The latest push to revive China’s democracy movement has drawn support and criticism from Chinese around the world
Originally posted on Al Jazeera America – June 2, 2014
Attempts to revive the spirit of the Tiananmen Square movement have been made before. In the quarter century since Chinese security forces killed hundreds, if not thousands of pro-democracy supporters many have tried to evoke the events of June 4, 1989, to inspire defiance anew.
In Hong Kong, for instance, democracy activists hold an annual candlelight vigil in Victoria Park. A model of the movement’s Democracy Goddess is invariably present.
In music, the godfather of Chinese rock, Cui Jian, who performed at the Tiananmen protests, has in recent years re-recorded pop-infused versions of what had once been anthems for the popular movement, “Nothing to My Name” and “A Piece of Red Cloth.”
However, the vigils haven’t garnered much momentum, and Cui’s album didn’t sell nearly as much as he had hoped. Essentially, attempts to reinvigorate or reinvent China’s democracy movement for a newer, younger, China — often preoccupied by a struggle for a share of the country’s rapid-fire economic growth — have failed.
But that hasn’t stopped dissident Chinese blogger Wen Yunchao from a quixotic quest to reclaim the spirit of ’89.
From the safety of his New York home, Wen launched a Twitter campaign to reignite the Tiananmen protests on June 4, the 25th anniversary of the event. He was neither in Beijing in 1989 nor espoused — at the time — the values that brought at first students and then people from all stripes of Chinese society to the monument that represents the heart of the Chinese Communist Party.
The campaign for Tiananmen 2.0 is called 重回天安门 (Chong Hui Tiananmen) — Return to Tiananmen. It has garnered support and criticism from Chinese around the world who remember the original movement, whether from TV or by having witnessed it firsthand.
“After 25 years, we find that what they were talking about — democracy — still hasn’t been realized today,” said Wen, a native of southern Guangdong province, who currently resides in New York. Wen, who has engaged in multiple online campaigns for human rights and free expression, refuses return to China because he fears that he will face repression, censorship and possibly retribution for his dissidence.
Atop Wen’s blog, a dramatic graphic depicts a giant wave crashing against the Tiananmen Square gate, sweeping away the portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong and fracturing a banner there that reads: “Long live the Chinese Communist Party.”
The graphic is inscribed with the instructions: “On June 4, return to the square.”
“On the [Tiananmen] anniversary last year, a few of my friends in New York discussed how to commemorate Tiananmen’s 25th anniversary,” Wen told Al Jazeera, “We needed something to give people in the country hope.”
What resulted was a campaign designed in part to spark a protest on the ground, but to also draw the attention of international media issues of socioeconomic injustice in China.
“This event is designed to still bring media attention back to Tiananmen. It’s also to return the ideas of Tiananmen to the people’s hearts,” said the blogger.
On a typical June 4, Beijing police will heavily restrict activity on and around Tiananmen Square. On the quarter-century anniversary of the movement, people expect extra precautions against popular movement. Police have already reportedly set up checkpoints around the square.
“A Tiananmen-inspired movement has little chance to gain traction given the full-blown, no-holds-barred efforts of the Chinese Communist Party to muzzle dissent and the flow of information,” renowned U.S.-China affairs commentator Ray Kwong told Al Jazeera.
Still, Wen is confident that — although he himself will be unable to attend renewed protests at the square — others will.
“It’s hard for me to estimate how many people will participate. But there must be many people planning on participating for the government to be so nervous,” he said, referring to the arrests of the government’s critics, like dissident journalist Gao Yu, ahead of this year’s anniversary.
Qingwen Dong, a Chinese media and current affairs analyst and communications professor at University of the Pacific, expressed his opposition to the campaign.
“The past 25 years have seen lots of changes in China politically, socially and economically,” Dong said, “We should not use the same thinking as we had 25 years ago to deal with today’s situation.” In 1989, when Dong was a student himself, he “shared lots of ideas” with the members of the movement, but was studying abroad in the United States.
“China’s situation is quite different from other countries like Egypt or Syria and solving Chinese problems should depend on the Chinese way of dealing with issues,” Dong added. “China is finding its own way from market economy to market based democracy. We have already seen lots of progress making in the democratic process. Any shotgun approach to solve Chinese problems may not be effective.”
Wen acknowledged that Syria’s popular movement for democracy has devolved into civil war and that the military rulers who were part of the administration of ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak are back in power, just three years after Mubarak was deposed. But he said the situation is reminiscent of a Chinese idiom: 不能一口吃胖子（Bu neng yikou chi pangzi), “One can’t eat his corpulence in a bite” — democracy isn’t gained overnight.
Wen would not reveal to Al Jazeera who had collaborated with him to launch the campaign. “It’s not convenient to say,” he said.
But renowned Chinese dissident Hu Jia, who has faced numerous detentions and disappearances by the Chinese government for his advocacy for democracy and AIDS rights, has been helpful in disseminating the hashtag #重回天安门 — Return to Tiananmen, not on Chinese social media Sina Weibo, where the term has been blocked well ahead of the anniversary, but on Twitter.
Twitter is only accessible in China with the help of virtual private network software, often purchased by Chinese Netizens looking to logon to foreign sites, like YouTube and Facebook, blocked by the so-called Great Firewall.
Hu, who is currently under house arrest in Beijing amid the widespread detentions of journalists, artists, activists and human rights lawyers ahead of the anniversary, told Al Jazeera that “there are many people like myself who would like to see a return to Tiananmen.”
Hu sees Tiananmen-style protests as an inevitable part of the country’s social and economic development.
“China is the world’s second-largest GDP,” Hu said, “As China reforms and develops, there will inevitably be people taking to the streets in a manner similar to the student and citizen protests of the June 4,  movement,” he said.
“All that is necessary is the consciousness of the public to achieve this universal value” of democracy.
Still, Wen’s campaign has ruffled some feathers in China’s diaspora community. The University of the Pacific’s Dong opposed a campaign orchestrated primarily on foreign social media by activists in the United States.
“I do believe that the Chinese issues should be better dealt with by the Chinese people within, rather than outside. The movement is clearly orchestrated by people in the United States with the assistance of social media. I think that the movement is indeed out of touch with the realities on the ground in China today.”
And Chinese youth remain detached from their recent history, it seems.
“Today’s young people are post-’90s, and they have a very vague idea of the true meaning of Tiananmen,” Dong said, adding that still, even as analysts continue to describe most modern Chinese youth as being disaffected from politics, they have “new ideas of democracy, equality and freedom” that are altogether independent of the those of the Tiananmen generation.
A 20-something Chinese national living in Northern California told Al Jazeera that “our generation is not really familiar with that event.” The national refused to give his name, citing retribution by Chinese authorities against people who have discussed Tiananmen openly on the Internet or among peers.
As the Chinese government attempts to block information on the events of the Tiananmen Square incident, so too do many Chinese parents.
“Parents mostly fear their children would do something similar so lots of them don’t really tell the whole thing about that event,” he said. Several other sources based in China declined to tell Al Jazeera about their views on Tiananmen.
Just how much Chinese youth do know and how much they’ve withheld from the public discourse for fear of retribution remains unknown. As is the number of activists who will return to Tiananmen on June 4, either physically or by way of social media.
Even if not on Wednesday, Hu is confident the square will draw democracy activists again.
“Democracy is an inevitable outcome of economic development and globalization — and China is no exception to this,” Hu said, “Beijing will of course become a battle ground for political change, and people will flock to Tiananmen, it’s iconic core. It’s just a matter of time.”