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  •   Overview: Democracy/Human Rights

    Tiananmen Square, 1989/AP
    An anti-government protestor blocks the path of artillery tanks in Tiananmen Square, June 1989. (AP)
    (Updated: January 1999)
    Most scholars trace the beginnings of China's modern democracy movement to the decline and death of Mao Zedong in 1976. While China's leader was severely ill in April that year, tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered in Beijing's Tiananmen Square to challenge the Communist Party leadership by protesting in support of China's late premier Chou En-Lai. The protestors, who were defying the party for the first time since 1949, declared China's top leaders were tarnishing Chou's memory. They blamed the Gang of Four, the ruling group that included Mao's wife.

    Police officers and a military corps dispersed the 1976 demonstrators but failed to stop the political momentum the protests created. Mao died that September and the Gang of Four eventually was purged. The new leadership, consolidating under former outcast Deng Xiaoping, slowly began to allow vocal, public attacks against the Gang of Four – and even against Mao himself.

    A new Central Committee pushed through a constitution in 1977-78 that granted "freedom of speech, correspondence, the press, demonstration and the freedom to strike." Deng, who moved to the top of the Communist Party by 1978, also rehabilitated former comrades purged by the Gang of Four during the Cultural Revolution. He declared that no one – even Chairman Mao himself – should be copied unquestionably.

    "The key to China becoming a modern country is to take first steps toward democracy." – Fang Jue, businessman and former mid-level Chinese government official
    Deng's new platforms of "openness" and "reform" were manifest on the streets. Beijing intellectuals gathered around a so-called Democracy Wall; each morning fresh new posters and poems expressed the political criticism of the day. Deng himself approved of the wall calling it "a good thing" and gave his tacit approval to the actions of the "masses."

    As criticism turned to Deng himself, however, the right to post criticism on the Democracy Wall ceased. Movement leaders like Wei Jingsheng were arrested. Wei was found guilty of counterrevolutionary activities – which allegedly included giving military secrets to a foreign journalist – and sentenced to 15 years in prison. The Democracy Wall Movement of 1978-79 came to an end. Many intellectuals who led the democracy movement went underground.

        Wang Dan and Wei Jingsheng/AP
    Chinese dissidents Wang Dan, left, and Wei Jingsheng. (AP)
    By the late 1980s young Chinese thinkers began gathering in public again. A new group started meeting at Beijing University in 1988 for so-called "lawn salons" – a series of Wednesday speeches given by invited intellectual activists like physicist Fang Lizhi and Democracy Wall protestor Ren Wanding. Led by student Wang Dan, the group criticized socialism as a failed system and began calling for the release of Wei Jingsheng.

    The protests grew louder and students demanded a face-to-face meeting in 1989 with top officials who had vowed to crush the movement. Students gathered in early May outside the Monument to the People's Heroes in Tiananmen Square for a hunger strike to force the party's hand. Support for the students grew among residents and workers. Three hundred thousand people took to the square on May 16 during a visit by Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev; a million gathered on May 17 and 18, as factory workers joined in the mass demonstrations.

    Martial law was declared on May 20, but tanks were initially stopped from entering the city by human barricades. The tanks eventually rolled through Beijing on June 3; soldiers fired on the crowds. Hundreds, and perhaps more were killed in the fighting that spread throughout the city, including many young workers who protested the arrival of tanks and a few soldiers set afire by incendiary devices thrown by demonstrators.

    The crushing of the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square left its leadership severely weakened. Charges of counterrevolutionary propaganda were brought against hundreds of students and workers. Some activists like Fang Lizhi sought refuge outside of China, but most movement leaders like railroad worker Han Dongfang and student Wang Dan were arrested and jailed.

    Since 1989, China has continued to arrest dissidents who criticize Communist Party leadership. China released Democracy Wall activist Wei Jingsheng in 1993 only to arrest him again in 1994 for plotting to overthrow the government.

    Amnesty International and the U.S. State Department have charged China with violating human rights. In 1994, the Clinton administration threatened to deny China's Most Favored Nation trading status based on its human rights performance. Since that time, however, the administration has continued to renew MFN, despite reports of abuses.

    Deng died in February 1997, leaving successor Jiang Zemin firmly in control. While few expect a major change in policy regarding dissidents or human rights, many observers speculate China may open up slowly.

    China released dissident Wei Jingsheng in November 1997, after 18 years in prison, to get medical treatment in the United States. In April 1998, China freed another jailed dissident, Wang Dan, who had been rearrested in 1995 after serving more than three years for helping lead the Tiananmen demonstrations.

    The U.S. State Department released a more positive review of human rights in China in early 1998, stating that economic reforms had raised "the living standards for many ... and reduced ... state control over people's daily lives." The State Department, however, did note no major change had occurred in China's human rights policy.

    In December 1998, Chinese authorities arrested five campaigners, including two leading dissidents, who were attempting to establish the first opposition political party since 1949. By January 1999, six dissidents had been arrested for attempting to form this so-called Chinese Democratic Party. The crackdown dealt a blow to Chinese democracy advocates and underscored that China had not retreated from a policy of dealing harshly with threats to its political system. – Tim Ito, Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive producer

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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