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The best books on June 4th, 1989

recommended by Jeffrey Wasserstrom

China in the 21st Century by Jeffrey Wasserstrom

China in the 21st Century
by Jeffrey Wasserstrom


In contrast to Eastern Europe, the 1989 protests in China did not lead to the overthrow of the Communist Party. But if China's leaders chose the right course on June 4th, 1989, why are they still frightened to come to terms with it? Sinologist and historian Jeffrey Wasserstrom picks the best books to understand events at Beijing's Tiananmen Square and around China on that hot summer night.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

China in the 21st Century by Jeffrey Wasserstrom

China in the 21st Century
by Jeffrey Wasserstrom

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It’s 25 years to the day that the Chinese government sent in tanks to Tiananmen Square to deal with its citizens who were protesting there. What should we make of the events of that night, a quarter of a century later?

There are a variety of things about it that are extraordinary. First of all, it’s extraordinary that we are talking about it 25 years on and the government is still trying to repress discussion of it. Even though the Chinese Communist Party is, in some ways, in such a strong position, at moments like this you see a deep insecurity show through — in its lack of confidence in making its own story stick. It has a story that it sometimes tells, about it being necessary to use force to create the stability that China needed to develop. But it obviously isn’t confident enough of that story to allow broad discussion of what took place. The more I think about it, the reason why I think it has so much trouble dealing with it is that a core part of the story that it tells its people about why it deserves to rule has to do with the People’s Liberation Army. The PLA was the force that helped liberate the Chinese people from mistreatment by foreign partners. But what we saw 25 years ago was the People’s Liberation Army behaving very much like an army of occupation. That may be what is hardest for the Party about it.

It’s also an important moment because so much that has happened since 1989 in many different arenas only makes sense if you think of those in charge being determined not to have to face something like it again. You see that in the way the government has dealt very harshly with certain kinds of protests — whenever they have an organized side to them, or connect people from different parts of the country and different social classes. You also see it in some of the things that the government has changed about how China is run — the fact they’ve given people many more choices in their everyday life. They realized that part of the frustration that led so many people onto the streets was the fact that there were so many limitations on how people could behave in private, and the choices they could make. A lot of the expansion of choices that people have had are, in part, giving in to some of the things that protestors demanded, even while stomping down on the protests and preventing anything like them from happening again.

So the protests had some positive achievements?

Yes, they need to be seen as having been partially successful. Some of the things that were grievances the government has tried to ameliorate since then — while holding the line very sharply on some of the other kinds of things that people were pushing for.

Let’s talk about some of these issues in more detail as we go through the books. First on your list is sociologist Craig Calhoun’s Neither Gods Nor Emperors. The title is, I believe, a line from the Communist anthem, The Internationale?

Yes, I like that about it. It’s sometimes forgotten that that was one of the songs that the students rallied to. Calhoun is now director of the London School of Economics. He was an outsider to Chinese studies, but he was in China at the time of the protests in 1989, teaching a course on social movements. He brought a freshness to thinking about what was going on that sometimes people who are specialists in a topic miss. One of the first things that caught my attention in a short piece he wrote was how the snowballing of the movement — the number of people joining it — had a lot to do with friendship circles and people being brought into the movement due to connections among classmates. There’s this interest in the nitty-gritty of what gave coherence to this rapidly growing mass movement.

Once he became fascinated by the protests, he immersed himself in the literature on China, going deeper and deeper into Chinese history. He pays a lot of attention to the historical precedents for the movement and the links to student movements of China’s past. At the time, a lot of the commentary and press coverage focused on the protests going on in other parts of the socialist world. Sometimes the rootedness in China’s own specific traditions, and things that made these protests really quite different, were glossed over. Flagging the role of The Internationale gets at this. The movement was, in some ways, calling on a Communist Party to live up to its own professed ideals, as opposed to saying — as many protestors simultaneously on the streets in Poland or East Germany were saying — ‘We’re sick and tired of everything associated with Communist Party rule’ or ‘We think of the Communist Party as an external group that’s been imposed on us.’ In China, the Communist Party arose with the struggle for national liberation. The students really wanted Chinese leaders to be the kinds of people they claimed to want to be, and to lead a Party that stood for the things they claimed it should stand for.

And is that part of the reason the protests succeeded in other countries and not in China?

That was certainly part of it. I don’t think Calhoun says this, but in many ways the Tiananmen protests — if there was a parallel to an eastern or central European event — were more like the 1968 rising, the Prague Spring –a last effort to tie a popular movement around reformist figures within the Communist parties that were in control. The Chinese students didn’t want any particular reformist leader to take control, but they wanted the reformist strains within the party to come through, somehow.

If it hadn’t ended in this brutal crackdown 25 years ago tonight, how different do you think China could have been?

That’s venturing into alternative history or even science fiction – which is fascinating to speculate on, but…What I do know is that, while I wasn’t in China 25 years ago, I was there in 1986-7 when there were the warm-up protests to 1989. At the time, there was a real sense of open-endedness, of people wondering what kind of shape China would take. China seemed to be going into uncharted territory (as did the Soviet Union) with reformist experiments going on and who knew where they would go? After 1989, that sense of open-ended possibility was closed off. It became clear that the Party was not going to give up its monopoly of power. Something emerged quite quickly, this consumerist version of Communist Party rule. It was something new, it had not been seen before, but China was very much on a set trajectory. There would be a combination of consumerism, a mantra of stability being necessary, and an emphasis on nationalism. These kind of cohered and from the 1990s onwards there hasn’t again been that sense of ideas being in play that could take things in all different directions.

So it put in place this rigid system of free and easy consumerism combined with coming down on any organized political dissent like a ton of bricks…

Yes, though it’s important to mention there has been variation over the last 25 years. There have been moments of tightening and moments of loosening. One of the disturbing things right now is how frequent the periods of tightening are and how rare the moments of relaxation — that allow intellectuals to at least feel they can catch their breath — are.

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What do you think of the view that the government was not entirely in the wrong to put an end to the protests, given China’s subsequent rapid economic development and the millions lifted out of poverty? Haven’t even one or two of the student leaders expressed certain regrets?

Certainly there are people who make that argument — about the need for stability so people can lift themselves out of poverty, is the way I would put it, rather than anybody doing the lifting from above. There’s also been an ongoing debate about whether things could have turned out differently if there had been more compromise early on within the movement. A lot of the second-guessing by people who took part is about whether a willingness to accept small gains and retreat from the square would have made a difference. That whole debate is a central part of the film, The Gate of Heavenly Peace, that I mention as my final choice. That’s a real debate. At the time, there were voices within the movement calling for a more conciliatory approach. But the dynamic seemed to privilege the opposite. The more idealistic the voice was, the more magnified it became, and caution became seen as a lack of heroism.

Let’s go on to your next choice, a series of articles edited by Jonathan Unger, The Pro-Democracy Movement: Reports from the Provinces.

What is important about this book is that while within China there has been an effort of forced amnesia by the government, in the West there has often been a very selective remembering of 1989. Things that are sometimes left out are the complexity of the movement and the importance of the role of workers. What often also gets forgotten is how many other cities were affected by large-scale protests. In fact, part of what kept driving the protests in Beijing was the arrival of people who’d begun protesting in the provinces but then took the train to become part of the protests at Tiananmen Square. This book is largely a collection of first-hand analyses — generally by people with deep knowledge of China — about what was going on in other parts of the country. Given the fact that nearly all of the video footage, and a lot of the photographic documentation deals with central Beijing, it’s a tremendously important counterbalance. The book captures the extent to which this really was a movement of urbanites throughout the country.

Giving a sense of the scale of the protests and again raising the question of whether things could have turned out differently. I recently read an article by Jonathan Mirsky who was there at the time and, how to him, at that moment, it felt like the protests were going to succeed.

It’s really important to recapture that sense. When I think back to what was surprising about 1989 it wasn’t that there was a crackdown on large-scale protests. What was surprising was how long they went on and how far they spread. It affected so many different social groups: there were journalists taking part, there were whole work units turning out for marches. Then this sense developed of, “Well maybe this is going to be a game-changing event.” For something to grow that big in China there had to be some kind of divide within leadership — and if there was a divide in the leadership, why couldn’t the seemingly unimaginable happen and the movement succeed?

Next up is New Ghosts, Old Dreams, which I haven’t come across before.

On my list of books I felt I needed to have a source book with documents produced by thinkers and activists of the time with as wide a variety of Chinese voices possible. New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices is a series of collections of speeches and writings of the time, pulled together by Geremie Barmé and Linda Jaivin. It’s an unusually creative and varied contribution. It brings in artistic currents, it brings in some voices from history — the figures from China’s past that rebels in 1989 found appealing. It’s an unusual book, it’s more of a collage than a straightforward collection of documents, but even that unwieldiness helps capture something significant about the movement. It was partly carefully reasoned speeches, partly rock and roll, partly youth movement, partly intellectual counter-culture movement — as well as a more straightforwardly political movement.

Yes, because when you see the photos of the time, before the crackdown, the students in the square were having quite a good time. They weren’t just protesting…

There was a way in which it was a festival. Some of the photos are very powerful. They show people dancing, during the period before it became a standoff between the troops and the students. So I think it’s important to get that side of it in, which Geremie Barmé does. He also has a chapter, “Beijing Days, Beijing Nights” in the Unger book. He’s a very hard to categorize cultural historian and cultural analyst of China. Linda Jaivin is an experienced translator and novelist and has also written about Chinese rock music. The things they bring to that project — a historical sensibility but also an interest in the popular culture of contemporary China — makes the book stand out.

Your next choice is Louisa Lim’s The People’s Republic of Amnesia. What a great title.

Yes, and a great book. It’s the most important book to deal with 1989 in a long time: to my mind at least in the past decade. It’s powerful in the way it revisits the events of 1989 through profiles of participants. For example, we hear from a soldier who was involved in the crackdown and has rethought his role in events since then. The book also has a new investigation of a massacre that took place outside of Beijing, a few days later, in Chengdu. It was known about in specialist circles so it wasn’t as if this was something she discovered out of nowhere, but she did some very determined and brave investigation of the details. So that is one contribution of the book.

But the biggest contribution is its careful charting of the efforts by the government to suppress memory and discussion of 1989 over a long stretch of time, as well as the daring ways in which people have pushed back against that  — figures like the Tiananmen Mothers, who she spent time interviewing. It’s a courageous book, it’s a well written book, and it’s an important one.

Is there any clarity about how many people died that night?

We still don’t know that. There’s very little clarity, in part because there have been such limitations on the kind of investigations you can do. Through careful piecing together of the story of individual victims that the Tiananmen Mothers  have done, we know that there were more than a couple of hundred who died. We just don’t know how high that goes. We know there was crowd violence against soldiers in which a small number were killed in quite gruesome ways. We know that a much larger number of ordinary civilians were killed. We know some of them were students but many were members of other social groups, some of them people who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, bystanders, people in neighbourhoods where shooting began. We know that many more deaths were caused by weapon fire than by tanks actually rolling over people. By the way if Louisa Lim’s book hadn’t come out, the book I would have put in this slot would have been Quelling the People by historian Timothy Brook. That remains the most detailed account we have of the massacre itself. It’s a very carefully researched work.

What do you think the consequences are for a country of being a People’s Republic of Amnesia?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, what’s distinctive about it. First of all, this is not the only subject the government tries to hush up discussion of in China. What’s peculiar is the way discussion of 1989 is closed off so completely. There is discussion, in a very general sense, of the Cultural Revolution. You’re discouraged from investigating the details of who did what and where, but it’s not problematic to say casually in a setting, including even in university classrooms, that the Cultural Revolution was a very difficult time for the country and some very horrible things were done during it. In the case of 1989, this emphasis on absolutely no discussion is peculiar, especially because initially there was discussion of it. At the time, the government was encouraging discussion of it to gain adherence for its story: that this was just a chaotic riot that was going to plunge the country back into the bad old days of the Cultural Revolution, and that strong measures were needed. For months after the massacre, there was quite a lot of publication within China about it, trying to spin the story into a direction that would make the government’s actions look justified. Liu Xiaobo’s writings were even republished. He was described as one of the “blackhands” behind the movement. I’ve seen a copy of his collected writings published by the Party — to get people to read it and realize how misguided he was! Then there was a shift towards clamping down on all discussion of it.

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I think there are a lot of events around the world that authorities would prefer people not to talk about or maybe even discourage people from talking about, and there are unpleasant parts of every country’s past that are left out of textbooks or don’t get the kind of attention they deserve. But the intensity of the Chinese government’s efforts to prevent discussion and this year – quite alarmingly — the move from cracking down on public commemoration to detaining and arresting people for a private commemorative activity is very, very worrisome.

It suggests that although the government says it made the right choice that night, they don’t really believe it and they know it was a big mistake.

That would be one way to think about it. Or simply that if a full reckoning came out there would be no way to make it a look like a proportionate use of force. One thing that is going on now that is unexpected is that many people thought that over time the toxicity of the events for the Party would be diminished. The people in power would be less connected to the people who made the decision to use force. Maybe it was just a matter of waiting until more people with direct blood on their hands had disappeared from the scene. It would be easier once Deng Xiaoping had died, or people like Li Peng had faded from view. Part of the problem now is that Xi Jinping has identified very directly and intensely with Deng Xiaoping. So it’s getting harder rather than easier for the Chinese leadership to open the space for saying ‘This was a mistake,’ because it’s an action very much identified with Deng Xiaoping.

Also, a lot of the anger in 1989 was about corruption, and that hasn’t changed. 

That’s the biggest thing that hasn’t gone away. It’s important to always keep in mind how much the movement was as much anti-corruption as pro-democracy. Even though two of the books I chose have democracy in the title or subtitle I generally try to use other terms — to talk about it as a people’s movement, or a popular protest, because I do think that outrage at corruption, a real anger at unfairness, is what drove things — and still drives protests today.

Lastly you’ve picked the website for the 1995 film, The Gate of Heavenly Peace. I have to say I thought this was a fantastic movie. When the protests happened, I was teaching in rural Zimbabwe so I just heard what was happening via the BBC World Service. Then, years later, when I was at grad school, I watched this movie and I thought it was amazingly evocative. It made me feel like I’d been there.

It’s a very powerful film. I was one of the historical consultants on it. It needed to be very focused on Beijing, because that’s where the footage was and the power of the film largely comes from that. I love the fact that in trying to capture what was going on there are very powerful interviews with workers. Han Dongfang, the organizer of the independent labour union, who is still a labour activist in Hong Kong, comes off more eloquently and powerfully than perhaps anybody else in the film. There are also a variety of voices of intellectuals at different places on the political spectrum, with different life experiences, as well as discussions with students. It’s a very powerful film and I think the website was ahead of its time in being coupled with a film from a very early point. It gives you excerpts from the film and also brings in other kinds of audiovisual materials and written texts. So there are sections from some books I’ve mentioned. There are also links to important articles including the best article from the time specifically about the role of the workers in the movement, which often gets eclipsed by the student narrative. The fact that workers were turning out to support the students is a crucial part of what worried the government so much. This was partly because of its own experience, historically, of students taking to the streets first and workers following them. This was especially the case when it was felt that the people in power were not acting as worthy leaders. The intellectuals spoke out as the voice of the nation, the voice of conscience, and the workers would follow the clarion call of intellectuals out onto the street, which is something that does not usually happen in the United States. But it was also because the combination of students/intellectuals plus workers was something that was going on in Poland at the time, with Solidarity. China’s leaders were very aware of this so they saw this multiclass activity — both in 1989 and since — as the thing they need to guard against.

Yes, not only does the film make the events come alive – both the festival-like atmosphere on the square in April and May and the heart-breaking events of June 4th and afterwards – but it’s also a serious discussion of what the movement was about. When I studied Chinese politics at Harvard, our professor encouraged us to go and watch it.

Like the best books, there are people who disagree with parts of its emphasis, or parts of its interpretation, but it is a really significant interpretation of the events of 1989. It generates debate and discussion at a serious level about very big issues, such as the potential for popular struggles to lead to change quickly. It raises a lot of very important issues, so I think it should be taken seriously in the way that a serious work of interpretive scholarship should be taken.

Another important thing about 1989 is that Chinese events take on different significance or resonance as history moves on. Immediately after the movement, it was hard to separate it out from the images that were coming out of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia and so forth. Now, when you watch this film, or think back to Tiananmen, it’s the images of the Arab Spring that are on your mind. There’s a lot of things that resonate — for example the ongoing importance of taking control of a large public square, which we saw again with Tahrir Square.

I do think the complicated way history has moved on in the last 25 years is part of the mix in thinking about how the Chinese Communist Party has managed to stay in control. One of the lucky breaks the Party has gotten in the last couple of decades is the many places they can point to around the world where a change away from authoritarianism has led to a very divisive and difficult period. I’m always on the side of people struggling against authoritarianism, but it’s easier than it should be for the Chinese Communist Party to point to places like the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and say — without ever saying it in so many words — to the people of China, “You may hate us, but are you positive that what could come after us would be better? Couldn’t it end up like the former Yugoslavia, that just descended into civil war and ethnic cleansing?” More recently, they were very nervous about the Arab Spring protests when they began, but they were quickly able to find places in the Arab world to point to and emphasize in the official media as object lessons in roads you probably wouldn’t want your country to go down…The fact that the world is so deficient at the moment in terms of positive models for change is something that makes it easier than it should be for the Chinese Communist Party to tell the kind cynical tale it likes to tell about the dangers of change, the ease with which change might lead to chaos and turmoil.

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Which is why it’s all the more mystifying they’re not prepared to have a discussion about the events of June 4th.

Yes, but even though they’re not having that discussion, the official media can still saturate life in China — down to the television programs playing in the subway. They’re continually playing up the difficulties being experienced by other places in the world, countries that are experiencing chaos and turmoil, as well as reminding people of a time when China was weaker than it is now, and bullied by other countries. So there are images from World War II, and they particularly play up Japanese aggression in China, as a continual reminder of where China once was. Implicitly they are trying to pave the way for a situation where even some knowledge of what really happened in 1989 won’t necessarily lead people to the conclusion that China would have gone down a positive route if the troops hadn’t been called in. It’s a complicated and sometimes convoluted logic, but what the Communist Party talks a lot about is important, as well as what they try to maintain silence over. They work together.

One point China scholar Roderick MacFarquhar made when I interviewed him is that the Chinese are always criticizing the Japanese for their failure to come to terms with history and the horrible things they did in China during World War II. But the Chinese themselves are equally bad at coming to terms with their own history, and the horrible things Chinese people did to other Chinese people. He was talking about the Cultural Revolution, but perhaps it also applies to 1989…

I think this is precisely the way to push the Chinese government. They are putting so much emphasis on the need for other countries to come to terms with difficult periods in their own past — but they’ve also got a lot to answer for on that score.

Though as you pointed out earlier, every country has historical episodes that are painful to come to terms with and we prefer to live in ignorance about…

I’ve been thinking about that. There were plenty of things I grew up not knowing about that happened in my own country’s past. Every country has things they’re not good at coming to terms with, dark periods from their own past. For example, I don’t think I ever learned in school about the forced internment of American citizens of Japanese ancestry during World War II. There were a lot of things that were swept under the rug, at least in textbooks. But it wasn’t that you would be fired from your job as a teacher if you brought one of those up in a classroom. That’s what makes the Chinese effort to impose amnesia different.

This interview was published on June 4th, 2014

ADDITIONAL RECOMMENDATION FROM JEFFREY WASSERSTROM, 5 years later on the 30th anniversary of June 4th: (VIA TWITTER):

Has anything unmissable come out in the past 5 years?

Bullets and Opium by Liao Yiwu (w/ an introduction by Ian Johnson) would definitely be a contender for inclusion if I did this now, but not sure what I cut off the list to make room for it.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

June 3, 2014

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Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor's Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine. He specializes in modern Chinese history, with a strong interest in how China's past relates to the present as well as events elsewhere in the world. He is focused on popular protests in particular. He has written a number of books about modern Chinese history, both for academic and for general audiences. You can find him on Twitter at @jwassers.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor's Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine. He specializes in modern Chinese history, with a strong interest in how China's past relates to the present as well as events elsewhere in the world. He is focused on popular protests in particular. He has written a number of books about modern Chinese history, both for academic and for general audiences. You can find him on Twitter at @jwassers.