Book Review: The Power of Tiananmen

On my very first day of college, my roommate, who was a Hong Kong local, asked me her all-time favorite question for mainlanders:”Have you heard of liusi (six-four)?” To her delight, I haven’t. The word – a number alluding to the date of the military repression in Tiananmen – has been largely invisible in the Chinese public sphere during the past twenty-five years. Any mention of the event seems jarring to the people who are used to living in silence. Yet rumors find their way to the insubordinate city of Hong Kong, which has witnessed waves of indignant protests after its handover to China in 1997. Deficiency of information facilitates various colorful descriptions of the tragedy. One of the most outrageous version I’ve heard claims there are thousands of death that night.

Prof. Dingxin Zhao’s book helps upend such rumors and set the record straight. With his scholarly attitude and extensive interview data, Zhao reconstructs the movement as a series of chaotic interactions between idealistic students and a desperate state. Both sides were inexperienced in such a crisis. The absence of formal movement organizations made dialogues ineffective, and both groups radicalized. In Zhao’s words, students and the state thought they were playing the same chess game, but in fact they were following different rules. The repression was thus inevitable.

But the book has a more ambitious theoretical thrust in mind. Zhao tries to fit the movement into his state-society model, a theoretical construct that seems grand and parsimonious. There are three elements in this model: nature of state, nature of society, and state-society linkage – or legitimacy. In the case of Tiananmen movement, “the state was authoritarian, society was poorly organized, and state legitimacy was based on its moral and economic performance” (p. 8).

Several empirical characteristics then emanate from this state-society relation. First is of Zhao’s actors. He discusses opportunistic intellectual elites who craved Western electoral democracy after repression of Mao, naive rank-and-file intellectuals and students who were discontent with their status loss during the market reform, and a hardcore state who clung to its old ideological legitimacy. Irritated by the state’s bad economic and moral performance, the former two thought of democracy as a panacea of all their problems, but the state refused to let go of its power.

Such political characters of actors then determined their strategies in the mobilization process. For example, students frequently used discourses of moral examplars in traditional Chinese culture. On the one hand, this challenged the corruptions of the state on a moral basis; on the other hand, they also justified their protest as morally acceptable. On the contrary, the state named the uprising as “antirevolutionary”, a term used to attack political enemies in Mao’s era. This attempt of ideological control no longer worked, and the people was largely exasperated.

Perhaps more worthy of noting is Zhao’s famous observation about ecology-based mobilization. His paper on this topic was published on American Journal of Sociology and was cited over a hundred of times. During the 1950s, to facilitate political control over university students, the communist party established a giant university district around the Haidian District of Beijing and put hundreds of thousands of students around that area. Such dense living environment provided great convenience for the movement to enlist participants. For example, some student leaders led tens of hardcore radicals marching around campus, and the number of participants would grow to hundreds. This would not be possible had students lived far away from each other.

Parsimonious as Zhao’s state-society model might be, it can also be over-deterministic. Compared with resource mobilization and political opportunity approach, which were more prevailing in the field of social movement, the state-society seemed grand and ambitious. By isolating state out as an actor, it subjugates political opportunity as a mere derivation of its assumption. The same happens to resource mobilization. But such a giant construction should employ richer data to account for variations, and a single case of Tiananmen is not enough. What about democratic state? Also, seventy formal interviews could hardly support such a bold claim.

More severe critique was made by Craig Calhoun, now at London School of Economic and Political Science, who published his review on Mobilization. Calhoun doubt the scope of Zhao’s data because, firstly, the interviews were all from Beijing. And secondly, sometimes Zhao was not attentive in handling claims by students leaders. He also criticized Zhao for omitting other variables, dismissing other literature on Tiananmen, and presenting amplification of earlier spatial mobilization studies as brand new.

Overall, the book provides some insights on the movement, at least from a narrative level. It also offers interesting reading for general readers who were avid to know exactly what happened. But allow me to warn you that Zhao sees himself as a realistic – that is, he portrays the students as idealistic, if not naive. If you would like to befriend a Hong Kong local who is fond of denigrating mainland youths as being “brain-washed”, do not mention to them conclusions from this book.

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