At some point in late May 1989, amid weeks of demonstrations that brought several hundred thousand citizens demanding democratic reforms to Tiananmen Square, in Beijing, China’s leader, Deng Xiaoping, is reported to have declared that “200 dead could bring 20 years of peace.” By June 4, some 2,000 people, mostly local residents, had been killed.
The Tiananmen Square protests were the culmination of China’s long-running pro-democracy movement — and the massacre marked a peak of government repression.
Each year, as the June 4 anniversary approaches, the Chinese Communist Party jails dissidents and censors social media. It tries to purge reminders of any democratic movement from the country’s collective memory.
Has it succeeded?
The novelist Yan Lianke lamented in 2013, “In today’s China, amnesia trumps memory.” In 2014, the academic Edward Steinfeld bemoaned that “many parts of China have moved on, and to some extent forgotten” the event. The journalist Louisa Lim has said that China’s people are “complicit in an act of mass amnesia.”
We, instead, demonstrate that Chinese people remember Tiananmen and other democracy movements and commemorate them, especially on anniversaries, with yet more forms of protests, despite the government’s extraordinary efforts to erase or rewrite the historical record.
Our latest research on what we call “focal moments” shows not only that demands for democratic reform have persisted and resurged in mainland China throughout seven decades of Communist rule, but also that demonstrations, flash movements or pockets of resistance echo and reference previous ones and inspire the next.
Since today the C.C.P. is quick to repress any explicit demands for democracy or individual rights, open calls of that kind hardly occur. Nonetheless, there is a clear lineage between all these surges of contestation, and it is apparent from the calendar of protests — and the party’s calendar of repression — as well as the language used on protest days.
In addition to the Tiananmen Square movement, four other major occasions have informed this schedule. And our statistical work reveals that there are 30 percent more protests on the anniversaries marking those moments than on other days of the year, and that protest spikes (defined as an increase of one standard deviation over the average) are 50 percent more common on those days.
In the late 1970s, Deng launched a program of economic liberalization, including the so-called “four modernizations” in agriculture, industry, defense and science and technology. Hoping for political reform as well, in 1978 citizens throughout the country began putting up pro-democracy posters in public places, including in one spot in central Beijing that came to be known as “Democracy Wall.”
On Nov. 27, 1978, some 10,000 people marched from there to Tiananmen Square, the symbolic heart of Beijing. The activist Wei Jingsheng demanded that the government adopt democracy as a “fifth modernization,” a pointed rejoinder to Deng’s four. Scores of protesters were arrested, including Wei, who spent 18 years in prison. Democracy Wall was taken down.
In December 1986, university students rallied behind the public intellectual Fang Lizhi’s call that the C.C.P. treat the rights mentioned in China’s Constitution as “actual rights.” Tens of thousands of students protested at 150 universities and asked to directly elect representatives to the National People’s Congress. The government agreed to some demands and the students disbanded; then the government mostly reneged.
A few years later came the Tiananmen movement, sparked by the death of the reformist former C.C.P. leader Hu Yaobang. Many of the main participants from the 1978 demonstrations were prominent again in 1989. The activist Wang Dan later said that Fang’s activities in 1986 had “inspired the ’89 generation.”
In December 2008, some 300 Chinese intellectuals, lawyers and officials circulated a manifesto, Charter 08, demanding independent courts, basic human rights and an end to one-party rule. The first sentence noted that 2008 marked the 30th anniversary of the Democracy Wall movement; the document also mentioned “June Fourth” as one in “a string of human rights disasters” caused by the C.C.P.
Some 10,000 people signed the manifesto online before the government took it down — then it was distributed by hand. One of its leading authors, Liu Xiaobo, had gone on a hunger strike in 1989 at Tiananmen Square.
In November 2014, the C.C.P. announced that Dec. 4 would be a new holiday: Constitution Day, to commemorate the date on which the text had been adopted in 1982. Outraged at the irony — many rights nominally in the Constitution, like freedom of speech, religion or assembly, were routinely repressed — nearly 1,000 people protested in Beijing on Dec. 4, 2014. (On that first Constitution Day, the word “constitution” was the word most heavily censored on the microblogging platform Weibo.)
Some months earlier, dozens of journalists, lawyers and academics had written an open letter demanding that the government respect the Constitution. One section denounced restrictions on the right to assemble “promulgated hurriedly in the wake of the students and residents democratic movement in 1989.”
Today, after years of repression, protests tend to be less openly referential, and they employ more indirect language as a stand-in or proxy for democratic resistance.
An N.G.O. based in Hong Kong has collected nearly 40,000 images of protests on the mainland between 2014 and 2019. Using optical character recognition software, we analyzed the language from protesters’ banners and slogans, and reviewed related tweets.
We found frequent use of words and phrases like “citizens” and “the right to know,” or “people power” and “court enforcement.” The discourse is somewhat legalistic, but the message is still clear: This is, as the political scientist Lianjiang Li and others have argued, evidence of a “rights consciousness” and an inherent criticism of the C.C.P.
For example, on Dec. 4, 2014 — the first official Constitution Day — several thousand teachers in Yuzhou, a city in central China, went on strike demanding back pay — and “defending their legitimate rights.”
On June 4, 2017 — note the day, a reference to Tiananmen — hundreds of people marched in Hanzhong, northwestern China. They claimed to want to collect unpaid benefits from the local state-owned steel plant, but their banner — signed by hundreds — proclaimed, “The Government Works for Me!” Some discussed “Western theories of government” and called on the Chinese state to “act for the people.”
The scale of many of these protests might seem small for a country of 1.4 billion people today. But the C.C.P., for one, takes them seriously.
In our statistical analysis, we have found that the government represses protests that take place on anniversaries of pro-democracy movements twice as often as protests held on other days.
The legacy of Tiananmen, like that of other protests before it and since, lives on. Contestation persists in mainland China, if cautiously and in code.
Erin Baggott Carter and Brett Carter are assistant professors of political science at the University of Southern California.