The Chinese democracy movement (simplified Chinese: 中国民主运动; traditional Chinese: 中國民主運動; pinyin: Zhōngguó mínzhǔ yùndòng), abbreviated as Minyun (simplified Chinese: 民运; traditional Chinese: 民運; pinyin: Mínyùn), refers to a series of loosely organized political movements in the People's Republic of China against the continued one-party rule by the Communist Party. One such movement began during the Beijing Spring in 1978 and was taken up again in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.
The origin of the Chinese movement started in 1978, when the brief liberalization known as Beijing Spring occurred after the Cultural Revolution. The founding document of the movement is considered to be the Fifth Modernization manifesto by Wei Jingsheng, who was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for authoring the document. In it, Wei argued that political liberalization and the empowering of the laboring masses was essential for modernization, that the Communist Party was controlled by reactionaries, and that the people must struggle to overthrow the reactionaries via a long and possibly bloody fight.
Throughout the 1980s, these ideas increased in popularity among college educated Chinese. In response to the growing corruption, the economic dislocation, and the sense that reforms in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were leaving China behind, the Tiananmen Square protests erupted in 1989. These protests were put down by government troops on June 4, 1989. In response, a number of pro-democracy organizations were formed by overseas Chinese student activists, and there was considerable sympathy for the movement among Westerners, who formed the China Support Network (CSN).
While the CSN was initially a go-to organization for U.S. mainstream news media (MSM) to cite, CSN and MSM parted company in a dispute over the casualty count from the June 4 massacre. MSM originally reported 3,000 dead. On June 22, 1989, Agence France Press referred to "the Chinese army's assault on the demonstrators in and around Beijing's Tiananmen Square, an operation in which U.S. intelligence sources estimated 3,000 people were killed. That casualty count, originally reported as above, was subsequently changed by the news media. CAN reported that it was the interest of China's propaganda minister to reduce the casualty count by an order of magnitude, resulting in later reports that "hundreds" were killed at Tiananmen Square. In November, 1989 CSN editor James W. Hawkins MD wrote, "It appears as if Mr. Yuan Mu [Chinese State Council spokesman] has gotten his way and when we read reports on the AP wire we are told exactly what Mr. Mu [sic] wants us to read."
The rift between CSN and MSM plays into the history of the movement. In January, 2005 upon the death of ousted Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, CSN raised its estimate to 3,001 dead in the Tiananmen crackdown. CSN proceeded to be critical of the MSM, and MSM proceeded to minimize, downplay, ignore, or underreport movement news and China's human rights abuse.
This could be in part the result of the Chinese government tightening its control over its people's freedom of speech, thus giving the appearance of disinterest, or as a result of the overall economical and social reforms China has undertaken in recent years. The difficulties that the Soviet Union had in converting to democracy and capitalism was used to validate the PRC's official position that slow gradual reform was a wise policy. Structurally, democracy promotion organizations in the United States such as the China Alliance for Democracy, the Federation for a Democratic China and the Independent Federation of Chinese Students and Scholars suffered from internal disputes and infighting. Much support was lost over the issue of Most Favored Nation trade status and China's entry into the World Trade Organization which was popular both within and outside of China, but which were opposed by 79% of the American people (in a poll published by Business Week) and the overseas democracy movement.
Censorship in Mainland China is very strict, including in the Internet. The new generation finds it difficult to obtain, or are unaware of, the truth regarding several important historical events which occurred before they were born.
A generation gap has begun to appear between older and younger students when people born after the Cultural Revolution began entering college campuses. These students perceived the older activists as more pro-American than pro-democracy, and thus they are far more supportive of the Communist Party. The younger students also tend to be more nationalistic. Internal disputes within the movement over such issues as China's most-favored nation status in US trade law crippled the movement; as did the perception by many within China that overseas dissidents such as Harry Wu and Wei Jingsheng were simply out of touch with the growing economic prosperity and decreasing political control within China.
Ideologically, the government's first reaction to the democracy movement was an effort to focus on the personal behavior of individual dissidents and argue that they were tools of foreign powers. In the mid-1990s, the government began using more effective arguments which were influenced by Chinese Neo-Conservatism and Western authors such as Edmund Burke. The main argument was that China's main priority was economic growth, and economic growth required political stability. The democracy movement was flawed because it promoted radicalism and revolution which put the gains that China had made into jeopardy. In contrast to Wei's argument that democracy was essential to economic growth, the government argued that economic growth must come before political liberalization, comparable to what happened in the Asian Tigers.
With regard to political dissent engendered by the movement, the government has taken a three pronged approach. First, dissidents who are widely known in the West such as Wei Jingsheng, Fang Lizhi, and Wang Dan are deported. Although Chinese criminal law does not contain any provisions for exiling citizens, these deportations are conducted by giving the dissident a severe jail sentence and then granting medical parole. Second, the less well-known leaders of a dissident movement are identified and given severe jail sentences. Generally, the government targets a relatively small number of organizers who are crucial in coordinating a movement and who are then charged with endangering state security or revealing official secrets. Thirdly, the government attempts to address the grievances of possible supporters of the movement. This is intended to isolate the leadership of the movement, and prevent disconnected protests from combining into a general organized protest that can threaten the Communist hold on power.
Chinese Communist Party leaders assert there are already elements of democracy; they dubbed the term "Chinese socialist democracy" for what they describe as a participatory representative government.
For example, in a November 23, 2002 interview, the Chinese ambassador to Egypt, Liu Xiaoming, said:
I think what we are practicing today is Chinese socialist democracy, which is represented by the National People's Congress and a broad participation of the Chinese people. In fact, in today's China, the political participation at the grassroots level is much higher than any western country you can name of. We have grassroots level democracy demonstrated by village election. The turnout is 99 percent, i.e. 99% of villagers participating in this political process to elect their village leaders, comparing with only less than 50% of participation in election process in many western countries.
Many pro-democracy supporters noted that China has successfully overcome much of the challenges to democracy in China faced during the transition from a communist to a capitalist economy so there is no longer a need for prolonged political repression. They claim that pro-democracy forces would not necessarily stall economic growth after the transition, as the Communist Party states, and more importantly that the presence of democracy would help to check wasteful corruption and might achieve a more even distribution of wealth. Many believe that the Communist Party of China has no intention whatsoever of ever relinquishing power even if all their economic goals are ever achieved; it is said that China would have refused the WTO if the terms of entry were linked to a shift to a Western-style democracy.
Within China, most protest activity now is expressed in single-issue demonstrations, which are tolerated to a degree by the government. Some of the ideas of the movement have been incorporated in the Chinese liberal faction who tend to agree with neoconservatives that stability is important, but argue that political liberalization is essential to maintain stability. In contrast to democracy movement activists, most members of the liberal faction do not overtly call for the overthrow of the Communist Party nor do they deny the possibility of reform from within the Party. As a result, members of the liberal faction are generally enjoying more official tolerance than persons who identify themselves as members of the democracy movement.