Power of Tiananmen: State-Society Relations and the 1989 Beijing Student Movement / Edition 1

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In the spring of 1989 over 100,000 students in Beijing initiated the largest student revolt in human history. Television screens across the world filled with searing images from Tiananmen Square of protesters thronging the streets, massive hunger strikes, tanks set ablaze, and survivors tending to the dead and wounded after a swift and brutal government crackdown.

Dingxin Zhao's award-winning The Power of Tiananmen is the definitive treatment of these historic events. Along with grassroots tales and interviews with the young men and women who launched the demonstrations, Zhao carries out a penetrating analysis of the many parallel changes in China's state-society relations during the 1980s. Such changes prepared an alienated academy, gave rise to ecology-based student mobilization, restricted government policy choices, and shaped student emotions and public opinion, all of which, Zhao argues, account for the tragic events in Tiananmen.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226982618
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 4/28/2004
  • Series: Cinema and Modernity Ser.
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 433
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Dingxin Zhao is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Chicago.

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Read an Excerpt

State-Society Relations and the 1989 Beijing Student Movement
Copyright © 2001 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-98260-1

Chapter One

I have laid out a theoretical framework that argues that state-society relations-understood in terms of the nature of the state, the nature of society, and the linkages between the state and society-are the most important factors underlying the rise and development of a large-scale social movement or revolution. Before moving into empirical analyses of how particular state-society relations contributed to the rise of the 1989 Beijing Student Movement and shaped its development, we need some knowledge of the history of China's historical state-society relations before the rise of the 1989 Movement as well as an overview of Chinese society in the 1980s. This chapter serves both purposes.

The History of State-Society Relations in China

From 221 B.C. to A.D. 1911 China was ruled for the most part by unitary agrarian empires. During that long period, China underwent tremendous changes in its demography, politics, economy, and social structures; but it was in the twentieth century (between 1911 and 1978) that China experienced perhaps the most dramatic changes in its long history. Any short summary will not do justice to the great changes over these long spans. What I present here captures only some of the essential features.

In the seventh century and after, the Chinese agrarian empires were headed by an emperor who inherited his crown from his family and were managed by a bureaucratic administrative system whose members were selected by means of periodic civil service examinations. The emperor was legitimated as "the son of heaven." Such legitimation not only gave the emperor a supernatural and divine quality but also assigned him two mandates: to serve the people and to observe a vast number of normative rites and customs. There are many sayings in Chinese texts regarding the first mandate, including: "people are the heaven of their prince; food is the heaven of the people"; "heaven looks accordingly as the people look and listens accordingly as the people listen"; and "the people first, territory next, and the king last." Obviously, state legitimacy in historical China always had a very important performance dimension. When an emperor failed to deliver public goods that the people had expected, he could lose the mandate of heaven, giving people the right to rebel.

The rites and customs that an emperor had to follow varied to some degree from dynasty to dynasty, but they were largely founded in the works of Confucius and Mencius and interpreted by a body of state bureaucrats whose support was indispensable to the emperor. "Any infringement of the rites and customs always provokes strong reactions and grave disorders." In this sense, a Chinese emperor usually had very limited power. In the Chinese empire, modern "totalistic" pretensions were not only technologically infeasible but also normatively impossible.

The civil service examination system also shaped the nature of Chinese society. Becoming an official was such an important mode of status attainment that the examination encouraged local education and gave rise to a literati or gentry class. Yet because of its limited financial resources, a state could only recruit a small proportion of the literati into the bureaucracy. Given China's size and population, the number of officials employed by the state was far from sufficient to govern the whole country. Local affairs below the county level were actually managed by the lower-level gentry. The state needed the cooperation of local gentry to collect taxes and to maintain order in towns and peasant villages. Such gentry-led and village-based power networks constituted a dominant structure in society. Horizontal links among the people were sanctioned mainly through various secret societies. In times of social disorder, secret societies were often a major force for rebellion because of their size and their entrenched organizational networks.

In sum, historically China had a bureaucratic-authoritarian regime with largely performance-based state legitimation, an emperor whose power was checked by complicated rites and customs interpreted by the bureaucrats, and a peasant society that was vertically led by the gentry class and horizontally linked by secret societies. This light form of norm-centered and maintenance-oriented government was challenged, in the nineteenth century, by the "goal-oriented" capitalist nations. Faced with Western imperialism, China tried to implement different reform measures. Although such reforms brought many changes, they failed to create a government that could defend China from Western imperialism (see chapter 2). The failure of less radical reforms provoked more radical attempts, eventually leading to the establishment of the communist government in 1949.

China's state-society relations underwent a tremendous change after the communists came to power. China was now led by a goal-oriented Leninist party. Because many Chinese in the 1950s and 1960s believed that communism would bring a bright future, and because of the past success in the war with the nationalist government, the CCP, and especially Mao, enjoyed a high level of ideological and charismatic legitimacy. Since the 1950s, the CCP under Mao's leadership conducted many social engineering programs that tremendously changed the nature of society. The most important among them were the collectivization of agriculture, the nationalization of industry, and the adoption of a planned economy. From the 1950s on, the Chinese were organized around the commune system in the countryside and the work-unit (danwei) system in the cities.

With the establishment of the commune and work-unit system, the state was for the first time in history able to penetrate society down to the village and factory level and to effectively engage in radical transformative programs according to utopian visions. Freed from rites and customs, Mao also placed himself among the very few Chinese "emperors" who could dominate the entire state bureaucracy and determine China's fate according to his personal visions and interests. Even the traditionally weak secret societies were wiped out under Mao's rule. In this period, Chinese society became highly atomized.

Such state-society relations, which have been variously labeled as "totalitarian" or "totalistic," led to disastrous outcomes. Since policy mistakes and personal powers were not checked, state social engineering activities after the mid-1950s brought disasters upon Chinese society. The three-year famine of 1959 through 1961, during which about 30 million people died of hunger, and the Cultural Revolution are only the two most well-known examples. By the time of Mao's death in 1976, the Chinese economy was on the verge of collapse, Chinese people were living in poverty, and grievances were mounting in society. It was largely the widespread crises brought by the Cultural Revolution that pushed China's new leaders to start a reform in 1978. The reform had an initial success. Because of the reform and the new open-door policy, the Chinese acquired a level of political freedom and economic affluence that they could not even have dreamed of during Mao's era. However, reform once again fundamentally changed state-society relations, in a manner which I will now discuss. Please note that the following is again only a brief overview. More systematic discussion and analysis of China's state-society relations in the 1980s and their impact on the 1989 Beijing Student Movement will be given in later chapters.

"Social Fevers" as an Indication of the Change

There are many ways to look at Chinese society during the years of reform. For the purpose of understanding the origin of the 1989 Movement and mass participation during it, I start with the social changes brought about by the largely state-led reform. China experienced a great deal of change after the start of reform: class labeling of citizens was abolished; economic modernization became the principal, if not the only, national goal; a market economy was introduced; and new industrial sectors such as private business, joint ventures, and foreign firms mushroomed-yet so too did corruption and other anti-market forces. State control over intellectual activities was loosened, allowing extensive exploration of pro-Western forms of literature and the other arts. State control over public and private life was also relaxed, which led to the resurgence of religion as well as of some old Chinese traditions. The ordinary Chinese person's standard of living skyrocketed during the period from 1978-when, for instance, a mechanical watch was a luxury-to 1989, when color television sets and refrigerators became common for many rural as well as urban families. The list could go on and on.

The scale and impact of the social changes brought by the economic reform was revealed by waves of "social fevers" (re-dian) during the 1980s. Table 1.1 lists the decade's major social fevers. The table also briefly explains the meaning of different social fevers, except where their names are self-explanatory. This is by no means a complete list. It does not include some cases, such as those of "conference fever" and "reportage novel fever," which were more directly related to the 1989 Movement and will therefore be discussed separately in the next chapter. It does however illustrate the scale of social change in the 1980s. Frequent changes of social fevers brought great uncertainties to most people in society. Culture fevers brought values or ways of life that were in conflict with the prevailing orthodoxy. Socioeconomic fevers often turned past winners into losers-yet the force of transition was so irresistible that many joined them willy-nilly. Thus, although social fevers came into being under the impetus for change, they also brought great pain both to the people caught up in them and to the people left on the outside.

The social fevers listed in table 1.1 can be roughly categorized into three types: socioeconomic fevers, high culture fevers, and popular culture fevers. Socioeconomic fevers can be seen as people's reactions to the sudden emergence of new economic and political freedoms as a result of state reform policies. Both the high culture fevers and the popular culture fevers resulted from a sudden influx of new information from the West and a simultaneous rediscovery of the Chinese past. High culture fevers can be further divided into three subtypes: Western culture fevers, (Chinese) culture criticism fevers, and traditional Chinese culture (or "searching for roots") fevers. The first two subtypes are two sides of the same coin. While the culture criticism fevers treated Chinese culture as a major hurdle to modernization, the Western culture fevers looked to the West for solutions.

Behind these rather bizarre fevers, however, were major transformations of state-society relations: transformations of the state, of the economy, and of society. The state was gradually changing from an ideology-based totalitarian regime into a performance-based authoritarian regime; the economy was moving from a planned to a market basis; and Chinese society in general was reviving, transforming itself from one based on a collectivist ideal into one that was increasingly pluralistic, though still poorly organized (table 1.2). I will now discuss the major changes along the three dimensions and their impact on the urban population.

The State in Retreat

Under the enormous pressure of past failure, the Chinese government started along a path of reform in 1978. Although the political dimension of the reform was limited to policy rationalization and a controlled political participation, it still greatly changed the nature of the state. One of the major goals of political reform was to separate the CCP from the government. Before the reform, for example, the party secretary of a work-unit often held the position of general manager of that work-unit. Even when the position of general manager was held by an expert, the real decision-making power rested in the hands of the party boss. The reform introduced various responsibility systems that gave power to presidents in universities, directors in research institutions, editors in newspapers, magazines, and publishing companies, and managers in state-run factories. Under these systems of responsibility, party secretaries could no longer interfere with the decisions made by administrative authorities. Similar reforms were also carried out in rural areas. To accommodate the household responsibility system, for example, communes were dismantled and the traditional xiang was restored as the basic unit of rural government. The party's absolute power was weakened in the process.

Another part of political reform was the meritocratic selection of state bureaucrats and the abolition of tenure in leadership positions. Under the new policy, aging bureaucrats or those with less education were typically either forced out of office or stripped of their chances for further promotion. They were replaced by people who had a better education.

Although the nature of Chinese state was in a state of rapid change, this state of change should not be understood as a simple decline of state power. Many political reforms were at least intended to increase the state's capacity to penetrate society. Moreover, because most top state leaders joined the CCP long before the communist victory and had a great faith in the regime (chapter 7), the state still possessed a high degree of unity and a similarly high capacity for repression. Nevertheless, under the open-door policy, the state was no longer able to rule the people as it used to. One of the indications of this change was that the punishment of those who challenged the state's legitimacy softened over time during the reform. When Wei Jingsheng challenged the regime, he was sentenced to fifteen years; when Fang Lizhi, Liu Binyan, and Wang Ruowang did so, however, they lost their CCP membership but still retained such basic freedoms as the ability to do research, to publish, to make public speeches, and even to go abroad. Even the June 4 repression in 1989 was more a matter of the panicking of a desperate state than of the return of old "hardliner policies." After the state recovered from the 1989 crisis, the political atmosphere loosened again. In summary, during reform the Chinese state had gradually converted from an ideology-based revolutionary regime into a performance-based authoritarian regime.

Toward a Market Economy

Reform of the economy was at the core of the Chinese efforts at reform. Although the direction of economic reform was not so clear in the beginning, it later became increasingly clear that it was one of moving away from a planned economy toward a market economy. Economic reform brought great changes in the structure of society, such as an increasing spatial movement of the people, the quick rise of village collective enterprises, and the emergence of private sectors and a business class. It also contributed to a high speed of development and a general increase in the standard of living. Meanwhile, it made most Chinese shiheng (lose psychological balance) to varying degrees.

Economic reform widened income disparities and greatly raised expectations. Before the reform, the overall wage differential between the ends of urban population was less than two to three times, and the greatest difference did not exceed ten times. By the end of the 1980s a few famous singers were earning several thousand yuan for singing a song, which was equivalent to a year's wage for an average worker. A private entrepreneur could earn in a day an amount equal to one month's wage for a professor. The differential between the highest and lowest incomes had hence reached hundreds of times. As a result, many people began to purchase luxury goods, such as brand-name foreign dresses, cars, and Western-style cottages. Although rich individuals constituted only a very small percentage of the population, their impact was enormous, because they became a comparison group for a population that was not yet accustomed to income inequalities.


Excerpted from THE POWER OF TIANANMEN by DINGXIN ZHAO Copyright © 2001 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Foreword by Charles Tilly
Part 1. The Origin of the 1989 Student Movement
1. Chinas State-Society Relations and Their Changes during the 1980s
2. Intellectual Elites and the 1989 Movement
3. Economic Reform, University Expansion, and Student Discontents
4. The Decline of the System for Controlling Students in Universities
5. On the Eve of the 1989 Movement
Part 2. The Development of the 1989 Movement
6. A Brief History of the 1989 Movement
7. State Behaviors and Movement Development
8. Ecology-Based Mobilization and Movement Dynamics
9. State-Society Relations and the Discourses and Activities of a Movement
10. The State, Movement Communication, and the Construction of Public Opinion
Appendix 1: A Methodological Note
Appendix 2: Interview Questions

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