the resources to deliver on its economic promises. Second, the Party has eased up on control in a few narrow areas: village elections, selection of leaders of professional and non-governmental organizations, and approval of candidates for provincial-level people's congresses. Third, journalists have more scope to expose corruption. And finally, we now have a more formal and open opposition movement that emerged first overseas and by 1996 and 1997 in China."

He said two distinct groups have emerged to challenge the government, one represented by those outside the official system, such as the China Democracy Party and a variety of worker-related units; the second formed by those formerly on the margins of the official system, such as Fang Jue and China Development Union head Peng Ming, serving an eighteen-month term on the trumped up charge of visiting a prostitute.

"But whether the movement has developed in the right direction is another question altogether. The good side is that the focus on civil and political rights in line with international standards has meant support from the international community and thus some space to dissidents to expand their understanding and ideas. The downside is that the abstract concepts involved are unfamiliar to many Chinese people who are much more concerned with economic and social issues such as unemployment."

He said Chinese people need to better understand what human rights are and how to defend against infringements of them. The more the issues are framed in concrete terms, the more people will understand that human rights violations affect more than a handful of dissidents.

"The major lesson from Tiananmen is that you have to know how to negotiate and when to compromise. In 1989, the students shouldn't have rejected serious negotiations with the government. Maybe they wouldn't have if the leadership hadn't changed so often and there hadn't been so many divisions among them. But part of the failure lies with the intellectuals who gave conflicting advice to the students in their efforts to help."

"Zhao Ziyang wanted to seize the opportunity for political reform, and he would have negotiated," Wang said. Zhao had already embarked on research on the possibilities of political reform. Bao Tong, Zhao's key aide and a high official in his own right, Chen Yizi, and Yan Jiaqi headed the effort. On May 3, 1989, a full month before the crackdown, Zhao declared that negotiations would be conducted under the principles of democracy and law. He was given three days to enlist student support for the effort. But students rejected out of hand the key government demand that they clear the square before Mikhail Gorbachev's visit on May.

"Party leaders feared that if they backed off even one step, the students would take advantage of them," Wang said.

"The other lesson is that if you want to bring about change, you have to narrow your focus. Students can speak out for the entire body of international rights, but workers need to concentrate on anti-corruption efforts and certain economic rights. Peasants have to stand up for their right not to be overlooked and to be given a fair share of economic opportunities. Business leaders must insist on their right to make a profit."

"I've been working on democracy for more than twenty years. If 1989 taught me one thing, it was what a commitment to democracy entails. Now I've got the arguments to try and convince the Chinese population of the value of a democratic government.