27 years after the Tiananmen Square protests

/ 12:16 AM June 30, 2016

TOKYO—This month, 27 years after the student protests at Tiananmen Square in China, commemorative meetings took place in Japan. Wang Dan, who was a student leader at the time and now lives in Taiwan, delivered a lecture which I attended. I listened with interest to the questions that two Chinese students studying in Japan posed to him.

One student said he knew of the protests, and asked whether the student leaders did not in fact understand what “democracy” was all about when there was a dispute over power among them. Another asked about the remark, “I was afraid of losing my life,” which was made to reporters by Chai Ling, another student leader who had escaped China and left her mates behind.


Wang asked the members of the audience whether they thought the protesting students had any special power to compete for. He continued that the refusal to attend lectures persisted among students in Peking University after the university student organization’s survey undertaken in all dormitories revealed that at least 80 percent of the students supported the protest action.

With respect to the question about Chai, Wang said only a portion of the three-hour-long interview with her had been picked up and reported. He calmly insisted that judgment should not be made based on someone’s words only partly quoted by the media, but on someone’s behavior, and that democracy could not be built in a day.

As was the case in the survey conducted at Peking University, the practice of democracy should begin in the area that is close to our everyday lives, and should then be expanded to the social and national level.

With the Tiananmen Square protests, China missed the chance to bring about political reforms. The elites flooded out of the country, and many of those who remained were obliged to change their courses of action without achieving their goals because of political pressure or economic reasons.

Wang told me that two days before coming to Japan, he phoned Pu Zhiqiang, a well-known Chinese human rights lawyer. In June 1989, when Pu was a graduate student at the China University of Political Science and Law, he joined the hunger strike in Tiananmen Square. When Wang visited Japan in 2012, Pu was in Japan. They happened to meet each other again for the first time after the protests.

Pu was detained in 2014 after joining a meeting to mourn the victims of the student protests. The meeting was held by only a small number of people, simply to prevent the memory of the protests from fading.

In December 2015, Pu received a three-year prison sentence, suspended for three years, for provocation of disturbance and ethnic resentment. His past posts on the internet were questioned. He had criticized the Chinese government for affecting people’s thinking through propaganda. For instance, he once posted a sarcastic and humorous comment with respect to the policy regarding ethnic minorities in the Tibet and Xinjiang Uygur autonomous regions, saying that they could not be made happy by tightening governance with nationalism or the Communist Party’s ideology. Can this speech be regarded as having provoked disturbance and ethnic resentment? Many from the international community and from among jurists and lawyers in China questioned the sentence meted on Pu.

After the Tiananmen Square protests, Pu became a lawyer. Instead of organizing a large movement, he sought a sphere of speech under the rule of law as a practitioner of legal affairs. He displayed this attitude because he thought that the failure of the prodemocracy protests should not be repeated. The reality in China is that even someone like him, who sought to steadily change the system and society, is condemned. In the crackdown on corruption led by the Xi government, the Communist Party’s inspection of discipline is given higher priority than the court ruling.

These days, China is taking more diplomatic and military actions than ever that disregard the international order or law. The country appeals to people’s patriotism in an attempt to bolster domestic solidarity against outside enemies.


The exaggeration or distortion of facts by the media and antiforeign nationalism are often the focus of controversy in Japan today as well. Both the Tiananmen Square protests and history issues, including the issue of wartime “comfort women,” underscore the potential for human folly. It is necessary to review history from the perspective of why cruelty could not be prevented. We can have the courage to take part in social reforms only when the values that humans should mutually and universally recognize are in fact recognized, and vice versa.

Tomoko Ako is associate professor at the University of Tokyo.

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