The problematic and often tragic relationship between leaders and student protestors has led to progressive policy that moved China away from its feudal past and towards a developing democracy.[1] China has relied on a delicate and well-balanced power struggle between leaders and protestors since before the May 4th protest on May 4, 1919.[2] The current political balance between the protestors, the party leaders, the government, and the military encouraged democratic tenets to develop, but not without party consent and not without a large human death toll.[3] During the years 1979-1989, China’s leader of the People’s Republic of China and Chairman of the Military Affairs Committee, Deng Xiaoping, exemplified the daunting and ambiguous relationship between China’s leaders, its military, and its citizens of the nation.[4]

            China’s leaders have often listened to the request of student protests.[5] Under Confucianism, “the literati had a responsibility to speak out against abuses of power and to resist despotic rulers. They were to expose and criticize wrongdoings of officials even at the risk of their own lives.”[6] This type of relationship between literati and rulers helped hold a leader accountable for the welfare of the people.[7] Confucianism gave people the right to remove an unconcerned or ineffective ruler through the Mandate of Heaven.[8] The Zhou dynasty, 1046-256 BC, made the Mandate of Heaven an article of faith based on the ancient belief that things like “comets, eclipses, meteor showers, and violent or freak meteorological phenomena inspired a sense of awe or dread” and could indicate ancestral spirits were happy or displeased with an individual, and the mandate was further used to signal the legitimacy of a person.[9] A legitimate ruler was seen as someone who had such a mandate to rule over the people, and a deposed ruler was an individual who had lost the mandate.[10] The Mandate of Heaven is bestowed upon a reasonable and well-founded leader, and the mandate is believed to withdraw from a despotic ruler.[11] In a mortal sense, the people “can judge the legitimacy of a ruler on the basis of the ruler’s performance, and their judgment can be called the mandate of heaven.”[12] The history between literati and rulers led to the assumption that academics could speak on behalf of the people or for the benefit of the people, yet many adversaries were still punished for speaking against their leaders.[13]


         During June 1898, Emperor Guangxu broke from veteran government officials and adopted and issued edicts that proposed the implementation of a new political and educational system throughout China based upon the ideas of radical student protestors, Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao.[14] The students proposed democratic ideas, such as total sexual equality between men and women, as well as a reformation of the legal system to expose corruption.[15] Students were excited by Emperor Guangxu’s support for progressive proposals, and many students formed study groups to discuss the new reforms while the local officials and gentry scrambled to execute the new commands from the emperor.[16]

            The period of progressive reform lasted 100 days before government hard-liners used military force and advanced upon Beijing to overthrow the emperor, and then the hard-liners sentenced Emperor Guangxu to house arrest for the duration of his life.[17] Students Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao fled the country but six other student reformers, including Kang’s younger brother, were executed by the government as an example to their fellow countrymen.[18] Even though the emperor’s reforms were short lived, it was the democratic relationship embraced by Emperor Guangxu that brought leader and student protestor together, and further sparked hope for many future generations of citizens that wanted social and political change in China.[19] During the turn of the 20th century, a radical Chinese student culture emerged that argued for political change.[20]

            Such student radicalism led to the unexpected overthrow of the Qing dynasty on October 10, 1911, via the Wuhan Rebellion.[21] The youthful and rebellious students were astonished at their ability to overthrow a system in place since 1644.[22] Since there was not a new and immediate political system established to replace the old regime, China found it difficult to create a new and stable form of government.[23] The country went through a period of weak government and rampant warlordism.[24]

            China’s inability to consolidate power after 1911 re-opened the door to imperial restoration, authoritarian politics, and warlord militarism.[25] In a quest to acquaint people to the values of  “science and democracy,” future founder of the Chinese Communist party and former student revolutionary, Chen Duxiu, started the New Youth magazine in 1915.[26]

            The New Youth magazine took many Western ideas and introduced them to China, such as-the emancipation of women and youth, science, individual freedom, Darwinism, and utilitarianism.[27] Being able to think critically was viewed as a way to step closer to individual autonomy, and this is what many progressive groups wanted.[28] On the path towards a more democratic country, student protests were often manipulated by government rulers for political gain.[29]

            After the May 4th  Movement on May 4, 1919, many student groups advocated for democratic elections, representative government, rule of law, freedom of speech, and an independent judiciary.[30] The May 4th protests provided the people of China with democratic ideas, but the country was left without strong leadership and in political turmoil as student protests and warlord militarism captured the lives of many citizens in China.[31] During 1926, the warlord Duan Qirui killed 200 student demonstrators by open gun fire in Beijing.[32] The high death toll deterred a few protestors, but each bloody incident pushed most students further into protests.[33] An exercise in free speech persisted as many independent journals and organizations formed in the 1930s and 1940s, such as the League for the Protection of Civil Rights, to criticize government abuse and to further advocate for democracy via rule of law, freedom of speech, an independent judiciary, and representative government.[34]

            Students craved strong and transparent leadership, but advocates of democracy were unsure of what democracy or what such a democratic leader fully represented.[35] After experiencing the horrors and confusion of the Cultural Revolution during 1966-1976, people remembered the democratic enthusiasm of the May 4th Movement, and they had no desire to continue or replicate any type of tyrannical control experienced under Mao.[36]

            Deng Xiaoping had political experience under Mao, but spoke of democratic ideas, so he was familiar to the people and he often conveyed a progressive approach to politics, albeit duplicitous at times, which gave hope to many students and workers throughout the nation.[37] People wanted a more democratic country even if government leaders repressed students’ demonstrations when their authority was challenged.[38]

            Deng Xiaoping had a checkered history that allowed him to convince party leaders and citizens that he was on their side.[39] In the late 1950’s he was seen as a Maoist, by 1957 he was viewed by some to support the intellectuals, and throughout the 1970’s both sides believed he was “secretly in their camp.”[40] However, Deng did not believe that everyone could understand politics and science.[41] Deng did not want “all the people” to discuss political issues.[42]

            Deng wanted to reform China, and never return to the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution.[43] Justifying his credibility while he protected his reputation despite his involvement in some of the atrocities committed under Mao, such as the Anti- Rightist Campaign of 1957, was addressed many times by Deng.[44] The Anti-Rightist Campaign involved the tragic repression of Chinese intellectuals who disagreed with the party.[45] The campaign ignited numerous tragedies in small and large cities.[46] Deng confronted his poor decisions and opened himself up to judgment during a statement in 1977.[47] He expressed accountability and shouldered some responsibility of the confusion and bloodshed of the Cultural Revolution, and this provided transparency in leadership that many students and other citizens wanted.[48] People referred to Deng as “honest.”[49] There were calls for a government accountable to the people instead of a government accountable to party leaders, and Deng presented a possible path towards a leader accountable to the people by admitting some of his past mistakes.[50]

            Deng further made efforts towards a democratic system of government by allowing free elections, and he argued against a concentration of central power.[51] Society was balanced gingerly as students continued to push for more democratic institutions within government.[52] Deng balanced his tolerance for protestors, as many members in government did not want people to organize politically.[53] In 1987, Deng delivered several speeches and held meetings that inspired hope, but involved conflicting messages.[54] During talks on January 27, 1987, Deng praised democracy and said “We should find a way to let people feel that they are the masters of the country,” but during his speech on March 30, 1987,  he expressed an “unanswering belief” in the supremacy of  Lenin’s model for a one-party state and party domination, and he further criticized advocates of democracy who pushed for their demands through protests.[55] Deng believed in social and economic reform but within the prevailing political and ideological framework, which was a Leninist-Marxist model of Communism.[56] Deng arbitrarily curtailed any form of protest, as he believed any outside change to a political system would create chaos.[57] Deng was not willing to give up too much control to any one person or group of people.[58] Deng made it clear that he would not support any protest movement that he or the party did not control.[59]

            Student protests consistently challenged the regime to prove its claim of being a people’s government.[60] Students understood the state as an “organization of power and a network of legitimation and responsive management.”[61] Students knew the people that harnessed such power relied heavily on the coercive mechanisms of the state, such as the army and the police, and they maintained their personal power taking “advantage of the popular legacies of the revolution.”[62] Student protestors ultimately wanted political organizations separate from the Communist party and void of any party influence.[63] Chinese students wanted China to become a major player on the world stage, and many were willing to die for the democritization of China.[64]

            In June 1988, a student was killed in a brawl by the campus of  Beijing University.[65] As an act of justice, his friends marched into Tiananmen Square and demanded the assailants be brought to justice, as well as demanded better campus security.[66] The protests quickly led to demands for a democracy, a free press, an end to government corruption, more funding for education, and an improved legal system. Students further criticized government leaders including Deng Xiaoping.[67]

            By the beginning of 1989, China was still figuring out how to advance the nation post the Cultural Revolution, and government leaders were often arguing about how to handle minorities, such as how to treat Tibetan people, and dealing with escalating student protests that urged for more government transparency through established democratic institutions, especially a legal system.[68] Students began looking at Deng Xiaoping as a tyrant unwilling to break with the party, but they did not have another person to replace Deng, and they did not have another form of government to immediately replace the old system of communism.[69] The students were, however, emboldened by the achievements of their ancestors during the May 4th Movement, and they believed another student movement could have major influence on a bickering Chinese government.[70]  The government was losing respect among the people, and the younger students began to view Deng as long past his peak, but still able to wield power in China.[71]

            Hu Yaobang, former secretary general of the Chinse Communist party, called for democracy, higher salaries for teachers, and once said, “Marx and Lenin can’t solve all our problems.”[72] Advocates of democracy often praised the words of Hu Yaobang, as he often advocated on behalf of intellectuals and supported a system of democracy, so it was not surprising when many people throughout China were upset by his death on April 15, 1989.[73]  Hu argued that most communist systems failed to establish a successful system after the victory of revolution.[74] Hu further argued a concentration of power was the root of the problem.[75]

            Students placed several wreaths around Tiananmen Square as a show of respect to Hu Yaobang.[76] The wreaths symbolized support for a controversial figure who supported democracy, and such mourning put pressure on the Chinese government.[77] The wreaths were placed by prominent people, such as the Department of Chinese Communist Party History, People’s University, as a show of solidarity to democracy and to the beliefs of Hu Yaobang.[78] People’s University has had a close relationship with the highest leaders of the Communist Party.[79] “It maintains the only Department of Chinese Communist Party History in all of China.”[80] Mourners took the death of Hu Yaobang especially hard since there was speculation he might resurge and return to power.[81]

            The death of Hu Yaobang signaled a possible change in the political tide to many politically active students.[82] There were many students during 1989 that wanted a form of democracy, and there were still people that needed to understand the principles of a democratic society, so advocates of democracy realized time was needed to fully educate a society about a new system of government.[83] By June 1988, the beginning of China’s open market was developing and corruption in the marketplace was rampant. Strong and fair leadership was needed.[84]

            Deng did not want significant change for the party.[85] Deng was willing to talk with student protestors, as he did on April 29, 1989,[86]and he was willing to carry out fundamental political reforms but when he felt threatened, much like Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution, he took advantage of his position and of his over concentration of power.[87]

            On May 3, 1989, more than sixty students met in the center of town in Beijing and demanded another talk with government officials.[88] The students wanted the dialogue between leaders and students opened to the press.[89] They also made other demands- like the government represented by a member of the Politburo, a vice-chairman of the People’s Congress, and other high-level policymakers; and they further declared to march on May 4, the next day, if the demands were not met.[90] It did not take long before party spokesman, Yuan Mu, angrily rejected such demands.[91] Yuan went on to say that “government police would continue to be unarmed in dealing with the May 4 march,” and he continued to express that China “had enough social turmoil.”[92] More than one hundred thousand demonstrators, including workers, gathered to March for democratic representation on March 4, 1989.[93] The Tiananmen Square protests in the earlier part of 1989 gave demonstrators the feeling that they had finally “broken with the restraints of the old culture.”[94]

            Protests were consistently occuring in places like Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan, Guangzhou, and other areas throughout China.[95] The protests had even attacked the living quarters of the Chinese Communist party at Zhongnanhai.[96] Government hard-liners felt the demonstrators had pushed things too far, and used such actions of the protestors to inflame Deng Xiaoping to react with violence and terror to end the political unrest.[97]

            The government tried to stop the protests.[98] Government officials bribed peasants to act against the student protestors.[99] On June 2, 1989, thousands of peasants were each paid ten Chinese dollars to march through the protests with signs that showed support for Deng Xiaoping.[100]

            By June 3, 1989, the government began its violent crackdown on its people and declared via broadcast a “mobilization order for action.”[101] On the same day, troops stormed Zhongnanhai and threw tear gas bombs and clubbed the protestors.”[102] Later that day, the military was ordered to open fire on students.[103] Gunfire was so uncontrolled that men, women, and children sitting on their balconies were slaughtered by the bullets.[104] Soldiers turned their guns and shot into houses and apartments.[105] The climate changed drastically and numerous civilians, including children, were beaten and killed because they said the wrong thing to a passing soldier.[106] The final death toll is not known, but counts have been as high as ten thousand dead.[107]

            Deng and other hard-liners did not like dissent.[108] The military force was used to strengthen party loyalty and to squash any quick and aggressive advancements for democracy.[109]    After the military crackdown, the party circulated old speeches made by Deng Xiaoping in 1961 to the Chinese Communist Youth League, calling for “work to be done so that children are again ‘polite’ and show ‘concern’ for the collective undertaking and old order.”[110]

            The students and the people organized to change government policy.[111] However, it takes time to implement new policy and government can’t instantly bring an entire country into line.[112]  Each new generation leads to the death of an older generation, and may the new generations in China continue to strive for a system of government that consistently represents its people.[113]          









[1] Goldman, Merle, Sowing the Seeds of Democracy in China: Political Reform in the Deng Xiaoping Era (Harvard University Press©1994) pgs. 8-13

[2] Ibid pgs. 9-10 44-45, 55-56

[3] Feigon, Lee, The Meaning of Tiananmen: China Rising (Ivan R. Dee Publishing © 1990)  pgs. 6, 139, 146, 177, 234, 238

[4] Esherick, Joseph, et al., The Chinese Cultural Revolution As History (Stanford University Press © 2006) pgs. 206-208

[5] Feigon, Lee, China Rising, pgs. 5-7  

[6] Goldman, Merle, Sowing the Seeds of Democracy In China, pgs. 5-6

[7] Ibid pg. 6

[8] Ibid

[9] Pankenier, David W., The Mandate of Heaven, Archeology, Vol. 51, No. 2 (March/April 1998), p. 29, (Acessed June 18, 2018)

[10] Nuyen, A.T., The Mandate of Heaven: Mencius and the Divine Command Theory of Political Legitimacy, Philosophy East and West, Vol. 63,   No. 2 (April 2013), pg. 113, (Accessed June 17, 2018).

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

[13] Goldman, Merle, Sowing the Seeds of Democracy In China, pgs. 6-7

[14] Feigon, Lee, China Rising, pgs. 5-6

[15] Ibid

[16] Ibid

[17] Ibid pg. 6

[18] Ibid

[19] Ibid pgs. 6-10     

[20] Ibid pg. 8

[21] Ibid pg. 10

[22] Ibid pg. 3

[23] Ibid pgs. 10-11

[24] Goldman, Merle, Sowing the Seeds of Democracy In China, pg. 9

[25]Gu, Edward X., “Who was Mr. Democracy? The May Fourth Discourse of Populist Democracy and the Radicalization of Chinese Intellectuals (1915-1922),” Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 32, No. 3 (July, 2001), pg. 591, (Accessed June 12, 2018).

[26] Feigon, Lee, China Rising, pg. 11

[27] Gu, Edward X., “Who was Mr. Democracy? Pg. 592

[28] Schwarcz, Vera, The Chinese Enlightenment: Intellectuals and the Legacy of the May Fourth Movement of 1919 (University of California Press, 1986) pg. 137

[29] Feigon, Lee, China Rising, pgs. 6-7, 27.

[30] Goldman, Merle, Sowing the Seeds of Democracy In China, pg. 12

[31] Feigon, Lee, China Rising, pg. 20

[32] Ibid

[33] Ibid

[34] Goldman, Merle, Sowing the Seeds of Democracy In China, pg. 12

[35] Feigon, Lee, China Rising, pgs. 64, 65, 68

[36] Goldman, Merle, Sowing the Seeds of Democracy In China, pgs. 3, 12

[37]Feigon, Lee, China Rising, pgs. 37, 51, 57, 74

[38] Goldman, Merle, Sowing the Seeds of Democracy In China, pgs. 12, 17

[39] Feigon, Lee, China Rising, pg. 70

[40] Ibid

[41] Esherick, Joseph, et al., The Chinese Cultural Revolution As History pg. 206


[42] Goldman, Merle, Sowing the Seeds of Democracy In China, pg. 53, 66

[43] Ibid pgs. 16, 37-39, 43

[44] Goldman, Merle, Sowing the Seeds of Democracy In China, pg.37

[45] Esherick, Joseph, et al., The Chinese Cultural Revolution As History, pg. 213

[46] Ibid.

[47] Goldman, Merle, Sowing the Seeds of Democracy In China, pg. 37

[48] Ibid pgs. 37, 43

[49] Ibidpg. 42

[50] Ibid pgs. 37, 52

[51] Ibid pgs. 13-16

[52] Ibid pgs. 45

[53] Ibid pgs., 14, 55

[54] Ibid pg. 55

[55] Ibid

[56] Ibid pgs.18, 44

[57] Ibid pgs. 45,55-56, 64

[58] Ibid pg. 21           

[59] Ibid pg. 55

[60] Mohanty, Manoranjan, For Socialist Freedom: Students’ Movement in China, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 24 No. 24, (June 17, 1989), pg. 1329, (Accessed 06/29/2018)

[61] Ibid

[62] Ibid

[63] Feigon, Lee, China Rising, pg. 170.

[64] Ibid pg. 156-157, 166

[65] Ibid pg. 100

[66] Ibid

[67] Ibid

[68] Ibid, pg. 108, 113, 117, 121

[69] Ibid, pg. 121

[70] Ibid

[71] Ibid

[72] Ibid. pgs. 124-125

[73] Ibid

[74] Seeds pg. 63

[75] Ibid

[76] Ibid pg. 130-131

[77] Ibid pg. 131

[78] Ibid pgs. 130-131

[79] Ibid. pg. ix

[80] Ibid

[81] Ibid. pg. 125

[82] Ibid pg. pg. 131

[83] Ibid. pg. 132

[84] Ibid pg. 95

[85] Goldman, Merle, Sowing the Seeds of Democracy In China, pg. 66

[86] Faigon, Lee, China Rising, pgs. 173-175

[87] Ibid

[88] Ibid pg. 174

[89] Ibid

[90] Ibid

[91] Ibid

[92] Ibid

[93] Ibid pg, 175

[94] Ibid pg. 178

[95] Ibid pg. 176

[96] Ibid pg. 144

[97] Ibid.

[98] Ibid pg, 232

[99] Ibid

[100] Ibid

[101] Ibid pg. 234

[102] Ibid

[103] Ibid

[104] Ibid

[105] Ibid pg. 235

[106] Ibid pg. 237

[107] Ibid pg. 237-238

[108] Ibid pg. 238

[109] Ibid pg. 238

[110] Ibid pg. 256

[111] Ibid pg. 224

[112] Ibid pg. 40

[113] Ibid pg. 142.