Tiananmen Square - 11 June 1989

In this month of totally unpredicted turbulence in China, when one human being in five on this planet doesn’t know who’s running the country, it may at first sound perverse, even academic, to take our text today not from any of the scattered teams of courageous journalists, and I must say, television cameramen, in Beijing, Shanghai and elsewhere, but from an old reporter who, if he were alive today would be, according to the best calculations, 2,373 years old.

I am referring to nobody but old Aristotle. He’s talking about the dependable tendency of the young to rebel, to protest, to seek some other system in the certain hope it will be a better one and he wrote, “Young people have exalted notions because they have not yet been humbled by life or learned its necessary limitations.

"Moreover, their hopeful disposition makes them think themselves equal to great things. All their mistakes therefore are in the direction of doing things excessively and vehemently. They love too much, hate too much, and the same with everything else.”

It struck me, watching the thousands and thousands of feet of television coverage of the first gatherings in Beijing’s great square, then the hunger strike, then the huge massing of students – and let’s not forget workers and incoming farmers – and finally the horrid scenes of the Beijing massacre. It struck me then how quick we all are, in any student rebellion, to jump to the thought that the students are always right.

Nobody should jump to the opposite conclusion, to presume, I’m saying, they’re always wrong. When it comes to political rebellion the judgement of any of us will turn on how satisfied or dissatisfied we are with what we used to call the system and now call the establishment. But I’ve noticed from all the talk and commentary we’ve had, not only on the box but in print and among friends, that most of us begin with the prejudice that students, especially in revolt, are idealists who want something better.

It may be, as we shall see, that often they want rather something different, something more exciting, something quicker, more downright which may or may not turn out to be better than the thing they rebelled against. Even so dedicated a revolutionary as Bernard Shaw once wrote, “Never tear down a building until you have a better one to put in its place.”

Anyone who has listened much to these talks will know that of all forms of human scientists and pseudo-scientists the ones I am never likely to quote admiringly are the sociologists who have, more than any tribe professionals, broken up a whole language in the process of first fracturing and then muddying up our thinking. But there is one who, down the years, has made more enlightening sense than most and who, believe it or not, has done it in cogent, simple English.

So a sociologist, Dr Martin Seymour Lipset, moving on you might say from that observation by Aristotle, wrote a piece more than two weeks ago when the student rebellion in China was only just moving into the heart of Beijing.

It was a survey of the role of students as rebels in various countries at different times. He remarked first that in Tsarist Russia the universities were officially described as "hotbeds of radicalism and the higher the school, the more are the young people imbued with the revolutionary spirit”. That was written in the 1880s.

Dr Lipset then goes on to point out that the only certain common factors in student rebellions are romanticism and idealism which exist, however, in groups that vary considerably in their social and political views, which brings us to the useful reminder that in Germany, the most stubborn and vocal supporters of right-wing nationalism were students from the middle of the 19th century on and that it was the student councils that provided, in 1931, the earliest majority support for Hitler’s Nazis. The party anthem, by the way, of Mussolini’s fascists was Giovinezza Giovinezza – Youth Youth.

Well in this country – which of all countries has boasted of itself for over 200 years as the country of youth and education – it’s surprising to look back and see that students have played a very small part in the various rebellions since the 18th Century.

Mostly it has been aggrieved or dispossessed farmers, oppressed workers, usually the latest body of immigrants, union militants – steel workers, railroad workers and the like – but 20 years ago it was students who disrupted presidential campaign meetings, students who put together a rather undemocratic and militant group called The Students for a Democratic Society, students who seized university administration buildings in the east and the west for rampant but dubious causes.

At Columbia here they stalled the running of the entire university to try and have a piece of ground turned into a gymnasium. At Berkeley the first rampaging protest I ever saw was a stomping parade of students, hundreds of them, disrupting classes and the daily routine by demanding – it’s always demanding – their own respect or their own version of the First Amendment, which is the one that sanctions free speech and the right peaceably to assemble.

The peaceable injunction was always forgotten or violated. What those early protesters wanted was the right, if it is a right, to march across the campus endlessly shouting out four-letter obscenities. That must have been the witless nadir of student protest, but it will not be forgotten that when the Vietnam war went on and on and brought in hundreds of thousands of Americans and got messier and more brutal, took to napalm and anti-personnel bombs that meant you were blasted apart, it was the students on campuses across the country – and notably in the west – it was the students who started and maintained a furious vigil and said “Enough!”.

I think it’s fair to say that more than any single body, group, of Americans the students played the decisive part in the administration’s reluctant decision to get out.

Now in China, on the other hand, the students – it always means university students – have been in the vanguard of popular uprising but their methods were not always as benign as the methods used by the students here and now in Beijing. A famous date in Chinese history is 4 May, as 3 June will become infamous, 4 May 1919.

It was a march through the centre of what was then Peking to protest China’s weakness, its military sluggishness, in meeting an aggressive Japan. It was a student rebellion in favour of war. The protest wound down into a long bitter government debate abetted by contending students about China’s decline as a great power.

What we remember today is the massive student uprising which either assisted or engineered the chaos of the cultural revolution of 1966-67 in which Mao Tse Tung used the students to get rid of the political rivals who challenged his power including, let’s not forget, Mr Jiang himself imprisoned, tortured – he still shows a resulting limp – and banished.

And that led to the mobilising of the dreaded bands of so-called Red Guards, students who went on a murderous spree of arresting, beating, sometimes liquidating Mao’s rivals and enemies and suspected friends and families of Mao’s rivals and ten years later, let’s not forget, the students rose in furious rebellion protesting the introduction of economic reforms that seemed to them to be a surrender to the hated liberal bourgeois democracies.

Those former students must still be around, greying slightly but by now stoical or cynical onlookers as they watch their sons or younger brothers arise in the cause of the democracy they believed had sapped the strength of their Communist state.

It happens that the attitude of many of the young intellectuals who suffered during the cultural revolution has been gone into by a professor at Berkeley who has recently spent time among Chinese students in China.

He says, “These kids’ parents, many of whom were intellectuals who suffered during that revolution, have told them about it and the parents said, 'Look, you don’t get anywhere with violence, you have to take a new approach'." And it does seem that the most striking change in tactics in this rebellion is, was, even through the bloody 3 June the general – the remarkably general – resolve to be peaceful.

This, of course, makes us ask what is different this time about their demands, about the better system they are pleading for? All the American networks and, I reckon, most newspapers have turned their protest into a simple massive demand for democracy as against Communism, though certainly in the early days all we heard from their own lips and waving posters was an end to corruption, no suggestion then of overthrowing Communism.

They were protesting their low pay as against the wages of workers. They were protesting corruption at low and high levels of their government, but pretty soon the placards and the slogans changed and simplified. Up went the model Statue of Liberty. Amazingly, we saw the name Jefferson being flaunted. Very many of the students who were wounded on the bloody day had been students in this country and the glow of democracy, its freedoms, was what fired them. No mention then of what the marchers of 1978 had stormed about – the materialism, the crime, the licence of western democracy.

If a month ago our visiting businessmen and the tourists, most of all our intelligence services, had no hint or clue of what was coming, I find it hard to believe that we can know just yet what is going to come out of it.

The one thought that stays with me is that perhaps the two fatal errors of the Chinese government in the past few years was, first, to let 70,000 students go off and live in the United States and other democracies and second, to allow foreign television companies to come in and show to the world the bloody chaos of 3 June.


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