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Thursday, June 3, 1999 Published at 14:31 GMT 15:31 UK

Student division leads Tiananmen failure

Tanks alone did not break up the protests

by Rob Gifford

The picture shown to the world during the Tiananmen Square demonstrations was of a unified movement of idealistic young people challenging a stultified communist state. But the reality was somewhat different.

The student movement was riven with factionalism. Some analysts blame the movement's failure on the lack of unity.

The combination of a lack experience of political activism and the surprise of finding an outlet for their grievances proved a difficult one for many of the students who suddenly found themselves empowered in the heady days of April and May 1989.

As the movement gathered steam and tried to transform itself from a spontaneous outburst of mourning into an organised movement with real political demands, it became clear that it was not going to be easy.

No foundation of democracy

The lack of civil society in China at the time meant that there were very few organised outlets around which people could gather.

In Poland, for instance, the trade union Solidarity had an acknowledged leader in Lech Walesa, the Catholic Church and an established trade union structure within which to work.

In China, there were not even any free trades unions, let alone elected leaders or structures within which to work. The selection process for leaders was random.

[ image: Chai Ling spoke loud and often]
Chai Ling spoke loud and often
Some leaders were the most forceful personalities of the moment; others the best organisers. In some cases, the leader was the person who could grab the megaphone.

The students' lack of experience in democratic ways showed in the way they took command.

There were accusations that students were as autocratic as the Communist Party leaders they were challenging.

One Western journalist claimed it was more difficult to get to see student leader Chai Ling than it was to meet the hierarchy of the Communist Party. He passed through 11 different checkpoints to reach her in the Square.

Divisions reign

One of the most divisive issues between the students was whether, after several weeks, the demonstrators should leave the square. The debate was especially intense after martial law was declared on May 20.

Many of the Beijing-based students (such as Wang Dan and Wuer Kaixi) wanted to leave, while the out-of-town students (who may not have had anywhere else to go) wanted to stay.

The students were also split over whether to allow workers to participate. Though it seems to show a somewhat condescending and autocratic streak in the young intellectuals, there may have been some logic in their decision.

The history of student activism in China meant that even some hardliners within the Chinese government felt that students could just be reprimanded (or punished) and sent back to their campuses. But as workers became involved it became more dangerous.

For workers to feel that they could set up free trades unions was seen as a cancer that could spread a lot more dangerously among ordinary people than among a few idealistic students.

After June 4, the leaders of the movement scattered. Many escaped through underground networks who spirited them away to Hong Kong and then to Europe and the United States. There they were feted as heroes, daring young democrats who had stood up to the dictators in the Communist Party.

But the lack of unity that had marred the demonstrations before June 4 continued in exile. It became sadly clear to many in the West that the movement was irreparably fractured. Leaders like Chai Ling have been criticised for going on to successful careers in the West and not participating in the struggle in exile.

Whatever organisational or moral power the students had is dissipating fast. Almost all dissidents in China are in jail or under virtual house arrest, the Chinese dissident movement 10 years on seems weaker than ever.

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