John Keane | Remembering Tiananmen: The Future of Chinese Democracy
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Remembering Tiananmen: The Future of Chinese Democracy

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The army massacre of June 4, 1989, in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square should be remembered everywhere. EPA/Michael Reynolds

It’s 24 years since the Tiananmen Square uprising. In an interview with John Keane, democracy activist Chin Jin says the day remains important to anyone with a political conscience.
An earthy citizen of a country led by politicians and journalists bugged by “boat people”, Chin Jin fits no standard categories. Now the foremost democrat in Sydney’s thriving Chinese community, he first set foot on the north-west shores of Australia over 30 years ago, after narrowly surviving a ferocious typhoon in a rusted cargo ship.
“For three days, we saw no sun, no moon, no stars,” he tells me during an evening together in Sydney. “Everybody on board, including our captain, grew violently ill. We feared for our lives. We worried the ship would split apart, or just sink under the waves. One minute its propellers roared in mid-air. Next minute it plunged headlong into a sea so angry we felt doomed.”
Peril sometimes delivers the oddest miracles, as Chin Jin discovered when a rapid change of weather granted him a grand political surprise. He describes how the tropical sun suddenly cut through the clouds. The winds dropped. “The waters around us grew calm. Several days later, still trembling and sea sick, we docked at the tiny port town of Dampier.”
I ask Chin Jin to recall his first-ever impressions of the town named after named after the first-ever Englishman (William Dampier) to explore the coastline of New Holland and to circumnavigate the world three times. “Back in China,” he replies, “I’d long been a fan of Radio Australia. I was the only crew member who spoke English, so I had a chance to talk to the locals. Our ship’s Party Commissar warned us to be vigilant.
“He instructed us to remember our historic struggle as Chinese workers to liberate the workers of all countries. Well, we were surprised. The locals didn’t look as though they needed liberating. They were well-fed and friendly. No signs of class antagonism, or racism. They called us “mate”, with offers of beer. We politely declined. A few hours later, we headed back to China, our ship loaded with iron ore.”
One short day in Dampier was enough to change Chin Jin’s life. Disabused of Communist Party propaganda and fascinated by the strangers he’d encountered, he vowed to return down under. When and how New Holland would again come his way he didn’t know. It would be a long and not altogether easy journey, a personal voyage pitted with disappointment, revolutionary violence and a military massacre.
Born into a poor working class family in 1957 in the east-coastal province of Jiangsu, Chin Jin moved with his parents from their small rural town to the metropolis of Shanghai when he was just a month old. His earliest memories of his own “Great Leap Forward” (he chuckles at my misuse of the phrase) are vivid, and told well. Around the age of nine, with the Cultural Revolution in full frenzy, he was summoned by adults to the streets to witness the public denunciation and beating of academics and a purged senior Communist Party official who’d just botched an attempt to commit suicide.
“The violence frightened me. I felt sick inside. It also made me angry, especially because the humiliated official on crutches was so distraught that eventually he found a way of taking his life. I was too young to understand the messy details, but the brutality of it all stayed with me until today,” he recalls. So did the compulsory kitchen portrait of Mao. “It always left me cold. I felt nothing. I refused to swallow the lie that Mao was the saviour of the Chinese people.”
Then there was the first bout of teenage resistance, innocent but enough for him to taste courage and its power to change things. An open-air film screening in a local sports ground was announced by the authorities. “Hearing the news, a massive crowd quickly gathered,” says Chin Jin, suddenly looking cheeky. “Anticipation ran high. There was great excitement, but for some reason the guards refused to open the gates into the sports ground where the screening was soon to happen. I couldn’t bear to wait. Without quite knowing why, I bolted. In front of the huge crowd, a guard grabbed me, shouted and slapped me around. As if to take the heat off me, the whole crowd suddenly surged forward, through the barricades. They bolted, too. It was thrilling.”
The unauthorised rush for a spot in the open-air cinema was Chin Jin’s first taste of people power. At the time, he recalls, the personal thrill had no political significance. Throughout his teenage years, and well into his twenties, he was neither a dissident nor a Party-minded believer.
His parents, a housewife mother of three children and textile factory worker father, were cut from the same cloth. “They didn’t talk politics at meal times. There were moments when they urged us to listen to Communist Party speeches and to praise Mao, but I always turned a deaf ear. I had the gut feeling that like most people we knew, my parents were simply going along with the routine, despite our hardship. Our home was small and shabby. We had no books, my parents were virtually illiterate, but in a curious way the absence of ideology at home encouraged me to get on with my own learning. I was inclined to be sceptical, even though I had no well-formed opinions of my own. One of my acquaintances later called me a maverick (fan pan zhe).”
The frenzy of the Cultural Revolution forced young Chin Jin to put his nose to the grindstone. “Such things as the public parading and criticism (pi dou you jie) of so-called counter-revolutionaries dressed in big paper hats and sandwich boards disturbed me. Why should people be treated like that, I wondered? Their humiliation left a bad taste in my mouth, but I zipped my lips. I was a silent maverick.”
Amidst the random violence, the mad public attacks on landlords, rich peasants, revisionists and rightists, the first-born son of a working class family quietly set his sights on self-improvement. He worked hard during his middle school years. He wasn’t a gifted or brilliant student, but his interest in learning was reinforced by the fact that his middle school was attached to Shanghai’s East China Normal University. “The connection was an important symbol for me. It lifted my expectations, encouraged me to widen my horizons.”
Destruction of the Goddess of Democracy: taken by an unknown citizen, rare photographs of the demolition work carried out by an army truck pulling a steel cable in the early hours of Sunday June 4, 1989. After graduation from middle school, Chin Jin was forced into a program of “re-education by the poor and lower-middle peasants” in the countryside outside of Shanghai.
When Deng Xiaoping won control of the Communist Party leadership (in 1977), universities in China began to re-open. About to finish his stint as a “revolutionary worker”, Chin Jin naturally jumped at the chance of sitting entrance examinations, for a place at East China Normal University, to study science, rather than the humanities.
It was a wild stab, more a yearning for self-improvement, but his decision to follow the Maoist slogan “good command of mathematics and physics will everywhere succeed” proved fanciful. He failed to win a place. Fresh back from the countryside, the young Shanghai worker was down, but not out. True to character, intrepid Chin Jin found other means of expanding his horizons. He worked on his English, becoming an avid listener to Radio Australia and Voice of America; and after two and a half years’ training at the Qingdao Marine Transport School, he landed a job as a motorman on vessels operated out of Shanghai by the China Ocean Shipping Company.
In the history of democracy, the sea has special significance. Greek democracies extended citizenship to low-ranked sailors whose muscle power fuelled naval triremes. In the age of modern sea power, vast oceans sometimes protected fledgling democratic experiments from military invasion (the young American republic is an obvious case in point).
George Orwell noted in The Lion and the Unicorn how sea-faring powers were on balance friendlier towards democracy because naval crews are ill-equipped to stage military coups on land. And those who go to sea, as Chin Jin discovered, quickly learn the democratic virtue of humility: respect for the elements, a deep sense of human frailty shadowed by the vast complexity of our world, the acknowledgement that human horizons are never fixed.
Now in his early twenties, able-bodied seaman Chin Jin learned those lessons. He sailed the world, from Shanghai through the Suez Canal, taking in ports from Shanghai to Rotterdam, Hamburg and London (where he visited the grave of Karl Marx). The ship’s long-wave radio picked up pop songs (the Taiwanese star Teresa Teng remains his all-time favourite) and English-language programs that introduced him to current affairs and different religions and brought news of world events, like the dramatic overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos, the Philippines dictator.
But it was fond memories of Dampier that stayed with him. Six months before the June 4th uprisings that rocked Chinese communism to its roots, saddened by the sudden death of his mother and not much impressed by the Deng Xiaoping reforms, Chin Jin decided to better his life.
Still youthful (he was now 31), the bluejacket borrowed money from friends and relatives, quit his job at the China Ocean Shipping Company, obtained an Australian short-term visa and headed for Sydney, with the aim of perfecting his English. He enrolled at Cambridge College in Hurstville, in south Sydney, and lessons went well. The local economy was tight, yet he managed to find part-time jobs, first as a fruit processor then as a dishwasher in an Italian restaurant. The work brought in just enough for him to share a small flat with other Chinese immigrants.
After hearing news of the student protests triggered in China in April 1989 by the death of the deposed reformer Hu Yaobang, Chin Jin made contact with a group called the Chinese Alliance for Democracy. He was happy enough – “I felt free, nobody looked over my shoulder” – and his English, spoken with tones somewhere between the ABC and the BBC, advanced. But things didn’t quite turn out as expected.
Halfway through our evening conversation, Chin Jin suddenly grows tense. “On the morning of June 4th, 1989,” he tells me, “I happened to be staying at a mate’s place in Balmain [in Sydney’s inner west]. Sound asleep, I was suddenly awakened by an English word I’ll never forget: massacre. My eyes were barely open, but I panicked. The news that morning was so full of terrible stories from Beijing that I threw on my clothes and hurried to Chinatown.
“A huge crowd had already gathered in the streets. Many people were weeping and wailing. I cried, too. A little while later, we marched on the Chinese consulate, to protest against the violent crack-down. We didn’t know the full extent of the horrible violence. Telephone links with China were cut. Details were sketchy. But that night thousands of us defied our normal routines. We re-grouped in Chinatown, standing in silence, in a candlelight vigil.”
From that evening until this day, Chin Jin became a committed democrat.
“June 4th changed me. I felt a sense of urgency. A fire burned inside me. It was a moment described in a well-known Chinese story from the Qing dynasty, when the last remaining noblewoman from the conquered city of Yehe pledges to give her life for the cause of freedom from Manchurian rule. Translated into my life, it meant: when people find themselves with their backs to the wall, reduced to a powerless minority, they must resist the injustice they suffer, with all their might, until their last drop of energy. That’s how it was for me. I vowed never – never – to give up on the democracy for which young people had given their lives.”
As if to console his pain, or perhaps to bolster his conviction, Chin Jin sticks close to the little word minzhu (democracy). I remind him that democracy is not dogma, that ideally it is its powerful corrective, so at various points during our conversation I press him to tell me exactly what he means by the well-used word. Is it simply a Chinese version of Australian or American-style free and fair elections?
Not straightforwardly, I learn. Chin Jin explains how he’s no pro-Western warrior. His writings and speeches in fact draw attention to the sheepishness of many citizens and representatives of Western countries. “I’m gravely concerned about the West’s willingness to barter away its core values for short-term interests: economic investment and trade with China. It’s as if many in the West believe there are no permanent friends and enemies, only friends with the same interests.”He savages the oft-heard Chinese government insistence that “China is a different civilisation”. It’s an excuse for “appeasing dictatorship”, he insists. He’s equally tough on the view that closer economic ties with China will lead somehow automatically or eventually to “liberal democracy”.
So what does democracy mean to him? “For China,” he tells me, “it’s the vision of a federated democratic republic outlined by Liu Xiaobo [winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize], Bao Tong [a former senior Communist Party official] and other signatories of the political manifesto known as Charter ’08 [lingbaxianzhang].
Free elections, yes, but much more than that. It’s the separation of powers, an independent judiciary and the rule of law, so that the authorities never stand above the law. It’s freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, the freedom of journalists and citizens to report things openly. Democracy is independent trade unions. It’s social security, protection of the environment and respect for human rights.”Chin Jin’s unswerving attachment to these principles is heart-felt and self-taught. They’re not bookish. It’s why he’s devoted his life in Sydney to the cause of promoting democracy in China through broadcasting and writing and taking a stand, as he did by loudly heckling Hu Jintao during his 2003 address to a joint session of the Australian parliament (he tells me he was promptly “re-directed” to its sound-proof gallery).
I discover Chin Jin’s a humble soul, a likeable bloke sailing through mid-life equipped with good wit, dedication to hard work and a tough-as-nails belief in equality. Some of his white mates call him “John”. Living modestly in a rented flat, Chin Jin funds his passion for democracy by driving a taxi three days a week. Roaming the streets of Sydney brings in dollars, gives the taxi-driver democrat time to talk to passengers, to think about politics and to snatch snippets of radio news.
He spends his free time reading, writing, organising in support of an activist network called the China Democracy Forum. He tells me that its work is driven by the conviction that one-party rule in China cannot last because it produces massive injustices and constant disorders. In his recently-published book of speeches and essays, My Quest for Democracy in China (unfortunately there’s no English translation yet), he outlines the basic criteria for judging the performance of the present system. He calls them the “four pillars”. They include “a well-developed political system, a robust and healthy internal and external economy, embedded social morality and environmental sustainability”.
Despite constant Party talk of “improving work style” and getting “closer to the people”, Chin Jin’s convinced that the new government led by Xi Jinping falls far short of these democratic principles. He’s at odds with Chinese intellectuals and Western observers who think the new Party leadership has no option but to unscrew the lids of dictatorship. “Westerners have witnessed the expansion of the Chinese economy and the rise of China as a great international power during the past three decades. The world admires the economic achievements and progress of China,” he says. “Trouble is the Chinese government skilfully takes great advantage of its accumulated massive purchasing power backed by foreign capital and the export of Chinese soft power.”
Chin Jin looks irritated. Understandably so, because the long arm of the Chinese government has for some time punished him for his dissident views. He’s regularly been denied a visa to return to China to spend time with his elderly father; and, quite recently, his family in Shanghai received stern warnings from the police. Such harassment feeds his conviction that the regime is rotten. “Eat not food offered by a fierce tiger despite hunger.” he says, quoting an ancient Chinese proverb. It is his way of saying that he’s personally against Western illusions “centred on the belief that commerce will lead inevitably to political change and democracy”.
Chin Jin’s assessment of the Xi Jinping government sums up his views. “Since the demise of Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, party bosses with a heart for people’s needs are no more. The whole mindset of the CCP is geared to retaining absolute control of political power for as long as possible. Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao behaved like this. Xi Jinping behaves in the same way. He’s like the frog in the well: his vision and will are limited to the single task of protecting the selfish interests of the Party dynasty, not the public good.”Our spirited evening together begins to draw to an end, but not before we move to the subject of China’s future. I ask Chin Jin to talk about the prospects in China for democratic breakthroughs [minzhuhua].
Given the top-down power dynamics that he’s just described, are we ever going to see the practical realisation of Charter ’08 principles? He lets out a gut chuckle. “Of course, we are. We don’t know when, but it’s bound to happen. The present system can’t last, but for change to happen foreign intervention will be needed.”
I suddenly recoil, thinking of the US 7th Fleet, or drones and stealth bombers, but soft power is what Chin Jin has in mind. He thinks of his own broadcasting and writing and organising work for the China Democracy Forum as modest but militant contributions of a dissident-in-exile, as political work that forms part of a much bigger process that already includes Taiwan and Hong Kong and the resistance of Tibetans. It’s a vision of a transition to constitutional democracy supported by outside friends. “The people of Hong Kong are striving to save not only themselves, but the whole of China from the monopoly rule of the Chinese Communist Party,” he says. “If the civil discontent within mainland China proves explosive, then Hong Kong will be its fuse.”
He’s less optimistic about current trends in Taiwan. Isn’t the rough-and-tumble openness and pluralism of Taiwan a political counter-model for the future of China, I ask? Aren’t Chinese democrats lucky to have Taiwan? “The situation in Taiwan is more subtle,” he replies. “It’s a democratic lighthouse. But the Ma Ying-jeou nationalist government is content with the status quo. It’s lost the courage to compete in Chinese politics. It has abandoned its moral responsibility to the people of China.”
He goes on to speak with great reverence about His Holiness the Dalai Lama, with whom he’s good friends. Chin Jin is about to host the spiritual leader’s fourth face-to-face meeting with representatives of Sydney’s Chinese community. He’ll be emphasising the fundamental long-term importance of his special guest’s “advocacy of peace, rationality and non-violence”. Chin Jin’s sure that “many Tibetans and Chinese people are victims of the Chinese Communist Party”.
He worries that despite positive reassurances from Beijing, Tibetan culture may disappear; and he therefore calls for a new global dialogue in support of the vision of a federated China that makes room for Tibet as a “neutral or independent state, like Switzerland”, or perhaps as a region enjoying “meaningful autonomy like Hong Kong or Macau”.
Whether Tibetan autonomy could happen within or without a new democratic federation of China remains unclear to me, but our talk of Tibet brings us back to the subject of the June 4th uprising. Twenty-four years after the massacre, why should we bother remembering its bloody details, I ask Chin Jin? After seven weeks of hunger strikes, sit-ins and a student-led occupation of Tiananmen Square, troops with assault rifles, armoured personnel carriers and battle tanks confronted a crowd of nearly a million citizens. Perhaps upwards of three thousand citizens were killed. The goddess of democracy was slaughtered. Uprisings took place not just in Beijing, but in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Xi’an and an estimated 400 other cities.
Yes, it all ended badly. But after nearly a quarter-century, why not let bygones be bygones? Why not embrace the old Chinese idiom “if the old doesn’t go, the new doesn’t arrive”? “Some people haven’t forgotten,” Chin Jin snaps, before quickly adding that remembering the June 4th massacre is necessary for setting the whole vexed story straight. “Details of the clandestine plot within the CCP Politburo and who ordered the bloodshed in Tiananmen Square still remain a mystery. Was it Deng Xiaoping or Li Peng, for instance? No one has dared to stand up and claim responsibility. Not even the names of those who were killed have been published. Their relatives have received no apology, and no compensation.”
Chin Jin again grows tense. “June 4th is a special day for another reason. It saw not only the biggest-ever display of military force in Tiananmen. It was a turning point in recent Chinese history, a major setback in the struggle for democracy, certainly. But it left a nasty scar on the face of the CCP government. They’ve since tried to play down its significance. Once they called it a “counter-revolutionary riot”. Now it’s been downgraded to a mere “political storm”. Actually, the June 4th massacre is important because it’s a reminder that democracy in China has older roots, traceable for instance to the work and writings of Dr Sun Yat-sen.”
More than a few Chinese intellectuals now think of June 4th differently. They have come to see the June 4th massacre as the moment when the loud Leftist voices in favour of improving “socialism” were finally defeated. It was certainly a public attempt to check power with power and it is in this sense that Chin Jin thinks of the June 4th massacre as a democratic tipping point within a wider series of tipping points. “Democracy in China is unfinished business. Tiananmen showed just how unlikely it is that a Gorbachev will arise from within the structures to push for perestroika with glasnost.
Today, there aren’t any farsighted figures at the top of the Chinese Communist Party. To wish for political reform in line with the historical trend of democratisation is therefore naïve. The June 4th massacre will for that reason continue to inspire people. It remains a sign of things to come – the eventual victory of democracy in China.”
As we prepare to part, Chin Jin quotes the great 20th-century Chinese writer Lu Xun: “anger either breaks the silence, or dies in silence”. Remembering June 4th should be personally important to anybody with a political conscience, he insists.
It’s late and I risk annoying Chin Jin by playing devil’s advocate. Why not let anger die away? Why preserve painful memories? Chin Jin flinches, thinks for a moment, talks of the need for hope and, to my surprise, he ends with words drawn from a speech by Bobby Kennedy. “Each time an individual stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice,” says Chin Jin, checking his notes, “they send forth a tiny ripple of hope. From a million different centres of energy and daring, those individual ripples build a current that can sweep away the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
With the approach of this year’s anniversary of the massacre, Guangzhou police (unusually) agreed to process an application by local residents for a public march on June 4th. In recent days, the Mothers of Tiananmen have issued an open letter in which they say that China’s leaders “come one after another, as if through a revolving door; and as they move forward, they become ever more distant and outrageous, causing a universal feeling of despair to descend on the people from all sides”.
It is of course possible that these acts of remembrance are no more than isolated incidents, mere markers on the downhill road to a new form of one-party “phantom democracy”, the contours of which the world has never before seen. But what if the humble Sydney taxi-driver democrat turned out to be right?
What if brave acts of defiance of the Communist Party’s compulsory forgetting began to criss-cross and converge in the way Chin Jin expects? Wouldn’t that signal a practical victory for the principle that democracy among the living requires democracy among the dead? Wouldn’t the convergence be a vital breakthrough, a big step towards the first-ever open public remembrance of June 4th and its terrible bloodshed and injustice?
Thanks to the tireless energy of humble citizens like Chin Jin, such questions are now being asked openly, even though certain men of power in high places much prefer to hold their tongues.
Professor John Keane has a developing scholarly interest in the political future of China and is hosting, through the Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, a visit of the Dalai Lama to the University of Sydney in mid-June 2013.

-> This article was first published on The Conversation.
-> It is also republished by The Drum, ABC
-> For the Chinese translation of this essay, clik here