The word democracy (minzhu) has meant many things for many people in China. It was the main element of sloganeering in 1989, observed by the student protesters more in its breach than its application.
Democracy has been at the center of ideological debates on and off since the turn of the century. It covers a range of meanings--free speech, representative government, the right to oppose the status quo, rebellion, and so on. It holds out a promise that has yet to be realized on Mainland China, although in recent years in Taiwan, in particular in 1996, democracy has found an increasingly practical application.
Here is what Liu Xiaobo, a university teacher and a leading activist in 1989 who features in THE GATE OF HEAVENLY PEACE, had to say at the beginning of the student protests:
...although Chinese intellectuals can grasp the theory of democracy, when it comes to its practical application they are at a complete loss... In China, the democracy movement is strong on sloganeering but weak on practical implementation. Chinese intellectuals are full of sound and fury but lack the patience required for detailed and concrete work. There is something very old hat about the present large-scale student movement. Chinese university students have been using the same methods to agitate for democracy since 1919: mass demonstrations. They're spontaneous and very exciting for a while, but they invariably peter out. The students lack creativity. In China, people have been shouting slogans about democracy for nearly a century, but no actual progress has been made towards the realization of it for the last seventy years. Surely, this is food for thought.
It's not that I oppose the radical actions of the students; I support them whole-heartedly. But they should be more patient and rational. In their efforts to find practical ways of implementing democratic methods and processes they should use concrete and pluralistic methods that actually get results.
[Quoted from Geremie R. Barmé and Linda Jaivin, New Ghosts, Old Dreams (New York: Random House, 1992), p. 45.]
Additional readings available on this site:
- A 4-page essay about the history of democracy in China.
- An essay by Andrew J. Nathan, Chinese Democracy in 1989: Continuity and Change, from Problems of Communism, Sept.- Oct. 1989.
For more information, see also Andrew J. Nathan, Chinese Democracy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).