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Remembering 1989: Sometimes, the goddess of democracy doesn’t triumph

As we commemorate the 30th anniversary of the events that led to the reunification not only of Germany, but also of Europe, we would be wise to recall the cautionary message of those who sacrificed their lives on Tiananmen Square.

May 14, 2019 - Matthew Kott - Articles and Commentary

Tiananmen Square, Beijing. Photo: Charlotte Marillet (cc) flickr.com

The danger with hindsight is that it can often lead to teleological thinking. Because things happened a certain way, this outcome eventually overshadows all the other possibilities, so that the chain of events appears more straightforward and less complex than at the time. Thus, even if we now generally dismiss the euphoric pronouncements of the “end of history” that could be heard in the 1990s, much of our collective memory of 1989 is shaped by the rapid and relatively bloodless success in dislodging Soviet-style regimes from the satellite states of Central and Eastern Europe in the second half of that year. This reassuringly attractive post hoc view disguises the fact that things could have turned out much differently.

In 1989, the late Cold War world was less certain and less stable than it appeared. Just beneath the surface in many societies – whether in the First, Second, or Third Worlds – there was a sense of frustration, alienation and anxiety. The feeling that something was going to give was growing, with some groups looking forward to the opportunity for change. Spike Lee masterfully portrayed the racial tensions simmering in the United States in his acclaimed but, at the time, controversial film Do the Right Thing, the soundtrack of which also catapulted the revolutionary anthem “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy from segregated music charts to mainstream airplay. Significant change never materialised, however, as evidenced by Rodney King and Black Lives Matter. Public Enemy’s lyrics, “Our freedom of speech is freedom or death / We got to fight the powers that be”, still resonate poignantly for many African Americans suffering injustice today.

In June 1989, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Supreme Leader of Iran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, died. With the hardliner Khomeini – who had earlier that year issued a controversial fatwa ordering the death of author Salman Rushdie – no longer in control, there was hope that the Iranian regime would become more moderate, particularly among the supporters of the dissident Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri. Yet the repressive political system in Iran closely resembles that shaped by Khomeini to this day.

I grew up in the Latvian exile community in Canada. The changes taking place in our Soviet-dominated homeland were exhilarating: first the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost, then the rise of dissident and environmental protest groups and finally the founding of the Popular Front in 1988. Very few of us in the Cold War diaspora, however, expected the collapse of the USSR and the restoration of Latvia’s independence any time soon. There was a certain lingering suspicion that the Popular Front was somehow not a genuine manifestation of the popular democratic will, but a deceptive mechanism whereby the Soviet regime sought to manipulate the people’s national sentiments for its own ends. Furthermore, it was difficult to conceive of how the end of the bipolar global paradigm would actually look, the prospects of the Soviet system reforming itself under Gorbachev seeming more likely. And if, for some reason, the democratic forces unleashed by Gorbachev’s reforms would threaten to unravel the USSR, the prospect that there would be a robust, brutal backlash to crush the opposition, and indeed even Gorbachev and his reform agenda, could not be easily discounted.

Why such pessimism and hedging? First of all, backlashes had happened before, as when the Latvian National Communists were ousted under Nikita Khrushchev, who was then himself later ousted and replaced by Leonid Brezhnev, ending the so-called thaw.

Another reason was the contemporary events that also reinforced the idea that communist regimes could and would crush democratic movements. Most traumatic of these was what happened in China, just weeks before Klaus Meine of the Scorpions penned his hopeful, iconic lyrics, “The future’s in the air / I can feel it everywhere / Blowing with the wind of change”, while taking part in the Moscow Music Peace Festival in August 1989. Meine sings of passing Soviet soldiers listening to the wind of change in the song’s title. But was it clear that they were hearing the same message as he was?

From mid-April 1989, a protest movement led by university students developed on Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing. Among the students’ demands were more democracy, greater press freedom and no censorship, greater civic freedoms, more government openness and less corruption and better conditions for academics and intellectuals. The protests spread to university students in other cities, and a hunger strike was begun shortly before a planned visit by Gorbachev to China. Support for the protest movement grew, with up to a million participants in demonstrations in mid-May, including members of the armed forces, the police, and the Communist Party. After Gorbachev returned home, foreign journalists stayed on to cover the protest movement, making global audiences aware of the demands for greater liberalisation and democracy.

The government responded by declaring martial law and, already a month old, the protest movement began to fragment and lose momentum. At the same time, the armed forces’ initial show of force failed amid fears of fraternisation with the protesters. After the troops were withdrawn, students built a statue representing the Goddess of Democracy on the square, thinking that the winds of change were now blowing in their favour.

On the contrary, the Chinese leadership, convinced that Americans had infiltrated the protest movement, were regrouping for a crushing blow to clear Tiananmen Square and end the protests for good. When warnings to disperse voluntarily met with defiance, starting on June 3rd, soldiers, armoured vehicles and tanks were used to begin clearing the square by force. Over the next two days an unknown number of protesters were killed, injured or detained. One of them was “Tank Man”, a lone civilian protester: photos and video of him blocking the movement of a tank column near the Square remains one of the most powerful images of resisting tyranny.

Yet, despite the bravery and personal sacrifices of tens of thousands like Tank Man, the protest movement was put down mercilessly. The surviving student leaders were arrested, and those who had expressed sympathies were purged. The Goddess of Democracy was powerless to prevent the carnage: audiences around the world watched TV news footage of her being toppled by a tank and smashed to pieces, allegedly amid soldiers’ cries of “Down with Fascism!”

The lessons of the Tiananmen Massacre would loom large for us Latvians, not only in western exile, but also in the homeland. Even after the watershed elections of 1990 and the May 4th Declaration of Independence, there was a sense that the crackdown could come at any time. In a recent newspaper interview the Latvian Russian Popular Front activist and former USSR People’s Deputy, Marina Kosteņecka (Kostenetskaya), recalled that Gorbachev never really took the May 4th Declaration – which she had helped pass in the Latvian Supreme Council – particularly seriously. That Latvia would actually regain its independence was still an open question, regardless of how much people like her hoped it would happen. In defending their fledgling democracy at the barricades in January 1991, the people of Latvia knew there could be bloodshed, as Tiananmen had shown. Kosteņecka recalls the sense that if the Soviets attempted mass deportations again, people would have blocked the train tracks, like the students on Tiananmen standing up to the tanks. That things turned out in the end did not necessarily mean that they were destined to do so. Consider that Omar al-Bashir took power in Sudan after deposing the democratically elected government in a 1989 coup, and that it took three decades of corruption, repression, civil war, and genocide before he was finally dislodged from power this year.

Tiananmen created an archetype for mass demonstrations against the corrupt, undemocratic regimes in what at the time was the communist bloc. Echoes of Tiananmen can be seen in the Monday Demonstrations that helped bring an end to the GDR, and the Euromaidan in Ukraine in 2013/14 exhibits a strong family resemblance to the student protests in Beijing in 1989. The Ploshcha 2010 events in Minsk also recall Tiananmen, but for more negative reasons.

As we commemorate the 30th anniversary of the events that led to the reunification not only of Germany, but also of Europe, we would be wise to recall the cautionary message of those who sacrificed their lives on Tiananmen Square. Freedom and democracy were not predestined. Things could have been very different. We do not need to look to counterfactual stories like the Polish Netflix production, 1983, to imagine what it could have been like. We need only to look at China, where the protesters in 1989 sought freedom, democracy and better governance, but instead they remained subjugated by a corrupt, autocratic elite that subjected them to the worst excesses of exploitation that globalised capitalism has to offer, and which keeps watch over them using the surveillance capabilities of the internet age.

This warning should be borne in mind today throughout our region, as some politicians work cynically to erode the very freedoms they themselves helped win in 1989. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Tank Man were once on the same side, but now Orbán is increasingly siding with the tanks, standing on the rubble of the Goddess of Democracy. And the lure of Chinese investments may signal a harsher wind of changes like the one that swept the protesters from Tiananmen.

Matthew Kott is a historian and researcher with Uppsala University.

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