Oiwan Lam (HK), on Global Voices Online, reports on a seminar held in Beijing on May 10 which discussed 20 years of democracy movement in China, and lists the participants and some of the topics discussed there. May 10 is Mother’s Day, and the seminar began with three minutes silence showing the participants’ respect for the Tiananmen mothers and the victims of the June 4th incident. InMediaHK provides additional information.
One of the participating groups were professors, and the first contribution came from Prof. Qian Liqun (钱理群) of Beijing University and now in his late 60s:
Twenty years ago many students gave up their lives for democracy in China. We as their teachers, we had not been able to protect them and we have lived with that guilt. Beida (Peking U) has a tradition of defending their students and 90 years ago during the May 4 movement whenever students were arrested by the authorities, the University principal Cai Yuanpei stood up to defend them. We are in debt to our students who sacrificed their lives and for all these years they have suffered an injustice in the history of the event. If we don’t speak out now, we don’t deserve the title of their teachers.
The conference discussed views about what made China’s rulers react the way they did:
Antagonistic rationality is an aspect of any authoritarian political culture. The repression of the 1989 patriotic movement by the CCP was the result of just such an antagonistic rationality. It regards all criticism against authority as ‘conspiracy’ and takes all comments, questions and interpretations of the State as denial of authority and denunciation with bad intent. This kind of rationale adopted by Deng Xiaoping and other CCP leaders is the beginning of all the wrongs in our history.
Applying more recent history, Prof. Qin Hui (秦晖) of Beijing’s Tsinghua University suggested that in comparison to the relations between democratic movements in Eastern Europe and their respective governments, the degree of trust between the 6-4 movement and China’s rulers had been much lower from the beginning.
Human right’s lawyer Teng Biao (滕彪) pointed out that today’s efforts to transform the political system were based on the foundations of the 6-4 movement, but both because of a changed political environment, and because of the existence of the internet, addressed relevant cases such as copyright infringement, last year’s Sanlu milk powder scandal, the Weng’ An County incident one by one, in a much more diverse way, thus promoting the rule of law and human rights.
Apparently, this refers to the 6-4 movement’s demands which were much more global – everyone knew different stories about graft and corruption, but there was no way to communicate them and react to them in the case-specific ways made possible by the new media these days. The Weng’An County incident also illustrates Qin Hui’s point about a deep lack of trust between people in government and the governed.
The seminar saw the 6-4 democracy movement in a tradition with the May-4 movement. It established a link between advocating human rights and patriotism. And it rejected the notion that stability could be earned by spilling blood. Rather, the existing gap between the rich and the poor kept pushing instability. Around the central notion of antagonistic rationality which in their view brought the June-4 incident about, the seminar developed its ideas of relationship between civil society and government.
At least several participants were academics “with a position in society”. Organizing the seminar most certainly required a lot of courage. If no crackdowns follow, it could also indicate a relaxing attitude by the Communist Party towards the way the Tiananmen Massacre is discussed and handled politically. At the same time, discussions among China’s elites (that might include complete student seminars) are much more open than public discussions in the press. Kang Xiaoguang advocated confucianizing the CCP in 2004, and explained why the idea of democracy didn’t enthuse him. He had been strongly criticized by more democracy-minded intellectuals after rejecting democracy in an interview with Singapore’s Lianhe Zaobao.
And while the trigger for Kang Xiaoguang’s debates came from Singapore and therefore from outside China, Daniel Bell, a professor teaching in China (with teaching experience in Singapore, too), believes that it is easier to have an open discussion in a Chinese seminar, than in one in Singapore.
Either way, a seminar on June 4 in Beijing is definetely news. There would be no gains without the efforts of people of great courage. One of the participants, Teng Biao, was abducted in March 2008, apparently by Public Security agents, and held for two days. Abducting people is apparently an administrative – and obviously illegal – measure to intimidate people who aren’t scheduled for a trial for the time being. And how much people can say in China without facing grave consequences also depends on their social status. A much less prominent campaigner three years ago, Hu Jia, currently in prison, had “gone missing” for 41 days in 2006.
Democracy could become a competing school to Confucianization as a state doctrine, as promoted by intellectuals like Kang Xiaoguang, and possibly, certainly less explicitly, by the CCP itself. The CCP, by tolerating the seminar on 6-4, may consider to allow democratic explorations as a competing school, and adopt a wait-and-see attitude itself.
But it will take more than one swallow to make a summer. The seminar was prepared and conducted in relative obscurity, and it apparently took about a week before its records saw the light of the day, even just outside mainland China.
Related: Run-Up to June 4, May 15