The Democracy Movement I Knew in 1989, Part 2

Thirty-five years ago today, the Chinese Communist Party slaughtered untold numbers of student protestors in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square as they pushed for true freedom.

By Chenyuan Snider Published on June 4, 2024

In the first part of this story, I briefly touched upon the circumstances leading to the Chinese student democracy movement in 1989 and my eyewitness account of the phenomenon.

As I mentioned, this nationwide movement didn’t just involve college students. Like a mighty hurricane, it carried everyone with it wherever it went. Compelled by the desire to build a democratic China and encouraged by the support from the masses, the college students and many recent graduates (like me) truly believed we could achieve that goal if we just kept the movement going. Even during the days before June 4, the widespread sentiment was that victory was at hand.

Tragically, that all ended with the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

Why Did It Fail?

Thirty-five years later, I’m still haunted by this question: Why did the largest student movement in Chinese history fail?

Having now lived in the U.S. for many years, my reflection on this awesome and awful event differs from the sentiment I held back then. With time and space, I’m now able to mull it over more objectively. The picture seems clearer.

First, during the movement, the students and their leaders did not have a specific goal and a feasible path to reach it. What they had was a general idea that China’s political system needed to be reformed, Communist Party officials’ corruption must be purged, and other parties should share power with the CCP in order to establish a free and humane country like the U.S. However, the movement leaders’ upbringing had not afforded them a frame of reference for fully grasping either the concepts of democracy or the prerequisite conditions for a working democratic society.

The West has had thousands of years of exposure to, wrestling with, and developing the ideas relating to democracy. Now, the notion of freedom and rights is part of its DNA. But the focus of the Chinese culture had mainly been on achieving harmonious relationships between people groups and individuals in that span. Thus, Chinese tend to have less awareness of individual freedom and rights. Instead, they are more attentive to group interests and the interest of the other party in a relationship. However, that’s not an insurmountable obstacle for establishing a democratic society.

Untilled and Unready

More crucially, between 1949 and 1979, the highhanded rule of the CCP and the complete cutoff from the outside world had severely weakened and suppressed the natural desire for freedom God had planted in each Chinese heart. I realized this after becoming acquainted with those who grew up in a traditional Chinese culture outside mainland China. Compared with them, the Chinese growing up under CCP’s rule show a greater propensity to obey an authority figure and less likely to question an order.

Consequently, even though the decade between 1979 and 1989 saw an emancipation of thoughts as Western ideas were flooding into Chinese society, the Chinese soil was not ready for the seed of democracy to grow. By then, the Western ideas merely initiated an enlightenment that spurred a passion for freedom and individual rights among college students and young intellectuals. But few had thought through the practical applications in the new context.

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However, that passion alone sparked the student movement. They had neither sorted out short-term nor long-term attainable objectives, yet they believed they could turn China into a democratic society. At that time, it seemed to work, backed by ordinary Chinese from every segment of society. In retrospect, I think the students’ attempt to make China a better place impressed the masses. Moved by their patriotic passion, many ordinary Chinese sacrificially supported the cause, even though they did not have even a vague notion why China needed democracy, why it is better than Communism, or how their lives would be affected.

Nonetheless, the overall vibe created a false impression that China was ready for imminent democracy. The foreign press clearly reflected this sentiment in their reports. Fueled by the support within and without, the students were oblivious to the fact that it might take a while for China to have suitable conditions for the democratic seed to grow.

Masked Agenda

However, the students’ more devastating mistake was their misconception of the CCP. They failed to discern the innate nature of the Marxist Communist regime, which was demonic and totalitarian. This should not be a surprise because the CCP’s true face had been concealed by the economic reform and relatively tolerant policies in the previous decade. Thus, from the outset, no one in the movement toyed with the idea of overthrowing the CCP.

I remember the song we often chanted during the protests. It was “The Internationale” — full of antagonistic communist confrontation, symbolizing socialist ideals. Written by an anarchist and composed by a Marxist, it had long been adopted as a de facto Communist anthem, popularized in the Soviet Union and in the CCP’s China. Having sung and heard it so many times during the Cultural Revolution, I still remember the words:

Arise wretched of the earth…

The world is about to change its foundation…

This is the final struggle.

There has never been a Savior, nor Caeser, nor emperor.

We will win our liberation with our very own hands…

Fire up the furnace and hammer boldly while the iron is still hot…

Today, it feels surreal that a democracy movement inspired by the political structure of the U.S. would employ a song that seemed more suitable to the French Revolution in 1789, which was atheistic and violent and differed fundamentally from the American Revolution and the principles it represented. However, the French Revolution was one of a few Western events the CCP approved of. Since 1989 marked its 200th anniversary, the student movement naturally drew inspiration from it.

Removal Before Reform

All this in turn demonstrated that the students never intended to eliminate the CCP and its ideology from China. They wanted reform, not removal.

The students believed that, though the CCP had made many atrocious mistakes in the past, it still might correct itself. The Party still loved them, and they the Party. And if they were persistent enough, the government, especially those who were sympathetic towards the movement, would give in and agree to form a new government with separation of powers, as in the U.S. Thus, the students launched hunger strikes and sit-in demonstrations to force compliance from the government.

However, history showed us the CCP, by its nature, could never meet their demands. After the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Communist regimes began collapsing one by one, eventually disappeared from the pages of history within a few years. None of them shared power with a new party. Marxism’s totalitarian nature prevented them from taking that approach. As Mao once said, “Either we kill them or they kill us.”

Consequently, the only way to grapple with a Marxist communist regime is to completely eradicate it. Any softheartedness will lead to one’s own destruction. The slaughter of the unarmed and defenseless students in Tiannanmen Square was the unfortunate corollary of that Communist rule.

Nonetheless, thirty-five years later, I still believe the students who were killed in the massacre did not shed their blood in vain. After the democracy movement, the Chinese government significantly tightened its control, persecuting even those who gave only the impression that they were against the CCP. The government no longer tries to cover its true face, and is barely surviving.

Over the past three decades, the Chinese people have been gradually waking up. And now, there are encouraging signs that this is increasing: During the White Paper Movement in 2022, shouts of “Down with the party” and “Down with Xi Jinping” could be heard in many places.

These types of sentiments were absent thirty-five years ago. The Chinese finally realized their problems cannot be resolved through reform because the Party itself is the problem and must be eradicated by all means.

This must be the first step toward establishing a democratic China.


Chenyuan Snider was raised in Communist China and majored in Chinese language and literature in college. After immigrating to the U.S. and studying at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary and Duke Divinity School, she became a professor at Christian colleges and seminary. Recently, she sensed God was leading her to use her unique voice to warn Americans about the various Marxist influences in our society. She lives in northern California with her husband and has two grown children.

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