A Student Leader Remembers

Wang Dan, a student leader in the 1989 democracy movement in China, shares with CBS.com his reflections on the movement, the Tiananmen Square massacre, and its aftermath. After the crackdown, Dan was labeled number one on the Chinese government's most-wanted list. He spent more than seven years in prison and was released on medical parole in April 1998. Upon his release, he was immediately exiled to the United States. He is currently a student at Harvard University. This article by Dan will be published in the Spring issue of the Harvard Asia Quarterly.

By Wang Dan
Translated by Victor Shih

Every political and social movement occurs under specific milieu and social environment and hence manifests itself in different manners. Nevertheless, different political and social movements in the end have some common traits. For example, they are all a collective action and all aim to express opinions. The student movement and democracy movement that occurred on mainland China in 1989 has its own special aspects. More importantly, however, it was an unavoidable social conflict in the midst of social transition process in China.

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The 1989 Democracy Movement did not constitute the beginning of China's journey toward democracy but a mark of progress on that journey. The history of the Chinese people's struggle for democracy and freedom is at least one hundred years old, while large-scale resistance involving the people has not stopped since the May 4th Movement.

However, this history also clearly demonstrates the problem of the interconnection and the lack of distinction between the authority of the state and the authority of society. Past democracy movements in China always focused on governmental authority, risked the expansion of authority to achieve the goal of promoting democrac, or petitioned the government in hopes of triggering a top-down reform. As a result, past movements have neglected the fact that the construction of the civil society can affect the autonomy of the movement itself.

The 1989 Democracy Movement was a turning point. Before 1989, disparate elements of society, including students and intellectuals, held false notions of the government. They perceived an unprecedented relaxation of the political environment around 1988. In fact, it was precisely this fantasy which prompted the students to take to the streets. However, cruel reality soon shattered this fantasy.

The barbaric military suppression and the spilling of blood not only shocked many but also prompted others into re-evaluation: how could a government which once had exhibited some degree of enlightenment transform overnight into such horrific evil? The suppression clearly did not stem from the personal problem of a few Communist leaders. It also could not be completely explained by the history of totalitarianism. The suppression prompted the younger generation of intellectuals to begin questioning the basic element of authority.

With the development of the market economy in the 1990s, sprouts of civil society began to appear in China. As large numbers of intellectuals enter the private sector, various segments of society generally hold the capitalist view of work and compensation. While this is not an ideal situation for society, an encouraging phenomenon manifests itself behind the foreground of capitalism: state and society are increasingly separated.

Relative to the state, the autonomy of society is constantly increasing. While people in general exhibit disinterestedness toward politics, it is in fact a tactic to separate oneself from the government and monitor the government. This is absolutely an encouraging sign. This means that the progress of Chinese democracy can now have a stronger, more realistic foundation. The 1989 Democracy Movement was the beginning of this foundation. Without the 1989 Democracy Movement, we would not have escaped as quickly from our blind belief in authority. We could have still been under the spell of government authority.

Wang Dan

As for myself, the 1989 Democracy Movement has become an emotional burden in my heart (qingjie). It concentrated the idealism and passion of my youth and is the spiritual symbol of the 1980s. The open re-evaluation of the 1989 Democracy Movement in China is a goal that I cannot give up. At the same time, I also hope to extract lessons from 1989, which may direct my thinking about the future of China.

The 1989 Democracy Movement was a great democracy movement. I am honored and proud to have had an opportunity to actively take part in it. It has profoundly influenced my lifsince and will perhaps continue to affect my life. However, I also wish to descend from my high pedestal as quickly as possible. Neither a person nor a nation should be bogged down by a sort of emotional burden.

Finally, I would like to make clear that the true heroes of the 1989 Democracy Movement are those who sacrificed their lives. Their lives moved the whole world. It will also be their lives that move history.

Published with permission of the author and the Harvard Asia Quarterly. 1999 CBS Worldwide Corp. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed