Note: This short essay on the 1989 Tiananmen protests reflects the views and experiences of Qiao Collective members, including members whose parents were involved in the protests. Many of us are children of the “post-Tiananmen generation”—urban, educated Chinese who emigrated to the West in the wake of 1989. As such, we have spent our lives hearing stories of the protests, filtered both through our own families’ experiences and through the West’s distorted representation of the protests. This short reflection insists on understanding Tiananmen beyond the West’s hegemonic representations, which frequently erase the political subjectivity of Chinese people and reifies the universality of Western capitalist democracy. Far from the fairy tale of Tiananmen which affirms the position of the Western savior, the tragedy and complexity of June 4th must be remembered on Chinese terms.
For a more comprehensive account, we recommend consulting our Tiananmen protests reading list.
“What can we do to help China have democracy?”
This was the question Secretary of State Mike Pompeo posed to former Tiananmen student leaders during a closed 2020 meeting, held two days in advance of the 31st anniversary of June 4th, 1989. The previous year, the Department of State had issued an official press statement which “[honored] the heroic protest movement” and excoriated a Chinese state which “tolerates no dissent and abuses human rights whenever it serves its interests.”
Linking the Tiananmen protests to calls for “freedom and democracy around the world” which culminated in the fall of the Berlin Wall and the “end of communism” in Eastern Europe, Pompeo’s statement firmly placed June 4 as part of an anti-communist mythology designed to challenge the fundamental legitimacy of the Communist Party of China.
Pompeo’s rhetoric was not exceptional but instead part of a bipartisan, annual American ritual which wrings Chinese trauma and bloodshed to advance geopolitical aggression on China. Annual commemorations by media outlets and political figures spin a chauvinistic fairy tale of Chinese masses, calling out for regime change, being callously mowed down by PLA tanks and machine guns. It matters not that this simplistic account has been challenged by Western reporters, diplomats, and declassified cables—what matters is that this ahistorical rendering of the Tiananmen protests serves the Western agenda to undermine China’s socialist path.
The Tiananmen fairy tale is part of a Western discourse which renders Chinese people either as freedom fighters demanding Western-style capitalist democracy or as mute, agentless subjects oblivious to the machinations of their communist oppressors. In the case of the former, “dissidents” such as Chai Ling and Liu Xiaobo are rendered progressive icons rather than right-wing provocateurs who lusted after a “massacre” to “awaken the people” and called for “300 years” of colonialism to Westernize China, respectively. The latter framing is frequently rehearsed by Western media outlets which have taken to street interviews with unsuspecting Chinese people, showing provocative images from the Tiananmen protests and demanding off the cuff responses. This ritual of Western journalists who accost Chinese pedestrians with images of «tank man» reify a narrative in which concerned Westerners are posed as the true keepers of Chinese history, wielded to lead the Chinese people on the necessary path to bourgeois democracy.
The trope of Chinese ignorance to the history of June 4th poses Westerners as the true keepers of Chinese history and the necessary deliverers of the Chinese people on the path to bourgeois democracy. The pervasiveness of this chauvinistic mentality is apparent in the convergence between the neoconservative right and the anti-communist left in proclaiming platitudes of “solidarity with the Chinese people” against their government. Both factions share the ludicrous belief that, in spite of consistent polls indicating some 90% of Chinese people are satisfied with their government, it is up to Westerners to dictate China’s future path.
Contrary to these infantilizing beliefs, many Chinese people—old and young—remember 1989. But the violence of June 4th is held in quiet remembrance in the Chinese psyche not as a desperate yearning for Western intervention or regime change, but as a tragic consequence of the contradictions of the reform and opening era, the legacies of the Cultural Revolution, and an overdetermined geopolitical context in which the U.S. bloc sought to exploit any and all opportunities to foreclose the persistence of actually-existing socialism. Lost in the West’s manipulative commemoration of the Tiananmen protests is the fact that two things exist at once: many Chinese people harbor pain and trauma over the bloodshed and remain supportive of the Communist Party of China and committed to China’s socialist modernization. Far from honorific, the Western fetishization of the Tiananmen protests are an insult to the memory of the Chinese people who were involved, as it has become a weapon to bludgeon China and its people. The West’s persistent weaponization of this painful moment in Chinese history makes it impossible for the Chinese government and the Chinese people to have any form of public reckoning that will not be aggressively warped and weaponized by the West to destabilize the Chinese political system.
In a continued erasure of Chinese political subjectivity, the Tiananmen protests have become a blank screen on which Western onlookers project their own political priorities. For liberals and conservatives, student invocations of Western-style democracy—encapsulated in the “goddess of democracy” statue placed at the center of Tiananmen Square—reflect the universality of bourgeois democracy and “proof” of the superiority and inevitability of the Western capitalist system. Meanwhile, the anti-communist left has advanced the view that Tiananmen represented a repressed workers struggle—proof of China’s authoritarian capitalist system and the repression of workers’ democracy therein.
Both narratives collapse the complexities of the Tiananmen protest movement and its contradictory elements in favor of an idealized vision of the united Chinese masses standing against their authoritarian government. In fact—as our expanded reading list makes clear—the protests were composed of diverse and often antagonistic elements: critics of party corruption, bourgeois neoliberals, student reformers, and disillusioned workers forwarded contradictory political demands. Chinese political economist Li Minqi recalls the divergent allegiances of student protest leaders and urban workers:
“As the student demonstrations grew, workers in Beijing began to pour onto the streets in support of the students, who were, of course, delighted. However, being an economics student, I could not help experiencing a deep sense of irony. On the one hand, these workers were the people that we considered to be passive, obedient, ignorant, lazy, and stupid. Yet now they were coming out to support us. On the other hand, just weeks before, we were enthusiastically advocating “reform” programs that would shut down all state factories and leave the workers unemployed. I asked myself: do these workers really know who they are supporting?”
Western commemoration of the Tiananmen protests also silences its ideological roots in anti-African student riots in Nanjing which sacked the dormitories of African exchange students who were resented for receiving generous Chinese government scholarships and having relationships with local women. These silencings make clear that the West’s memorialization of Tiananmen has less to do with the protests themselves than with what they represent in the West’s continued ideological war against Chinese socialism.
Ultimately, the Tiananmen fairy tale is a touchstone of a Western discourse which continues to mourn the “loss” of China to the interests of Western hegemony. Like the 1949 Chinese revolution and the defeat of the U.S.-backed Guomindang party, the Tiananmen protests represent another “lost” opportunity to mold China according to the Western will.
But China has always only belonged to itself. The painful memory of June 4th must be commemorated on the terms of the Chinese people, and not according to the fantasies of Western onlookers who preach “solidarity” with the Chinese people yet practice aggression against China’s modernization. The memory of Tiananmen does not belong to the West to weaponize, exploit, or distort for its own gain.
Amidst renewed Cold War aggression on China, the Tiananmen protests have heightened purchase for an ideological program of hybrid war which seeks to divide the Chinese people from their government. The Tiananmen fairy tale remains part of a hegemonic discourse in which knowledge about China is dominated by outside voices, removing the agency of Chinese people to speak, remember, and act on their own terms. True solidarity with the Chinese people means embracing the messiness of China’s socialist construction and respecting the legitimacy of a path forged through mass people’s struggle.