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What 1989 Can Tell Us About China’s Recent Protests

CSheena’s leaderXi often warns officials of the risk of a possible collapse of Communist Party rule. He told them to beware of efforts by “hostile forces” to foment a “color revolution” in China: in his view, this was “an immediate danger”. He has ordered them to be vigilant for “foreseeable and unforeseen” dangers which could “become a political threat” if not dealt with effectively and in a timely manner. He reminded them repeatedly of how the Communist Party of the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.The word he used to express that moment was wow la la. It was a broken sound.

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Xi’s call for vigilance began in the party’s heyday, when China’s economy was still growing strongly and the U.S. had yet to mount a campaign to contain China’s rise. Imagine, then, how he feels now as he examines these challenges — an economy choked by his efforts to crush covid-19, a virus that threatens to defy his draconian controls, and the public There are signs of growing anger over pandemic restrictions. In recent days, China has experienced its biggest wave of unrest since pro-democracy unrest in 1989. Between November 25 and 27, protests swept through several Chinese cities. The incidents were sparked by outpourings of sympathy for the ten people who died in a fire in an apartment building in Urumqi, the capital of remote western Xinjiang. Protesters believe the lockdown measures have led to deaths. Some demonstrators went further than mourning. They called for Xi Jinping and the Communist Party to step down.

The protests died down as police acted decisively to prevent further gatherings. But as someone so focused on his own party’s history and that of other communist countries, Mr. Xi will shudder at some of the echoes of the past. Students gathered on numerous campuses to call not only for an escape from coronavirus-related lockdowns but also for broader political freedoms. Their actions were reminiscent of the early days of the protests 33 years ago, when students seized an opportunity – to stage official mourning for the death of a reformist leader – to push for political change.

On November 30, another leader, Jiang Zemin, died at the age of 96. His political liberalism when he ruled the country in the 1990s and early 2000s is not remembered. But in the memory of some Chinese, that era was less oppressive. Unlike Mr. Xi, Jiang Zemin had an affable and outgoing side. Disgruntled Chinese may mock Mr. Xi by emphasizing the difference. Some may even mourn Mr. Jiang, who became the subject of a viral internet meme in his later years. He ruled China during the prosperous period, when China’s rise seemed not so difficult.

The recent campus riots resonate with events that predated the unrest in Tiananmen Square. The party was born in 1921 out of intellectual unrest sparked by student-led protests two years earlier. As we all know, the May 4th Movement is the great ancestor of the Chinese student movement.

The party prefers to see it as an outpouring of anti-Western sentiment. Participants were outraged that the victors of World War I had ceded German territory in China to Japan. But it has also sparked an investigation into what makes the West great. Many have concluded that the essential ingredients are science and democracy. In 1989, student protesters liked to portray themselves as modern-day May Fourth activists fighting for a long-neglected cause. A protester at Tsinghua University in Beijing on Nov. 27 appears to reflect the widespread belief during Tiananmen that students have a historical responsibility to lead the struggle for political freedom. “If we don’t speak up for fear of being arrested, I think our people will be disappointed in us,” she said at a campus rally attended by hundreds of students.

There are also echoes of 1989 in the songs and chants of recent protests. As at the time, the communist anthem, The Internationale, was a favorite. It plays a dual role in China. On July 1 last year, in Tiananmen Square to celebrate the party’s 100th anniversary, Xi led a rally of thousands, singing the famous line: “Arise, hungry and cold slaves…” Protesters chanted the same words, arguing that they were Party slave.

“We want to be citizens, not slaves” has also recently become a popular catchphrase among students and people from all walks of life who attend rallies in the busy streets of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and elsewhere. A lone protester used those words on a banner he tied to a bridge in Beijing on Oct. 13, days before the party congress, which takes place every five years. He was quickly arrested, but his audacity sparked sympathetic protests from mainland students at Western universities – the most widespread in decades.


Yet Xi may be comforted by the difference between the recent turmoil and the events of 1989. A key contributor to the growth of the Tiananmen Square protests, which have spread across the country and affected most major cities, has been division and indecision among China’s leaders. The rift between them is huge and obvious. On the one hand are reformers who want to allow market forces to operate more freely and create a more relaxed political climate. Conservatives want the opposite. Their quarrel prevented swift action to contain the unrest. Students who came out of the campus and marched towards the square were surprised to find that the police were disappearing.

This time the police intervened more quickly. There was no sign of disagreement among the leaders. In October, after the party congress, Xi unveiled a new seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, the pinnacle of party power. Now, for the first time, all of its members are clearly his loyal fans. Things were very different in 1989, when the committee included a reformist general secretary, Zhao Ziyang, and a deeply conservative premier, Li Peng. It was an open secret that the two were at odds. During the protests, Zhao was purged by Deng Xiaoping (then the country’s military commander-in-chief) for expressing sympathy for the students.

Such tensions are unimaginable today. Mr Xi is the general secretary and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. He has set aside the role of prime minister. The very influential retirees at the time posed little threat to Xi. The death of his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, removed a potential opposition figurehead, but Jiang had long been too physically and politically weak to pose any serious challenge. Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, was never very strong politically. Even when he was in charge, he bowed to Mr. Jiang.

Xi Jinping’s enormous power will not deter his concerns. In September, before the latest protests, the mouthpiece of the armed forces, People’s Liberation Army Daily, has warned that “hostile forces” are “stepping up” to instigate color revolutions in China. Also that month, Wang Xiaohong, head of the State Public Security Bureau, called for “focus on preventing and resisting” such incidents. Mr Wang, a longtime Xi Jinping confidant, was appointed in June following a purge of senior police officers deemed disloyal to the country’s leader. Several protests erupting at the same time – though far less in scale and scope than in 1989 – would also unsettle Mr Wang.

Xi may be particularly concerned that some protesters have overstepped the political boundaries typically observed by Tiananmen protesters. In 1989, some demonstrators chanted “Down with Deng Xiaoping,” but most did not call for the overthrow of the Communist Party. There were few reservations among the hundreds of people who gathered on Shanghai’s Urumqi Road (its English name uses an alternative spelling of Urumqi — the location was chosen because of its connection to the fires in Xinjiang) on ​​Nov. 26. Their cries of “Xi Jinping step down!” and “Down with the Communist Party!” are heresies that Xi Jinping will not forget. He will go the extra mile to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

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