Social Education 55(6) pps. 384-386
©1991 National Council for the Social Studies

The Lessons of Teaching Tiananmen: The Dream Deferred

Henry Kiernan

Why did the democracy movement fail in China during the spring of 1989 but succeed in Eastern Europe later that year? Perhaps authorities chose not to suppress the dramatic political demonstrations and subsequent reforms in Eastern Europe because they saw the worldwide repulsion caused by the Chinese Communist party's violent solution to the student protest at Tiananmen Square. Any further attempt to link the protests at Tiananmen Square to those in Eastern Europe, however, lacks cohesiveness because the Chinese Communist party has never depended on an outside army to maintain its power. The party has every incentive to maintain its control and, after all, it was Mao Tse-tung who said that all power flows from the barrel of a gun.
A cogent rationale exists for teaching the Tiananmen Square protest in the social studies curriculum. The events preceding and following June 4, 1989, continue to shape East-West relations and to offer a historical and contemporary perspective of the interplay of Chinese political and socioeconomic conditions.

In discussions and interviews with Chinese students and teachers during a 1990 Fulbright Summer Seminar in China, I observed not only a pervasive sense of chagrin surrounding the massacre on June 4, 1989, but also a sense of confusion about the student protesters' goals, their definition of democracy, and worldwide reactions to the democracy movement. Attempting to make sense of what happened at Tiananmen Square would provide an opportunity to understand the long history of student protest in shaping China's history and its interactions with the rest of the world.

Fang Lizhi (1990), one of China's leading dissidents, believes that the events at Tiananmen Square have ended what he calls Chinese amnesia-that is, the Chinese Communist party's banning from memory its nefarious record of human rights violations. Fang asserts that the events at Tiananmen Square represent "the first time that Chinese Communist brutality was thoroughly recorded and reported, and the first time that virtually the whole world was willing to censure it" (30). Fang argues that the events of 1989 cannot be forgotten and that they are an "indispensable step in China's joining the world and moving toward progress" (31).

Reasons for Teaching Tiananmen
As we in the United States intently watched live televised reports of the protest at Tiananmen Square, we heard the voices of Chinese students expressing their hopes for change, and we saw banners and signs written in English designed to reach a worldwide audience. We also became aware of how little we understand the significant differences between social, economic, and political institutions in China and in the United States. Investigating the events of Tiananmen Square in our school's required 9th grade world history courses, as well as in the global awareness and Asian studies elective courses, would serve as a springboard for students to adopt new perspectives about China. Teaching about Tiananmen Square can become a dynamic learning exploration in which students discover the role of student protest, the meaning of democracy, and the future of U.S-China relations. Specifically:

(1) Investigating the results of Chinese student movements will provide a teaching and learning framework for considering the unique role Chinese students have played in shaping China's recent history from the May 4 movement in 1919 to the Cultural Revolution beginning in 1966.

(2) Providing both Western and Chinese current perspectives of the events at Tiananmen Square will assist students in developing their interpretations and judgments of the Chinese solution and its effects on the international community.

(3) Investigating both stated and implied goals of the Chinese student protest will enable students to determine the emerging definition of democracy proposed by Chinese students and to compare and contrast this definition with their own definitions of democracy.

(4) Investigating the chronology of events at Tiananmen Square as described by Western and Chinese journalists and official documents will enable students to synthesize similar and disparate interpretations.

(5) Exploring the meaning of xia fang ("opening up to the outside world") will help students decide if an overt governmental policy involving the suppression of the free interchange of ideas is doomed to failure.

Strategies for Teaching about Tiananmen
Teachers can develop several activities to begin student research. At the outset, students need to frame general questions about the Tiananmen Square protest-questions they consider important to pursue. Using primary and secondary research sources, students can then begin to focus their questions and engage in further investigation. Some of these general questions might include:

A single spark can start a prairie fire.
-Mao Tse-tung

  • Several students in our world history class wanted to determine what caused the Chinese students' unrest in 1989. Students, divided into teams, discovered many resources, especially from Western writers, that helped them accomplish their goal. They learned about the protest from the twelve-point petition Beijing University students submitted to the National People's Congress on May 2, 1989, and from accounts of Premier Li Peng's conversation with student leaders on May 18. Some insights that the student teams realized included the following:

    (1) Student protests and demonstrations at Tiananmen Square occupy a unique role in China's recent history. During the 4 May 1919 movement, three thousand students gathered in the square to protest the terms of the Versailles Treaty that granted several former German concessions in China to the Japanese. During the Cultural Revolution (1966), hundreds of thousands of Red Guards marched through the square carrying Chairman Mao's red book as they dedicated themselves to purifying the revolution in his name.

    With more than three thousand years of imperial autocracy and the tradition of scholar candidates awaiting appointment to the imperial bureaucracy, China's Class of 1989 similarly awaited appointment to the bureaucracy of the Chinese Communist party dictatorship. But 1989 found young people angry at being assigned to dead-end jobs (or no jobs at all), and teachers, doctors, and engineers were disenchanted to see their counterparts in private enterprise earning considerably more income than they were earning. They were also angry about the rampant nepotism and corruption within all branches of the government. On April 15, 1989, the pro-democracy movement was sparked by the death of Hu Yaobang, the former general secretary of the Chinese Communist party whom the students believed had been a catalyst for reform.

    (2) Officially, the Chinese government blamed the unrest on hooligans incited and supported by Western influences interested in overthrowing the Communist party. Che Mugi, in his book Beijing Turmoil (1990), argues that "the United States began to propagate its civilization by sending scholars and professors to China to teach and lecture....[A]s far as American foreign policy was concerned, their real purpose was to infiltrate China in the ideological and cultural spheres" (112). One of our students concluded that the distrust of foreigners and missionaries leading to the Boxer Rebellion was hauntingly similar to the current Chinese Communist party leadership's suspicion of U.S. teachers and professors-arguably, the new missionaries.

    (3) Deng Xiaoping dispatched tens of thousands of Chinese college students to study abroad in order to train the next generation with the skills necessary to modernize China. While living abroad in largely democratic countries, however, Chinese students were exposed to democratic traditions. One Radio Beijing analysis asserted that students had been duped by foreign values, that they "took in large amounts of Western ideas and culture, but they could not digest them. Bourgeois liberalism overflowed and this was exacerbated by their blind adulation of bourgeois democracy" (113).

    Adopting New Perspectives
    Our students used their question-driven research findings to advance positions to debate, to make connections between events at Tiananmen Square and future U.S-Chinese relations, and to ask further questions. One student group concluded that Chinese students have toppled governments and created a legend about their influence on Chinese history-a legend that focuses on their bravery, sense of duty, and heroism. These protest movements, however, have served only to create a new political order as repressive to student ideas as the one they helped destroy. They also concluded that in order to stay in power the Chinese Communist party seems willing to accept that the more than forty thousand students and professors who were in the West in May 1989, and who have not yet returned to China, may never return. One professor from Beijing Normal University, the country's well-known teacher's college, said that of the three hundred professors in the West during the events of 1989, only two have returned to China.

    Beyond the student research problems, one of the most engaging learning activities was for them to define a personal meaning of democracy and compare and contrast that meaning with a variety of definitions given by Chinese students. By democracy we learned that the Chinese do not necessarily mean a political party system complete with campaigns and elections. Indeed, the Chinese students hoped that the party would change for the better by eliminating corruption and by broadening the decision-making process to accept a range of opinions and ideas. They wanted more freedom of the press in order to voice their concerns more freely; they wanted accountability within the system.

    Yi Mu and Mark Thompson (1989) remind us that even the students U.S. news reporters interviewed suggested that democracy was a slogan for long-term goals and not a call for overthrowing the party (at least not until after the violent suppression of June 4, 1989). They argue that

    if we take the two extreme interpretations-first the American one that they [Chinese students] were calling for full-blown Western democracy and then the official Party position that they were calling for the overthrow of the Chinese Communist Party and the establishment of a capitalist republic-we can immediately sense that the real demands lay somewhere between the above two poles. (23) To help our students experience living history and to determine personal meaning from the events of Tiananmen Square, we read and discussed a variety of documents, and used them to write evaluations and interpretations. These documents included: The People's Daily Editorial of 26 April 1989 which provoked a strong reaction from the Chinese students, Zhao Ziyang's speech at the Asian Development Bank (Zhao served as general secretary of the Chinese Communist party from 1987 to 1989 and was officially removed from power following the June 4 crackdown), Premier Li Peng's conversation with student leaders, Zhao Ziyang's farewell speech at Tiananmen Square, and Deng Xiaoping's speech to the Central Military Commission on June 9, 1989. Editorials and speeches helped define the democracy movement from both the reform leaders' perspective and the party's; they also clarified the chronology of events at the square.

    The most moving documents we used were Chinese students' interviews and letters. In 1989 Chai Ling, a student at Beijing Normal University who was named commander in chief of the Tiananmen Square demonstrators, wrote:

    The square is our last stand. If we lose it, China will retreat into another dark age, the people will once again turn against one another with no real feelings or communication between them....There are so many kids here risking their own lives for what you (Chinese college students studying abroad) have. Do what you can, break down the barriers and don't be selfish anymore. Think about our race. One billion people can't just fade away. (Children of the Dragon 1990, 115) Chai Ling's thoughts and those of other Chinese students made quite an impression on our students. Acknowledging that they had little in common with the students who protested at Tiananmen Square in 1989, our students nevertheless shared a sense of communion and understanding with them concerning hopes for future human rights reforms. They, too, identify with the spontaneity of youth and the need for a forum in which to express their views.

    Ending the Study
    We ended our study of Tiananmen Square with a look to the future, considering possibilities for the fate of the Chinese students and U.S.-China relations. We accepted that the United States no longer needs relations with China based on a policy of keeping a strong Soviet Union in check. We also proposed the possibility that the People's Army has demonstrated to Deng that without the military he cannot retain power. Indeed, the commanders could be in a strong position to choose Deng's replacement, a leader who can run a tight military state similar to the other fast-moving "Asian tigers" of South Korea and Singapore. These countries, the commanders argue, seem to be doing quite well economically without democracy.

    Yet, I am reminded of a young college student I met at an English Corner in Kunming who, after looking over his shoulder, said: "Do not let America forget us." Teaching about the events at Tiananmen Square is an important step in remembering and in teaching students about the right to think and to inquire. The Chinese students' dream of human rights and freedom is truly deferred, and they must arouse our concern and hope.

    Che, Mugi. Beijing Turmoil. People's Republic of China: Foreign Language Press, 1990.Children of the Dragon. New York: Collier Books, 1990.Fang, Lizhi. "The Chinese Amnesia." The New York Review of Books, 27 September 1990.Feigon, Lee. China Rising: The Meaning of Tiananmen. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1990.Hoyt, Edwin P. The Rise of the Chinese Republic. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1989.Nixon, Bob, and Scott Simmie. Tiananmen Square. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1989.Salisbury, Harrison E. Tiananmen Diary. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1989.Yi, Mu, and Mark V. Thompson. Crisis at Tiananmen. San Francisco: China Books and Periodicals, 1989.Additional Resources
    Barnett, A. Doak, and Ralph N. Clough, eds. Modernizing China: Post-Mao Reform and Development. Boulder and London: Waterview Press, 1986.Bernstein, Thomas P. Up to the Mountains and Down to the Villages: The Transfer of Youth from Urban to Rural China. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.Cheng, Nien. Life and Death in Shanghai. New York: Penguin Books, 1986.Ching, Frank. Ancestors. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1988.Harding, Harry. China's Second Revolution: Reform After Mao. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1987.Lampton, David M., and Catherine H. Keyser, eds. China's Global Pressence. Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1988.Liang, Heng, and Judy Shapiro. After the Nightmare: Inside China Today. New York: Collier Books, 1986.Schell, Orville. Discos and Democracy: China in the Throws of Reform. New York: Pantheon Books, 1988.Spence, Jonathan. To Change China: Western Advisers in China, 1620-1960. Rev. ed. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1980.Thurston, Anne F. Enemies of the People: The Ordeal of China's Intellectuals during the Great Cultural Revolution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.Henry Kiernan is Supervisor of Humanities of the Southern Regional High School District in Manahawkin, New Jersey 08050.