Before Beijing Spring: A Talk with Victor Falkenheim

Victor Falkenheim is a professor at the University of Toronto, specializing in the politics and history of mainland China. As the head of the East Asian Department, he has often been called upon to advise the government on Sino-Canadian issues. He and Bonnie Kim discuss past and recent Chinese student movements.

By Bonnie Kim | 1989-10-01 12:00:00

Bonnie Kim: Since the Communist revolution, students seem not to have been the principal agitators for change.

Victor Falkenheim: Students provided some leadership in the movement that led to the 1949 revolution, especially in urban areas. After 1949, the student movement was brought under the wing of the Party and lost its autonomy. The large student organizations after that time- the Youth Federation and the Communist Youth League -- were adjuncts to the Party.

Kim: Were students restrained because of the persecution of intellectuals after the Communist Revolution?

Falkenheim: Persecution is probably too strong a word before the cultural revolution. The universities were brought under the Party's political control, which in the early 1950s, meant purging the universities of Western influence. University officials were re-educated and were taught the ideology of the new regime. But thereafter, once the political controls were in place in the universities, they were not persecuted. They were just tightly controlled. You couldn't speak of an independent movement, with the possible exception of the Hundred Flowers period in 1956-57, when the Party asked for criticism of problems in Chinese society. The students and professors were forthcoming and willing to take independent positions. But that movement was crushed. Little independent activity was possible until the Cultural Revolution, when a genuine youth movement of sorts emerged.

The Cultural Revolution had a dual character. Youth were mobilized by Mao in 1966-67 for his own purposes. However, they became a grassroots movement that rapidly escaped from control and split into conservative and radical groups and also split regionally. At that point, a genuine youth movement began.

After 1968-69 the Red Guard movement was broken by Mao himself. Many of the youth were sent to the countryside. They were bewildered by that experience and came to feel that they had been betrayed by the leaders. A more independent political consciousness emerged among the Red Guard generation, but by the 1970s, they were no longer the youth. They were in their late 20s and early 30s.

Kim: Are you surprised that today's students took such a prominent role?

Falkenheim: Certainly I'm surprised at the scale of it, but if you take this decade (from Deng's victory in the Party in 1978) there has been much spontaneous activity by the youth. It has been unlike any other period in Chinese history. For example, during the democracy movement in 1978-79, dissenting youth magazines emerged, partly encouraged by the government. The periodic upsurges of youth have partly been independent but partly in support of the Party's objectives. In 1985, for example, there were campus demonstrations against Japan. Student organizations were also agitating over their dorms and facilities. This June event caps off the trend; it is not new.

Kim: Workers and students have been mentioned in all this, but where were the peasants?

Falkenheim: Increasingly prosperous and political quiescent. The rural reforms met their most pressing livelihood concerns. Those who were dissatisfied could leave the countryside and make money elsewhere. In the last two or three years, the agricultural production has stagnated and the peasants' living conditions have deteriorated in some areas, but this has generated only limited political protest, such as local confrontations between peasants and tax collectors.

Kim: Were the students' demands for democracy reactions to Gorbachev's reforms or to corruption?

Falkenheim: That's a difficult question. Since the Cultural Revolution, students have wanted their system to be opened up. They don't have much control in their campuses and are keenly aware of the discrepancy between the regime's democratic rhetoric and the political reality. They have supported and even gone out ahead of the Party's call for political reform. They have been critics -- but only within limits, because it is dangerous to be directly critical and certainly to organize.

Kim: Was Gorbachev's reformism very influential?

Falkenheim: Some enthusiastic popular upsurgeshave been kindled by the widely publicized reforms in the Soviet Union, Poland, and Hungary. Chinese intellectuals saw that China was ahead of the Soviet Union in economic reforms but far behind in political reforms. It was humiliating for them, but it showed what could be done if the leadership could be pushed to take reforms seriously.

Kim: What did the students mean by "democratization"?

Falkenheim: Clean government. Government that takes into account the views of its citizens. Not formalized democracy. Not necessarily free elections- except that for some Chinese students, that is exactly what democracy means: competitive elections with several parties. But for most of them, it means a responsive government that tolerates dissent. The basic elements of free society that are the conditions for democracy -- for example, freedom of press and freedom to demonstrate. The students were seeking democracy with socialism, and they stayed within the Party's guidelines. Deng said that China wanted democracy -- not a multi-party system, but a single party system with Marxism as the dominant ideology. Most students did not expect China, in the short run, to become a competitive political system but they wanted the existing institutions to function honestly and well.

Kim: Gene Sharp has denied that foreign influence shaped this movement into a nonviolent one. Then what explains the students' nonviolence?

Falkenheim: Their own experience in dealing with the leadership. They realized that confrontation almost never works and that violence is very counterproductive. If they resort to violence, the regime holds all the cards, so peaceful protest was the only way to go. By invoking their own constitution, their right to peaceful demonstration, they could bring pressure to bear while staying within the rules of the system.

But they were aware of the tactics of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, and the Flower Power movement in the Philippines, so those were their models. They were anxious to build momentum because they were quickly defeated in 1986-87 New Year demonstrations that led to the fall of the Party's General Secretary. They wanted to be less confrontational and get more staying power. Tactically, they were shrewd, particularly in taking advantage of Gorbachev's visit to use the international press for worldwide coverage and in taking advantage of the government's desire to avoid bloodshed in the streets.

Kim: Is there a history of a nonviolent movement in China that the students could have used as a model? Perhaps in pre-Communist days?

Falkenheim: No major event. In this century, student protests have generally been nonviolent, but there's no nonviolent tradition comparable to the one Gandhi pioneered in India. The Chinese tradition reflects their political reality -- that violent confrontation leads to violent repression.

Kim: What will the aftereffects be? In 1976, the Tiananmen Square demonstrations led to the downfall of the Gang of Four. Will there be another major political upheaval?

Falkenheim: In the long run (after at least a decade) there may be a reappraisal of what happened. Fortunately for the victims of the first Tiananmen Square incident in '76, Mao's death and the fall of the Gang of Four brought the opposition to power. But for something analogous to happen now, a reformist leader would have to emerge within 5 to 10 years, become victorious, and then turn on the conservatives who dominate Chinese politics and reverse the verdict on the June 4 incident. I don't think that will happen. The conservatives are strong: not just the old senior leadership, but a number of middle-level officials in their 60s and 70s who are profiting from this reversal of the reform faction's fortunes. They aren't going to change their minds because they are implicated in this event. They went along with it and they are the beneficiaries. Even if Deng and some of the old conservatives die, the coalition will remain. My prediction could be upset by some violent struggle that will bring the reformers to power, but I don't see that as likely.

Kim: Joe Clark has cancelled three development programs valued at $9 million. The cultural, business, and educational exchange programs that proliferated since 1985 may also be affected by the condemnation of the Canadian government. Do you favor the way Canada is dealing with this?

Falkenheim: The Canadian government is issuing guidelines on the resumption of programs that support education and business. Programs will be continued as long as they are genuinely for development and don't directly support the Chinese government's suppression of students. But our government is resuming its programs fairly slowly and scaling back some activities. It sends a message, yet preserves the open door, which was one factor that fostered the student movement in the first place.Canada's recent loans do not essentially contradict this policy. It has firmly denounced what happened and backed it up with actions.

Ms. Kim is Associate Editor of PEACE

Peace Magazine Oct-Nov 1989

Peace Magazine Oct-Nov 1989, page 10. Some rights reserved.

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