Revisiting the Beijing Spring Protests, 18 Years Later

When Craig Calhoun went to Beijing in the spring of 1989 to teach cultural studies to Chinese students, he had little idea that he would someday write a book focusing exclusively on China. Though interested in the country, he was not a sinologist, and besides, he was there to help launch an America-sponsored English-language program at a Chinese university.

But then destiny intervened to take him in a new direction. An expert on popular politics, social movements, and political protests, Calhoun soon found himself drawn to the capital city's burgeoning democracy movement. To his delight (and later despair), he was able to observe firsthand how this movement got started, gathered momentum, broke through the limits of previous rebellions against the Chinese government, faltered, found renewal in hunger strikes and dramatic symbols—and then was brutally crushed by military force.

Using his knowledge of democracy movements elsewhere, Calhoun could analyze this turbulent interlude in Chinese politics from within a comparative framework to say something about how it relates to institutions such as civil society, the media and the public sphere, and democracy. The result was a book, Neither Gods nor Emperors: Students and the Struggle for Democracy in China (University of California Press, 1994), that impressed both sociologists (it won a major sociology award) and China watchers alike. To date, it remains one of the most comprehensive chronicles of the so-called Beijing Spring Protests as well as the most theoretically informed analysis of China’s student-led movement.

On the 18th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, which took place on June 4, ssrc.org asked Calhoun, who since 1999 has served as president of the Social Science Research Council, a few questions about his memories of that period and how he now views his landmark study.

Does it seem as though Tiananmen took place as long as 18 years ago?

It hardly seems possible. But one of my students from that period, Yang Guobin, is now a professor at Barnard College. This means enough time has passed for him to get two Ph.D.s (one in China and one here), find an academic job, and qualify for tenure.

Did you witness firsthand the violence in Tiananmen Square?
The name "Tiananmen Massacre" and the idea of a massacre of students are misleading at best and nearly a myth. There was actually very little violence in Tiananmen Square itself. Most of the students had withdrawn before the army moved in to occupy the Square, especially in Muxidi, and those killed were largely workers and local residents. Also, it's important to point out, as I do in my book, that no one was an eyewitness to most of this because the violence took place in widely dispersed settings. Eyewitnesses have a worm's eye view, not a bird's eye view. As far as my own participation went on that day, I marched along with the protesters. I sat in Tiananmen Square with those occupying it. I joined in conversations, shared mood swings from enthusiasm to fear, and watched nervously with others when the army made its presence felt.

What was it that led you, a non-China expert, to analyze and write about what happened?
I went to Beijing in the spring of 1989 to teach comparative cultural studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University. It was a part of a new program that had been created by the Center for Transcultural Studies in Chicago. But shortly after my arrival, the democracy movement impinged on my daily routine. It was all around me; my students were involved. I spent hundreds of hours talking with students not only at my university but at others, especially Beijing University. Through students I also met various movement leaders. I had long worked on popular protest and struggles for democracy, so of course I found it exciting to witness the movement close up and watch it grow. I was also very sad to see it culminate in tragedy.

Were you surprised that your book was such a success?
My goal in writing this book was less to be a "success" than to be true to the story I had witnessed firsthand and to the people I had talked to doing my research. This meant not only narrating, but asking what issues and conditions lay behind the surface.

Was it intimidating to enter the China studies field as a non-Sinologist?
Yes. It's a field of enormous complexity and depth of scholarship. I did worry that people in China studies would see me as an interloper and be suspicious. On the other hand, I was a comparative researcher who had written on social movements elsewhere so I brought that expertise. I tried to do my homework and make it clear that for much context and background, I was drawing on the work of scholars in the field of China studies. I also tried to be honest about my own limitations as a non-sinologist. I had spent time in China before, though, and studied Chinese, so I was not quite a novice either.

Can you give us an example of the China experts whose work you drew on?
To discuss the templates offered by previous protest movements in China, for example, I drew on studies by Jeffrey Wasserstrom and John Israel.

How well have your words stood the test of time?
I am very pleased with how well this book stands as an account of the movement. There is little I would change, though a few facts have become known since. Of course there is lots to say now about the implications and consequences of the movement—and about the actual paths of development, growing rule of law, and even steps towards democracy that China has in fact followed in the last 18 years.

In your introduction to the book, you say that the student protesters made an "extraordinary statement that will continue to move Chinese aspirants to democracy for generations." Against the background of China’s transformation into economic juggernaut and its impending hosting of the Olympic games, does the legacy of the students live on, or is it gradually fading?
China’s economic growth is in part a legacy of the Tiananmen protests, ironically enough. In the early 1990s, one of the Chinese government’s motivations for easing credit and speeding up economic liberalization was to take the country’s focus off of political repression. There has been considerable, mostly quiet, progress towards rule of law in China and this is a basis for gradual democratization. But there are likely to be times in the future when Chinese people face crises and seek inspiration and models for popular action. Tiananmen will be powerful as an example of peaceful protest and democratic aspirations. The generation of students who participated is not likely to succeed to power in China, but like the Red Guard generation before them, which underwent an even more powerful experience, they have been changed as individuals and this biographical experience will shape their activities throughout their lives.

What do you make of the recent protests in Hong Kong over the remarks by the pro-Beijing politician Ma Lik denying that any kind of massacre took place?
Efforts to deny the June 4th incident are still a sore point. It will be a crucial and helpful step when China's government finally acknowledges the truth of this history. It will make not only reconciliation but the continued strengthening and democratization of China more likely.

Do you intend to write another book on this theme?
On Tiananmen? I don’t think so. On struggles for democracy, yes.

Interview conducted by Mary-Lea Cox.


Neither Gods Nor Emperors

The title of Craig Calhoun’s prize-winning book derives from the Chinese version of “The Internationale”: “There has never been a savior, nor should we rely on gods and emperors. To create happiness for humankind, we must rely on ourselves.” Though an old socialist song, the sentiments applied to China’s protesting students in 1989, Calhoun writes. Buy this book on Amazon.

Published on: Wednesday, June 06, 2007