Twenty Years after Tiananmen, Part II

By Wang Dan

In his second post for Words without Borders, former dissident leader Wang Dan continues his discussion about the significance of the events of June 4 in today’s world and to the politics and policies of today’s China. You can read his first post over here. —Editors

One question that people have been asking me a lot is: Did the student protest movement jeopardize the opportunity for the pro-reform leaders within the Communist Party to initiate a peaceful transition to a democratic China from the top down?

Twenty years after the Tiananmen crackdown, it has never been so clear to me as now: the movement of 1989 was an unavoidable social conflict and a necessary step toward China’s political transition. If the 1989 democracy movement does not constitute the beginning of China’s journey toward democracy, it is a mark of progress on that journey. The real tragedy lies in the fact that reform-minded Communist Party officials had neither the political will nor vision to seize the opportunity to lead China on the path toward drastic democratic reforms.

At a recent gathering, some Chinese students asked me why Tianamen still matters to China today. My answer is: Tiananmen matters a lot to China and the world today: First, no nation-state in history has ever been able to remain in power without remembering its past, so it is important for the future of China that we keep our history alive. Secondly, many of ills that plague Chinese society today, for instance, the institutionalization of corruption and the precedence of the economy over all other aspects of social development, originated from the Tianamen massacre. By reflecting on June 4, we can also reflect on the past twenty years of reform and opening, and in this way hopefully provide a basis for new thinking for further constructive development.


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