Today's date:
Spring 2005

China's Students: More Pro-Money Than Pro-Democracy

FANG LIZHI, the physicist known widely in the 1980s as "China's Sakharov," was a mentor to the student democracy movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989. After the crackdown, he fled to the US Embassy in Beijing, where he and his wife stayed for a year until they were spirited out of the country by the American authorities. Dr. Fang now teaches astronomical physics at the University of Arizona. He spoke with NPQ about the death of Communist reformer Zhao Ziyang and the future of democracy in China.

NPQ | Big public demonstrations erupted after the deaths of previous Communist reformers such as Zhou Enlai and Hu Yaobang. Why were there no demonstrations after the death of Zhao Ziyang, the leader who refused to crack down on the students at Tiananmen Square in 1989?

FANG LIZHI | Zhou Enlai died toward the end of the Cultural Revolution. The whole country, including many in the Communist Party, were fed up with Mao's excesses and those of his wife Jiang Qing's "Gang of Four." The loss of Zhou's moderating influence sent people into the streets to say, "Enough, we need a different course."

Though part of the system of Communist control, Hu Yaobang, in my view, was China's best leader in the 20th century. Though under one-party rule, China had never been more open than under his government. Discussion and dialogue abounded. Journalists exposed corruption. So when Hu died, there was a public outpouring of support for this new openness and against corruption.

Today, China remains under strict political control-much tighter than at the time of Hu-imposed after the purge of Zhao Ziyang just prior to the crackdown on students at Tiananmen in 1989. Intellectuals can't publish anything significant. There is no open discussion of major issues. Over the past 15 years, no independent movement of any kind-even the non-political Falun Gong sect-has been allowed to take root.

So, the quiet of students and intellectuals after Zhao's death is not unexpected. It should not be surprising to find silence where no one can speak. The only noise is out in the countryside, where peasants and workers are protesting corruption, their disenfranchisement and poverty.

Students on China's main campuses today are very different than in 1989. Today, they actually like the Communist Party. This new generation has already forgotten Tiananmen. Most don't even know who Zhao Ziyang is. They want to make money, not democracy. For them, the Communist Party is a good thing because it offers the stability they need to get rich.

NPQ | For 15 years, dissidents have held out the hope that Zhao Ziyang's death would present the opportunity to "reverse the verdict" of Deng Xiaoping that the student movement was "counter-revolutionary" and "unpatriotic," thus putting China back on the course toward democracy.

That clearly is not about to happen. Has the verdict been "confirmed" instead of "reversed"?

FANG | The verdict has been forgotten. Especially to the new generation in China, it just doesn't seem to matter anymore. They just want to be rich.

NPQ | Wen Jiabao, the current prime minister, was an aide to Zhao Ziyang. He was actually photographed standing next to Zhao when he warned students in 1989 that a crackdown was coming. What does it mean that even though there is a news blackout on Zhao's legacy, his protege is at the pinnacle of power?

FANG | Wen Jiabao was more of a secretary, a functionary, under Zhao than a protege. It is not clear to what extent he shared Zhao's views. In any case, today he remains a functionary of the Communist Party, which means he will obey the line of the Politburo that runs the country.

That policy is clear: Let Zhao's death pass as unnoticed as possible, and that is probably politically safe since the students of the new generation-historically the source of upheaval and protest in China-have forgotten him anyway.

NPQ | Where does all this leave the hope for democracy in China?

FANG | It makes me very disappointed. There was far greater hope-and interest-in democracy 15 years ago than today. Like Zhao before his death, democracy itself has been put under house arrest since 1989.

No doubt democracy will one day come to China. After all, it is the trend of world history, and China has embraced the world with a million connections through trade and commerce. But China is a very big country, and change is very, very slow on the political front. It will be a long time coming, and now, with Zhao's death, the "democratic spring" of 1989 is a long time gone.