Students in China now are far better off and have far more to lose than their predecessors did in 1989. Then, isolation from the outside world and soaring inflation helped turn the students' demonstrations into a nationwide protest, with workers across the country staging strikes to both support the students and put forward their own demands. But after two decades of rapid economic growth, many students are willing to give the government more time to pursue the country's current development path.
That's not to say that students at Beijing University, the seedbed of the protests 20 years ago, are entirely apolitical. But unlike in 1989, many today believe that the government, gradually, is taking the country in the right direction
The Globe and Mail Beijing correspondent Mark MacKinnon took questions on the legacy of the Tiananmen Square protests.
Before being posted to China, Mr. MacKinnon was the Middle East correspondent and before that, Moscow bureau chief. He has covered wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya and Lebanon, as well as the popular revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine. Mr. MacKinnon who has been at The Globe and Mail since 1998, is a two-time winner of the National Newspaper Award. His first book, The New Cold War: Revolutions, Rigged Elections and Pipeline Politics in the Former Soviet Union, was published in 2007 by Random House.
Mr. MacKinnon was on-line earlier for a discussion with readers.
Philippe Devos, deputy foreign editor: Welcome Mark, and thanks for joining us. I'll open it right away to readers' questions.
Guidi asks: I recently attended a lecture given by Stuart Franklin, the photographer who took the famous "Tankman" photo that summed up what everyone felt about Tiannamen Square. According to Franklin, the Tiananmen Square protest was NEVER about wanting democracy but a revolt against the incredible corruption that was part of China at the time. Today, while corruption no doubt still exists (as it does everywhere), possibly it is not so endemic. You'll note that the government is quick to point fingers now at whomever is considered to be responsible (melamine in milk, lead in toy paint, $$-taking bureaucrats, etc.) and the corrupt are seen to be punished. That defuses a lot of tension.
Mark: Hi Guidi. Thanks for the question.
The question of what motivated the Tiananmen protests of 20 years ago is a complex thing. Certainly, in the beginning, they were not about democracy, they sprang simply from the desire of students to mourn the death of Hu Yaobang, a popular reformer who had been ousted as Communist Party chief two years earlier.
As the protests grew, they morphed into an anti-corruption movement which was something that nearly all Chinese could support. Towards the end, many students began demanding democracy and an end to Communist Party rule, as symobolized by the erection of the very Statue of Liberty-like "Goddess of Democracy" facing Chairman Mao's portrait on Tiananmen Square.
I, too, have heard the argument that the Tiananmen protests were never about democracy, but rarely from those who were there on the square on June 4. They knew what they were there for, and by then - after six weeks of protests - it was much bigger than corruption or Hu Yaobang.
As for the idea that corruption has faded as a concern, I'm not sure I can agree with that either. Several of the students I talked to in researching this article were quick to point out that China was ranked as the 72nd least-corrupt country in Transparency International's 2008 ranking, compared to 52nd in 1998. Of course, there were more countries in the 2008 ranking, but the fact university students had such numbers at their fingertips suggests that corruption was certainly a top-of-mind issue for them.
(That mood was darkly captured last week after the suicide of former South Korean president Roh Moon-Hyun, who was being investigated for corruption. Chinese netizens - and these comments were even reproduced in some official media - had a field day with comments along the lines of 'if only our corrupt leaders were as honourable as Mr. Roh...')
Philippe: Thanks Mark. Here's another question from our on-line comments.
Shannon Hall asks: Baby steps to democracy are far better than one giant leap - met with disappointment. Therefore, shouldn't we look at this as a turning point in China, rather than a failure?
I think it's a little crazy to expect a full fledged Communist system to turn into a democracy in one year. Had the revolution succeeded, China would have suffered the same fate as Russia.
There has to be a gradual period of transformation if you want it to succeed
I have all the confidence that China will become a positive influence on the world, and will see expanded freedoms within. I don't think the same can be said for Russia. One got democracy overnight, the other didn't.