book: "Almost a Revolution" about Tiananmen Square

Discussion in 'Resources' started by Jeff Jacobsen, Feb 15, 2011.

  1. Jeff Jacobsen Member

    I'm not sure where to put this, but I think this book is useful to protesters here and in the Middle East right now. "Almost a Revolution" by Shen Tong (Houghton Mifflin:1990) is the story of Tiananmen Square written by one of the student activists who helped organize the protest. I wrote the below as just a quick look at some of the useful things in this book:

    In June of 1989 Tiananmen Square in Beijing China saw the violent end of a peaceful revolt by students, academics, and workers. After weeks of attempted negotiation between the protesters and the government, soldiers and tanks moved in and killed around 800 or possibly more people. Shen Tong was one of the organizers of the student protesters. His book, "Almost a Revolution," is an amazing first-hand account of the hopes and tragedies of that time. Besides highly recommending this book, I'd like to point out some things that Shen Tong wrote about.

    He seems to blame the failure of the protests on disorganization within the movement. As one example of this, in May one student committee responded to the government's order to end a class boycott with five demands that must be met first. But then, ANOTHER committee put forth a different set of demands. This was "another indication of how the leaders of the student movement had the same goals most of the time but were unable to organize enough to speak with a united voice. There were so many of us, so many groups, often going off in different directions, that the government couldn't possibly have been sure what we were asking for and who was asking for it." (p. 228) Inside Tiananmen Square, the federation of all the groups there had a leadership group. One group started a hunger strike, and this group gradually saw themselves as the most dedicated and thus most eligible to be in charge. Eventually, "the hunger strikers and the federation leaders were fighting over control of the square." (p. 272) There were so many people there from so many groups, that different people popped up here and there as respresenatives of the whole protest. A joint conference was arranged to try to work out a unted front, but "we couldn't decide who the real student leaders were and who would lead this new organization." (p.285) Eventually the hunger strike group wrestled the main control of the Square.

    My take on this is that protests should have a simple obtainable goal. In Egypt, for instance, the goal was to get Mubarak to resign. There were more demands as well, but this was the core agreed upon demand. There is no need to have conferences and committee meetings for an obvious goal. Once that goal is met, then you can meet and decide if you want to keep going, but generally I see collective actions like this as heading to an agreeable simple goal, and declaring victory once reached. Pizza and beer, dissolve the group. On to the next project. I don't know if this could have been done in Tiananmen Square. It was all sort of done on the fly since nobody knew such a huge protest was going to build at that time.

    "In an effort to deny that students were really dissatisfied with the state of the country, the government often said that we were manipulated, either by dissidents or foreigners." (p. 140) This is exactly what happened in Egypt! Scientology does this as well, claiming that protesters are paid agents of pharmaceutical companies trying to get back at Scientology's attack on psychiatry.

    The spark that set off the Tiananmen Square protest was the death of Hu Yaobang, a former general secretary who was quite popular with students for his reforms. "To honor him at the time of his death was a way of challenging the curent Party hierarchy." (p. 167) So, you use what you have available as an excuse to inject your dissatisfaction. The government certainly couldn't complain about honoring a fallen party leader.

    Shen Tong gives a good example of one thing that worked very well against Scientology. You give them an opportunity to show their true colors. As the student protest grew, Hu Yaobang's memorial service was held at the Great Hall of the People. The students sent a delegation of three people to present a list of demands to the officials at the service. They knelt at the entrance, assuming that someone would come out to receive their demands (one of which was for students to be able to pay their respects to Hu). They knelt for 40 minutes as the officlas snuck out the back entrance. This incensed all the students so much that "that day was one of the turning points of the movement." (p. 187)

    This is an important book for those interested in collective action. Even though the Tiananmen Square protests failed in their immediate goals, their actions laid the groundwork for huge changes in China.

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