Thursday, June 6, 2019

Tiananman and the Chinese Student Movement in America:

A personally reminiscence

by
Ira Straus

I took it personally when Tiananman was suppressed in 1989. When I was involved in my own small way, and I feel it'd be worth sharing a few reminiscences here.

In 1987 I had contacted a few Chinese friends in America about the Shanghai demonstrations. In 1989, using what I had learned from those contacts, I got in touch, during the early phase of the 1989 demonstrations with the China Spring people. “China Spring” was the name of their publication since 1987; their formal organization was the Chinese Alliance for Democracy. Their US group consisted of relatively young Chinese students studying in America, along with former students.

China Spring's US offices were at that point only in NY. I gave them free office and boarding space in DC, in the townhouse that belonged to Federal Union -- by that time it was renamed the Association to Unite the Democracies, and I had been executive director since the early 1980s. From this base of operations, they organized a China Solidarity Committee, mixing Chinese students with the loads of Americans who wanted to find a way to help.


It was, incidentally, a complex question, this multi-tasking I did as staff leader in our federalist organization. Some of my board members, where we had a balanced mix of liberals and conservatives, were understandably concerned that this wasn’t part of our proper work; one also thought that “China Solidarity Committee” sounded too much like the several pro-Communist "solidarity" organizations that were around in the 1980s. They noticed the way I accommodated in those years to the leftward verbal hegemony in the public intellectual spaces, and in retrospect they were right in suggesting that I overestimated the need to talk within the limitations of that hegemony and underestimated the importance of talking to the millions of people in our society who know better. That’s all water under the bridge, but I try to take the lesson from it nowadays.

The Chinese students, in turn, had mixed feelings about our ultimate goal of world federation at AUD. For one of them, it sounded too much like the Communist goal for the world. But they liked our path to it, through a union of the Western democracies, with a view to this leading to the rest of the world adapting, modernizing, and becoming a part of the union. From what I heard, most of them not only accepted but preferred continued Western leadership in the world, as something that would help China stabilize in a path of liberalization and democracy. They saw a lot of merit in an image of the West as the permanent pole of development that the world has to mostly assimilate to, and only secondarily modify in the course of assimilating.

Once, after the suppression of Tiananmen, the leader of our Solidarity Committee, hearing me remark that maybe it’d be better to have preempted the Chinese nuclear forces as the Soviets had wanted in the ‘60s, play-acted at national negotiations with me and responded that “we” would “understand” if “you” had to do that. Did he think I was a CIA agent or running a US government front operation? No, but he had told me some of his Chinese friends thought so; otherwise, what was a foreign policy intellectual doing, running a small NGO supporting the international unity of the Western democracies and sponsoring these anti-Communist dissidents, not the sort of thing that intellectuals typically do, or that got funding and sponsorship in the better known NGO world. China Spring’s own funding came from “Chinatown”, as they put it rather unhappily, not the American mainstream; there were some negative comments on the world of Chinatown, a sense of its separation from the world of the public American law. And what was I doing, making sleeping and office space so quickly and readily available to them, how could I do that? Our Committee’s leader himself knew that I was who I said I was, because he had seen how I maintained my own and AUD’s financial viability on a shoestring; he eventually understood that my frugality in a small voluntary federalist organization was the basis atop which I was able to act with generosity to his group, in this case with urgent sudden generosity when the moment of need arose. Later, when I was teaching in Moscow as a Fulbright professor, I had a somewhat similar experience; lots of Russians thought I was a US government agent, they had a hard time absorbing the extent of the Western public-private distinction; a few thought I was a NATO agent, or a CIA agent, or in one case a KGB agent, since I was not anti-Russian the way he thought pro-Western and pro-NATO people were supposed to be. They lived in a different world, a convoluted world, where governments really do often operate like conspiracies against their own society, and ordinary people, not just the fringes, think it normal to suppose that conspiracies are everywhere. Which brings me back to our China Solidarity Committee’s interactions with Americans and with their fellow Chinese.

Our Committee put together daily demonstrations outside the Chinese embassy -- entirely peaceful and law-abiding ones of course, not trying to block anyone’s entry into the embassy or disrupt any traffic. (Although one of the just-out-of-college Americans attending did talk about wanting to get himself arrested; people said he was trying to make a name for himself as a DC activist.) The Chinese democracy movement was honestly democratic, it wanted a democracy that works and protects human liberties and lives; it had suffered the horrors of radical totalitarian democracy, it wanted liberal democracy, the kind that it saw working in Europe and America and Japan -- an important country that convinced them that Asians could indeed make a decent go of democracy. And they were happy to see democracy coming to life even in Taiwan, the small liberal remnant of their own country. Japan and Taiwan were important stops on their itinerary, those who traveled to maintain their links at home in China.

The Chinese democrats were tolerant, as much or more so than could be expected for a sometimes-hunted species. They put up with the attendance, at their Embassy rallies, of an American holding up Maoist posters -- their worst nightmare. The American hated Deng because Deng had brought an end to the mass terror that the Chinese students around him and their families had suffered from under Mao. Still they let him be with them. The potential for return of Maoist terror, and being cut off again from the world’s progress and liberties and economic prospects, was the students’ ultimate fear; a fear that they felt cannot be dismissed as long as the one-party regime endures, with its system of party committees for control in all public organizations, and its combined Communist-nationalist ideology for exclusion of foreign influences.

Their tolerance came in a context of being still somewhat fearful protesters themselves. The long arm of fear of the regime did reach to them into America. Their families at home could be used as hostages against them. When they came here as students, they had to go through interviews and recruitment attempts by the MSS, Ministry of State Security, the Chinese equivalent of the FSB or KGB. (And the comparison was entirely fair; one of them told me, “all our state institutions were built on the Soviet model”). They trusted Americans within our groups, but they always had to be careful about their fellow Chinese and wonder which of them were reporting to “the Embassy”.

The pressure from the government divided them. Those who had become dissident earlier could think the latecomers went along with too much too long, they were opportunists; those later could think the earlier ones were extremists. China Spring jumped off the government boat too early for the later ones; some of the later ones, too late for the China Spring people.

There was a psychological aspect that weighed heavily on young people: How far to go in breaking the established social code and loyalty? Then there was the pragmatic aspect. The dissidents did not want to isolate themselves. They valued, rightly, their links with the liberal wing of the ruling elite. They were fundamentally reformers at heart, although some thought something near to revolution was needed to complete the reforms. Their largest DC demonstration was sponsored by the official government-linked Chinese student organization in America; far fewer among them would have been comfortable with coming out on the street without that sponsorship from a government-formed organization. Things were convoluted, necessarily convoluted in their political space, with many parallels to the Soviet one. Most of them didn’t want their faces to be seen on American TV, lest the regime identify them and punish their families and make it dangerous for them to come home. One of them told me how strange it seemed to them, when Americans standing next to them would not fear but welcome getting interviewed and photographed for the U.S. media.

A local businessman contributed a replica of the Goddess of Democracy, which the Beijing demonstrators had created as their version of the Statue of Liberty. He got it placed in the circle across from the embassy. We got a few people to maintain vigil for the statue during nights outside the embassy, since the National Park Service required this or else it would take down the statue. This requirement might ordinarily not be enforced strictly, but it was indeed enforced this time, perhaps affected by the pro-Beijing policy of the Administration; one night when our people couldn’t get there, the Goddess torn down and destroyed by the Park Service.

We got some publicity. Our main China Spring organizer in our DC office was able to address the annual convention of the National Education Association that was being held in the DC Convention Center with about 7000 people. The Democracy International, an organization of democratic dissidents from a number of countries, in which I was at the time the main organizer (I still am, though alas practically all the old dissidents in it have died off and it barely exists any more), organized a press conference for China Spring, which got a fair amount of the international coverage they wanted. Earlier, I had organized a press conference on the Shanghai demonstrations that was shown in full several times, an hour plus segment, on C-SPAN; it had some importance, as it was before our media began paying massive attention to the demonstration.

The son of an important liberal member of the Chinese elite lived at our office for a while, to lobby discretely for his father’s cause. The day he was set to fly back home to his university town in the U.S., the Taiwanese press got wind that he was at our place. They camped out in front of our office, hoping to get a picture and interview with him. He was desperate to avoid the publicity and do no harm in his dad’s delicate situation.  We were at 1506 Pennsylvania Ave SE, a nice address that a hasty reader, or an out of towner, could mistake for something next door to the White House. After hours of wondering how we could get him out quietly, I remembered that there was an alley accessible through a bit of a maze behind our townhouse. I went out the front door into my car as if on an errand, drove a few blocks up Pa. Ave., then doubled back through the side streets, picked him up in the alley, and spirited him off. It was the one chance in my life for a movie-type car escape scene.

We felt inadequate to our hugely important task, and we did in fact fall far short of the scope of what was needed; but we did what we could. Then came June 4, and the curtain went down. A bit later, I attended a large nationwide convention in Chicago of Chinese students. They had been organized by the Chinese regime in the past in an association of Chinese students and scholars, an organization that had provided them, paradoxically, a safe, comfortable feeling venue for their demonstrations because of its regime sponsorship, one of the vast corporate social entities that exist under Communist Party leadership in all Communist regimes, but at the same time a controlled venue bearing its own risks. At Chicago they sent up an Independent Association of Chinese Students and Scholars, which became the main body in the U.S. for continuation of the movement for a while.

The movement faded back after that. Democratic reforms continued in Eastern Europe and Russia; the Administration slapped ineffective sanctions on China but continued its strategic tilt toward China against, implicitly, Russia. China took a turn down an unnecessary authoritarian path that has grown worse with time, despite ups and downs and a still unpredictable future; Russia continued on a more hopeful but high-risk democratizing path, and has since turned back in China’s authoritarian direction. Natural evolutionary forces of economic and social modernization and Westernization continue to do hopeful work within both countries, but for now the forces going in harmful directions are more powerful than the natural ameliorative forces.

The world took a turn for the worse on that day 25 years ago. It is today to a large extent on the path laid out by that turn.

Our friends in China have been asking us to remember them. I think we will.  What we can do for their cause, is an issue much harder today than back then, but one that I hope we'll remain engaged with.

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