« What about Bivens? What about prosecutorial immunity? (Updated) | Main | Lawsuit over clearing Lafayette Square »

Thursday, June 04, 2020

Commemorating Tiananmen Square: A Case Study in the Failure of “People Power”?

Today is the 31st anniversary of the Chinese Communists’ repression of the student protests at Tiananmen Square. After thirty-one years, a memory, like a person, ought to be subjected to middle-aged reflection. I will, therefore, treat this anniversary as an opportunity to reflect maturely and even a little bit coldly on the lessons of Tiananmen Square. One of those lessons, I’ll argue below, is how “people power” fails when it is completely disconnected from the institutions it seeks to displace. So understood, Tiananmen is a grim reminder to current protestors, from Hong Kong to the streets of the USA, that crowds and chants without programs, institutions, and establishment alliances do not have a great track record of success in improving government.

By “people power,” I mean the idea that spontaneous crowds of people, unified only by their disgust with the injustice of an incumbent regime, can both topple that regime and bring about lasting desirable change in government. People Power played a significant role in the wave of democratizations that crested in the 1980s. Mass protests over Benigno Aquino’s murder in 1983 and Ferdinand Marcos’ stealing the 1986 election from Cory Aquino, Benigno’s widow, drove Marcos out of power in the Philippines. Mass mobilization helped enforce the results of the 1988 referendum against Pinochet in Chile. And, most memorably, 1989 saw mass demonstrations herald the beginning of the end of the Soviet-backed Communist regimes of Eastern Europe. Tiananmen Square’s repression, indeed, occurred on the same day that Lech Wałęsa‘s Solidarity Movement won the second largest bloc of seats in Poland’s Sejm in free elections brought about by Solidarity’s mass strikes and demonstrations a year earlier. The students’ protests at Tiananmen were supposed to be part of this great wave of democratic victories sweeping the globe. Alas, Tiananmen ended with a massacre, not an election.

This contrast between Solidarity and Tiananmen suggests how People Power succeeds and fails. The Solidarity movement was more than just a “movement”: It was an institution with the ability to negotiate with Wojciech Jaruzelski’s government, bargaining over those free elections that eventually led to the defeat of the Communist Party. By contrast, the students camped out at Tiananmen Square had no organized decision-making structure, no alliances with anyone in the PRC government, and no capacity to strike compromises. With the more iconoclastic student factions denouncing even reformist Communists like Dai Qing as “neo-authoritarians,” the students gave the Chinese Party the choice of killing itself or killing the students. Naturally, the CCP chose the latter option.

There are grim lessons here for the United States’ “George Floyd” protests and Hong Konger protestors. Pure People’s Power is likely to fail, as peace activist and scholar April Carter has argued, because unfocused mass grievance cannot negotiate with incumbent officials by making limited demands that the latter are prepared to accept. Hong Kong protestors boast that their crowds follow Bruce Lee’s advice to “be water” By adopting a fluid, leaderless mass the police cannot arrest and courts cannot try and imprison. True enough — but a mere flood leaves nothing behind but mud and wreckage, inviting incumbent officials to rally support with the grim warning, “après nous, le déluge.” (Law-and-order Republicans might get an electoral boost in 2020 from such fears of disorder).

What would it mean for People Power to become more institutionalized? Consider three ways that the power of the street could be connected to the power of institutions.

First, the rank and file protestors need some ongoing loyalty to leaders and institutions that can bargain on their behalf. Police unions are politically powerful impediments to reform precisely because the members are part of an electorally powerful organization that can bargain on the officers’ behalf. Consumers of police services — the public — need similar loyalty to similarly durable “unions” that can bargain on their behalf.

Second, the organized opposition needs to be prepared to strike bargains and not make merely intransigent, unilateral demands. Incumbent officials, after all, also have supporters (some of them very well-armed, like the People’s Liberation Army) that provide those officials with political clout. Those officials will make concessions exactly proportionate to the balance of power, a balance that the negotiation process reveals. Demanding that the Hong Kong chief executive be directly elected by universal suffrage, for instance, is a good opening gambit — but it cannot be last intransigent word. Hong Kong protestors should be prepared to dicker over the precise composition of that “broadly representative nominating committee” (“广泛代表性的提名委员会“) provided by Article 45 of the Basic Law. Those protestors, after all, do not hold all of the cards: They can win the value of what’s in their hand, not what’s in their dreams.

Third, the street should be coordinated with the bargaining table: Mass protestors should press demands in chants and signs that their representatives can press in the smoky room. It would be a huge sign of progress, for instance, if New York protestors chanted “repeal 50-a” as a way of nudging politicians towards getting rid of the state law that bars public disclosure of police disciplinary records. (Mayor de Blasio apparently still needs a nudge)

Creating institutions is not easy, especially when the government does its best to prevent their creation by arresting opposition leadership. But replacing mere People Power with institutions that can harness, but are not captives of, mass mobilization should be reformers’ top priority. Otherwise, this latest round of protests will likely end up like Tiananmen Square — just one more sad memory to commemorate rather than celebrate.

Posted by Rick Hills on June 4, 2020 at 11:22 AM | Permalink


Actually, the thesis was about Solidarity AND the Committee for Social Self-Defense (KOR or KSS-KOR) in relation to and in comparison with....

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jun 4, 2020 4:59:23 PM

(Incidental fact: I wrote my MA thesis in the mid-1980s on Solidarity in Poland in relation to new (anti-nuclear and green) social movements in Western Europe.)

Had I the time I would have some comments to make (related to the ruthlessness of the respective authoritarian regimes, the role of the ‘Helsinki effect’ in East Central Europe, the part played by Mikhail Gorbachev’s ‘glasnost’ and ‘perestroika,’ the fairly long history of underground ‘civil society’ in Poland and Czechoslovakia, but especially the former, solidarity between workers, intellectuals, students, and artists, etc.,) although I agree with the overall argument. And I happen to think existing (more or less, fragile or not) “democratic” regimes (like the U.S.) involve different variables and dynamics than that which occurs with “people power” social movements in authoritarian regimes attempting a transition to democratic government. There is much of value in the final three recommendations, but we need to think more deeply about the nature of civil society which, I believe, involves thinking about more than institutions (for example, social norms, informal modes of acquisition of information and education, individual and group psychology, constitutionalism, the transcendence of ‘bread and circuses,’ and so forth and so on). I have a fair number of bibliographies (in English, largely books only) on my Academia page covering some of these topics should anyone be interested.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jun 4, 2020 4:50:14 PM

And here, quoting Trump (after watching the footage):

"I expressed my sorrow. I've seen many bad things and that was a horrible thing to witness and to watch and it would certainly look like there is no excuse for that."

Here for example:


Posted by: El roam | Jun 4, 2020 4:31:39 PM

"Consumers of police services — the public — need similar loyalty to similarly durable 'unions' that can bargain on their behalf."

We could call it a 'legislature' or 'parliament'.

Posted by: Public Union of States | Jun 4, 2020 2:51:27 PM

Just here to the "Arab Spring"( Wikipedia):


And here, to the first Intifada:


Posted by: El roam | Jun 4, 2020 1:10:51 PM

Important post. Just worth to note, or to enhance the idea mentioned in the post, that chaos and disorder or lawlessness of such, may increase support for Republicans(paradoxically) I quote excellent observation from one of the related articles posted, here:

" a single riot invokes sympathy while a series of riots provokes backlash"

It is hard not to feel sympathy ( although subjective) towards that death of George Flyod. Even Trump, had to admit, that it was surly unjust, awful, and disgracing. But, after series of riots, many would detach causation from current situation, deny the "original sin", and start to concentrate on feelings of: fear, helplessness, uncertainty, instability, ongoing disruption to economy and to normal life etc.... That may support finally, republican candidate.

Also worth to note:

The author of the post, has ignored other popular uprising, lacking institutional attitude, yet, successful as such:

Like the first "Intifada"( Palestinian uprising, the first one, 1987, leading finally, to " Oslo accord") or the " Arab Spring". Precisely because, it is vast, popular, no leadership, no head, no tail, no body, it is sowing such huge chaos. Uprising, from all walks of life, that, current institutions or governments, get the idea, that, it is too big, too entrenched, and you must give up.


Posted by: El roam | Jun 4, 2020 1:02:37 PM

Post a comment