The Power of Tiananmen: Intellectual Activity and the Student Movement

by Dingxin Zhao

Student protesters at the 1989 Beijing Student Movement in Tiananmen square.

emories of Mao's tyranny continued to haunt--and terrify--Chinese intellectuals. They therefore consistently pushed the state for more economic reform and for opening up the political system. But however radical they were, the majority of intellectuals during the early 1980s demonstrated a strong desire to act as a "loyal opposition," intent upon reforming rather than abolishing the system. Intentions aside, however, the activities and demands of intellectuals often fundamentally challenged the regime's legitimacy. Such challenges resulted in several major conflicts between the state and intellectuals, as indicated by the crackdown on "democracy walls" in 1979, the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign in late 1983, and the Anti-Bourgeois Liberalization Campaign in early 1987. Each of these campaigns created dissident heroes while demoralizing other intellectuals. Ironically, as China became more and more open, state-intellectual relations actually worsened. Therefore, when China's economic reform went into a crisis, intellectuals diagnosed the root cause of the economic crisis to be not too much reform but not enough reform, and the state adjustment policies during the crisis to be a conservative revival. Consequently, intellectuals indulged in a crisis discourse. This discourse immediately spread to the universities and contributed to the frequent student movements after 1986, which culminated in 1989. In this section, I will provide a critical look at the major activities of Chinese intellectuals during the late 1980s and at their role in the rise of the 1989 Movement. I will limit my discussion to four related intellectual discourses and activities: the "reportage novel fever," the "River Elegy fever," the "world citizenship" discussion, and the "conference fever."

Reportage novels

The reportage novel arose out of the intellectuals' reaction to unsatisfactory realities. A strong sense of social responsibility revealed in some of the reportage novels was very touching. Many social problems explored therein were real, and the intellectuals' analyses were interesting. However, the rhetoric of reportage novels also showed the strong elitism, idealism, and opportunism of Chinese intellectuals.

What is a reportage novel? In its ideal form, it is a combination of a news report and a novel, that is, the content of a reportage novel should be real and have news value. No fabrication is allowed. A reportage novel is not just a piece of news, however. It should read like a novel and should therefore be artistic. In order to make their argument look more authoritative, the authors of reportage novels also employ bits and pieces from "philosophy, economics, ethics, law, sociology, psychology, and even environmental sciences and architecture." Some of them even used survey data and statistics and carried out interviews and participant observation to buttress their arguments.

Yet mainstream reportage novels of that time were never really intended to report a true story to readers in a novel form. Their topics ranged across the field of social problems, including inflation, official corruption, crime, prostitution, begging, suicide, brain drain, demography, rural-city migration, the one-child policy, private business, education, social ethics, marriage and divorce, history, ethnic conflicts, and so on. The reportage novelists wrote out of their general concerns for social problems and their sense of social responsibility.

The reportage novel combined social sciences, journalism, and fiction into one form. In contrast to social science, data collection and analysis in reportage novel writing is generally driven by the authors' preexisting views rather than by hypotheses. While journalists strive for distinctive effects, social scientists aim for representative results. Furthermore, novel writing contradicts the methodologies of both the social sciences and journalism, because even writers of realistic novels do not follow a true story faithfully. In reality, the fact gathering and presentation of most reportage novels has been heavily bent toward journalism or even novelizing. For example, in Shensheng Yousilu (A record of holy concerns), Su and Zhang try to sound the alarm over China's primary and middle school education crisis and attribute the root of the crisis mainly to the poor economic status of teachers. To show how bad the living conditions were for schoolteachers, they portray two extreme cases:

Two small rooms, only eighteen square meters in total, are a dwelling for six people. It is so low so that you can touch the ceiling by hand, and very damp; it receives no sunlight all day long, and therefore, the floor is wet; and so crude, the wind comes in winter, so does the rain in summer. . . .
This was the living space of a special-grade teacher with forty years of teaching experience. He had lived here for thirty-three years. . . . The poor environment destroyed his health. He was tortured by pulmonary emphysema for many years and frequently coughed non-stop in classes. [The disease and the environment] tortured him more and more in his later years. He died in this dilapidated house.
The second story runs:
In a southern big city, there was an old teacher with over thirty years of teaching experience. Eight family members had only twenty-one square meters of living space. When he stayed in the hospital for his liver cancer, he cried "house," "house," continuously in a coma. Before he died, his family members had to tell him a lie that they were allocated "a three-bedroom apartment." He was then able to close his eyes and went to heaven.
All big cities in China had serious housing problems during the 1980s, but was the average living condition of schoolteachers significantly worse than that of the rest of the population, as this reportage novel implied? The answer could be in the affirmative, but the question cannot be addressed by simply considering a few extreme cases. Extreme cases, however, were highly effective in agitating both already aggrieved intellectuals and many others. The above paragraphs really evoked a strong emotion in me while I was reading them, as did some additional commentaries in the reportage novel, such as: "Is it not said that teachers are the engineers of the soul of mankind? Why is it that their own souls do not even have a place to stay?" "All are human, why can some live spaciously while others have to live in awkward, embarrassing, and painful ways?" My reaction was typical. "When his (that is, Su's) works were published, in some mountainous areas they were hand copied from one village to another and in some counties they were even duplicated by photocopying. Many people read them with tears."

Most of the reportage novelists also adopted social theories to buttress their arguments. Words such as "sociologically," "psychologically," "linguistically," "philosophically," and "historically" sometimes appear all together in a single reportage novel. Such glosses made reportage novels more appealing to readers. For example, in Di'er Qudao (The second channel), Jia Lusheng uses the IQ concept to glorify vicious competition among private book dealers, and between the dealers and a state-owned bookstore, in a lawless market:

The 1980s are an era of IQ competition. . . .
Illiterates win the commercial competition even over the university graduates [i.e., a state-owned bookstore manager]. What does this say? It says that the IQ of lizards is higher than that of dinosaurs. . . . What we need is a little flexibility. That is why most members in the "ten thousand yuan family" have low educational levels. Education means little. Whether you can get rich wholly depends on your IQ.
The following quotation from the same novel presents the same view through the mouth of a private book dealer:
My success is mainly due to my high IQ. . . . The stronger the competition, the more conflicts between competition and morality. What shall we follow, morality or competition? Morality [only] helps the incompetent ones. However, the law of nature is [only] in favor of competition. . . . How is a baby born? Three hundred million sperm rush to an egg, and only one succeeds. I am sure it is the best one. This is how a baby is made.
Obviously, the author has no real knowledge of the IQ concept, or of IQ testing and its limitations. His lizard versus dinosaur analogy shows that the speaker misunderstood the mechanisms of biological evolution. He also does not seem to understand that competition will not automatically give rise to a healthy market without a state that at least supplies collective goods such as law, education, and other infrastructures.

However, regardless of the naïveté of the novelists, the reportage novels were highly attractive to uninitiated students and to an aggrieved urban population. In fact, a "reportage novel fever" rose as soon as reportage novels became popular in the mid-1980s. They achieved great popularity in part because of the persistence of social problems. However, the manner in which the novelists presented social problems was also important. The novel style allows a "true story" to be modified and exaggerated into a more effective form. The journalist's attitude makes the goal that of effective presentation rather than of accurate representation. The social science approach seduces naive students into treating these authors as sophisticated thinkers. Through their literary effectiveness, the politicized reportage novels effectively directed unhappy students toward certain ways of thinking.

The River Elegy TV series

The River Elegy series was a combined outcome of the culture fever and reportage novel fever. It presented a critique of Chinese culture in a style that resembled that of reportage novels. The first author of the script (Su Xiaokang) was one of the most influential reportage novelists of that time. However, more than a typical reportage novel, the TV series combined modern television, arts, journalism, history, and sociology into one form.

The series essentially argues that China's inward looking, river- and land-based "yellow civilization" has led to conservatism, ignorance, and backwardness. In order to survive, China has to learn from the maritime-based "azure civilizations" and to establish a market-based economy. To make the general argument of the TV series appear more authoritative, the authors adopted many Western theories, such as Wittfogel's irrigation-despotism thesis, Hegel's argument that land-based Chinese civilization leads to conservatism, and Toynbee's early notion that all civilizations had either been extinguished or were in the process of being extinguished except for Christian civilizations. In addition, the authors invited over ten "academically accomplished young and middle-aged [Chinese] scholars" from various disciplines to sit in a "studio" to "briefly explain or express their opinions on certain topics." Finally, much historical evidence was marshaled to support these theories.

Because of its careless citations of historical evidence, uncritical adoption of some highly questionable Western theories, and poorly thought out conclusions, the TV series received criticism from scholars in both mainland China and Taiwan. Some of their criticisms were well founded. Nevertheless, critics might have taken the matter too seriously, because even though the authors had intended to make the series look scholastic, it was not a truly scholarly work in terms of its nature, quality, and attitudes.

In terms of the extent to which the River Elegy TV series caught the attention of the general public, and especially of the students, it was extremely successful. Its immense passion, elegant prose, and sobering tone were fully extended by its temporally and spatially unbounded moving pictures, further adding to its theoretical flavor, and showcasing a way of thinking that was novel to most Chinese. The series captured the attention of millions of Chinese as soon as it was televised by the China Central Television Station (CCTV) during prime time in June 1988. A "River Elegy fever" developed immediately. Students in universities discussed and debated various issues raised in the series. After watching the program many people wanted to have a copy of the script, leading to the rapid sale of over five million copies of it. Pushed by high demand, as well as supported by the then CCP general secretary Zhao Ziyang, the CCTV re-televised the whole program. The viewing rate among intellectuals and students was incredibly high. Among fifty-eight informants to whom I posed the question: "Did you watch the TV series River Elegy?" fifty had watched the complete TV series, five had watched part of it, and only three had not watched it at all.

As expected, students' assessments of the TV series were very positive. When I asked: "What did you think about the TV series when you watched it?" among the fifty-five informants who watched the series, only six expressed negative feelings. Among the forty-nine informants who evaluated the series positively, thirty reported that the series provided them with a new angle with which to look at history and that they totally believed the arguments which it presented. Another nineteen more or less insisted that although the series was scholastically less than sound, it elicited a sense of crisis among Chinese that was positive for the development of the country. The series was also highly praised by some China specialists on the same grounds. For example, Madsen praised how "with an extraordinary sophisticated use of video images to convey a sweeping historical and philosophical argument about the state of Chinese culture, the series achieved a level of rhetorical power and conceptual complexity rarely reached by television documentaries in the West." Madsen is right. A similar TV series would have never been televised by the mainstream Western media because of Western media's conformist nature.

The world citizenship discussion

In 1988, when China's economic reform faced serious problems, Chinese intellectuals were actively looking for solutions. At the beginning of this unusual year, an article was published in the World Economic Herald of February 15, entitled "Facing the Last Year of the Dragon of the Century: The Most Urgent Problem for Chinese is still the Problem of World Citizenship." The subtitle of this article is "Alarm: The Economic Gap is still Widening Between China and the Developed Countries, and even Some Developing Countries." Coinciding with the economic downturn, this article sparked a huge surge of crisis discourse centered on the world citizenship discussion. In the World Economic Herald alone, at least fifteen articles on the topic appeared in 1988. Many other Chinese newspapers were also involved, including the leading official paper, the People's Daily. A panel discussion was held in Beijing in August to discuss the issue. The World Economic Herald compiled discussions from different sources into a book series. Even Taiwan and Hong Kong media were eventually involved in the discussion.

The crisis consciousness was widely praised. For example, China's most renowned scientist, Qian Xuesen, argued that the "world citizenship" discussion could strengthen a sense of national solidarity. An article published in the People's Daily also states that "Crisis consciousness is an engine for a country's development." The tide of another article in the World Economic Herald of May 16, 1988 claims that "China has to have people to speak out." During the discussion, "letters rushed to the World Economic Herald like snow flakes." The following are two examples cited from those letters: "The world has given China a yellow card. China has to have a general mobilization!" and "Stand up, those who do not want their world citizenship to be revoked!" In the summer of 1988, the discussion had created another fever on a scale that matched the contemporaneous River Elegy fever. A pervasive sense of crisis formed, extending beyond intellectual elites to the wider sphere of intellectuals and students.

The conference fever

During the 1980s, China's university students were considered, and considered themselves, to be intellectuals. The relationship between intellectual elites and university students was very close. In Fang Lizhi's speeches and writings, for example, it is easy to see that his main audiences were first students and then Westerners. Other intellectual elites were also highly popular on campuses. The following is a report on students' enthusiasm toward Liu Binyan when he made a speech at a university in Shanghai:

Invited by the Student Union of Tongji University, Liu Binyan delivered a speech on November 6 [1986] at the Tongji auditorium. The auditorium can hold three thousand people; however, students from many other universities also wanted to attend the meeting. Finally, even the passageway of the auditorium and the area outside were jammed with students. At least over five thousand students attended the event.
The same situation was repeated when Fang Lizhi spoke at the same university two weeks later. In 1986, this kind of campus speech was still uncommon. By 1988, however, as China's economy declined, making speeches in universities became a major channel for intellectuals to spread their ideas. Consequently, a "conference fever" formed in China's major universities. As an informant told me (no.68), between 1988 and early 1989 several conferences would be held each day in Beijing University. Some of his classmates spent most of their time in attending conferences rather than in classroom study.

Speeches at conferences are not the same as formal publications. Government censorship of formal publications pushed most intellectuals to hide some of their views. However, intellectuals spoke frankly in the conferences. For example, Jin Guantao once said in a conference at Beijing University that "one of the heritages of the twentieth century is the experimentation and failure of socialism." He definitely would not and could not have published this kind of comment formally. One of the frequent attendees of the conferences at Beijing University told me (no.63): "In the conferences, they all tried to challenge the government. [During that period], if one wanted to complete a speech at Beijing University, one had to attack the communists. Otherwise, the students would simply jeer the speaker off the stage."

The impact of the conferences on the rise of the 1989 Movement is obvious. Among the forty-two valid informants whom I asked about the frequency of their conference attendance, twenty-three reported low attendance and nineteen reported high attendance. However, among the low conference attendance group, nineteen (82.6%) had a lower or median level of participation during the movement. In contrast, among the high conference attendance group, sixteen (84.2%) informants were either activists or organizers during the movement. There is a very strong correlation between students' level of conference attendance and level of movement participation during the 1989 Movement.

The River Elegy, world citizenship discussion, and conference fevers caused major theoretical thinking and concerns to spread from small scholastic circles to a wider population. They narrowed the political orientations of students to several key issues, and fostered the establishment of politically oriented student networks. By 1989 Chinese society was ripe for a large-scale movement.


I argue that the patterns of intellectuals' political activities during the 1980s were shaped by state-intellectual relations during the hundred years following the emergence of modern Chinese intellectuals, and particularly by the way intellectuals were treated by the state during Mao's era. Under imperialist pressure, Chinese intellectuals during the late Qing dynasty and the Republican era persistently sought a strong state that could defend the nation, an action that finally led to the rise of communism. Yet the communist state, the strong state of which intellectuals had dreamed, became a problem because the state performed less well in economic modernization than it did in implementing political repression. The painful experiences of intellectuals during Mao's era pushed them to fight for democracy. Still, the intellectuals themselves also inherited strong Maoist legacies: the unchecked state power under Mao had frightened Chinese intellectuals and drove them to take democracy as the prerequisite of Chinese modernization; the long-standing Marxist mode of education had given them a utopian vision; Mao's mass mobilization had nourished a populist understanding of democracy; and thirty years of repression and isolation had created an educated class with a great information deficiency and with opportunistic attitudes. All these factors contributed to the dominance of idealism, opportunism, and radicalism among Chinese intellectuals, forming an ethos which in turn shaped intellectual discourses during the 1980s and facilitated the rise of the 1989 Movement.


Dingxin Zhao is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Chicago and author of numerous articles on student nationalism in China. He received his first Ph.D. in Entomology in 1990, and his second in sociology in 1995, both from McGill University.

COPYRIGHT | Excerpted from pages 68-78 of The Power of Tiananmen: State-Society Relations and the 1989 Beijing Student Movement by Dingxin Zhao, published by the University of Chicago Press. Copyright 2001 The University of Chicago.

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