A painful knot in China's heart: Tiananmen Square must be the birthplace, not the grave, of democracy, says Wang Dan

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FIVE years have passed since the brave action of Chinese students won the concern and support of the whole world. In those five years the world has experienced traumatic change. The old Communist regimes have collapsed and the global structure is a new one. No one can ignore the 1989 democratic movement in China in contributing to such astonishing change.

The strategy the Chinese Communist Party used, especially on 3 and 4 June, to put down the students' movement, caused international shock. That behaviour was so barbaric and so ugly that I don't want to expend more energy expressing my anger again. But as a participant in that movement I am now more willing to examine what mistakes we made at the time.

The students' only motive for this radical political expression was their hope of pushing China's political reform so that the country could enter democratic and civilised modern society. Because of this pure motive, we received wide support from all classes of people. And that support is the fundamental reason why the students' movement had no way to defend itself when it faced the government crackdown.

As students, we never thought we were creating a political movement, but just a students' movement. Its purpose was to express our political needs and hopes, represent people, raise questions and bring out answers and require the government to accept them. Even the radical students never thought about using political strategies, such as getting involved in senior level government power rivalries, stirring up the ordinary people or establishing allies with other political powers that joined the movement later. At the time there was a slogan that expressed this attitude: 'Keep Students' Movement Pure.'

If we had looked on ours as a political movement we would have had to be prepared to accept compromise, because political struggle itself is the art of compromising. But the fact was the students had no desire for power politics. As intellectuals they felt only a responsibility to express political hopes. And that was considered by the government as leading to anti-Communist Party and anti-socialist chaos. Many students, being not only misunderstood, but also suppressed and excluded, refused to accept withdrawal - even a tiny step backwards - as an option.

If we had decided to leave Tiananmen Square and use other opposition methods rather than stubbornly insisting upon staying there, it is very possible the students would not have paid such a high price.

Even so, 4 June had a very important influence on China and the world. Above all, its significance is as an example of powerful democratic enlightenment in action, which expressed to the people the worth of democracy and freedom. That worth had been diluted in people's hearts as a result of decades of political pressure. But in the 1989 democracy movement, the students were ready to give their lives for their dreams, and that spirit touched people's heartstrings. That point is so significant in the process of China becoming a modern society that I cannot stress it enough.

Any country that wants to follow a democratic path must recognise a basic premise: the people have a pretty strong desire for democracy. It is the intellectual and other progressive powers' social duty to build on that premise. From this point of view the 1989 democratic movement established a very solid foundation for China's realisation of democratic politics.

Today China appears greatly changed; but deep scars from 4 June remain. An obvious one is that ordinary people are in general cold and detached when faced with political matters: an unavoidable consequence of the bloody crackdown.

The root of people's coldness is disappointment rather than fear. For that reason, the coldness must be temporary. The longer you cap the enthusiasm in people's hearts, the stronger it will be when it eventually breaks out. The 1989 democratic movement has already planted the seeds of democracy in people's hearts; when the spring wind blows all over China, it will bring out magnificent flowers.

We are far from making a final judgement on the democracy movement's influence on China's development. The 1989 democracy movement and the crackdown on it are already tied as an emotional knot in the Chinese people's hearts. If this knot remains untied, China's political development will not be able to get on the right track. And without political reform, China will not have a breakthrough in economic reform. That poses a very urgent question: how to solve the 4 June matter?

Now, China avoids the issue as taboo. But after Deng Xiaoping's death the first issue the country will face will be readdressing the 4 June events, not only at the top levels in the Communist Party but also among ordinary people. Unless it does this, China will find it impossible to make a smooth transition to a modern society.

I don't make such a judgement because I was a member of the 1989 democracy movement, but because democracy is a trend as mankind advances. The 1956 Hungarian events, the 1968 Prague Spring and the 5 April movement in China in 1976 all received a fair judgement from history. Why should the 1989 democracy movement be an exception?

I do hope the world, especially the people of China, will not forget 4 June because history tells us 'forget misery and that is beginning of misery'.

The writer is a former history student at Beijing University whose idea for a hunger strike helped to spark the Tiananmen protests. He spent 3 1/2 years in prison for counter-revolutionary incitement and propaganda. Now a freelance writer, he has finished 'Autobiography in Jail'.

Copyright International Herald Tribune

(Photograph omitted)