Gene Sharp is a Harvard-based scholar who specializes in the history and strategies of non-violent struggle. He was in Tiananmen Square just before the military attacked. Mubarak Awad is a Palestinian who led the non-violent rising in Gaza until he was expelled in the summer of 1988. Metta Spencer talked to Sharp and Awad in Hamilton, June 23 1989.
Metta Spencer: Tell us all about it!
Gene Sharp: Our visit was short: four or five days before the massacre and a couple after it. We wanted to find out where the students got the idea of protesting in this remarkably disciplined, nonviolent way. We walked through Tiananmen Square at least five or six times, talking to people. Contrary to government accounts, the movement was of indigenous origin. We found no evidence of their having foreign books about nonviolence, although they has some general knowledge from history books about the Gandhian struggles in India, and they knew vaguely about Poland and the Philippines from TV. They had apparently improvised, having recognized that violence would be totally counter-productive in their situation. It's unclear whether they had long-term plans. We were sometime told that they did, but there was also evidence that they were moving from situation to situation, without having a big picture as to how they would move.
We walked through Tiananmen Square about twenty minutes before the massacre began and saw the first troop carrier come clambering down the side of the square, exactly where we had been walking.
Earlier that afternoon, we had heard a very provocative speech on a loudspeaker by a so-called "autonomous workers' union" calling for violence against troops: "Don't let any soldiers escape! Kill them all!" This was contrary to all the students' instructions and demonstrations. The students had kept themselves at a physical (and 1)0-litical) distance from this group. At that time1 the Students' electricity was off so there was none of their speakers to be heard, and the huge loudspeakers from the Forbidden City, which had been blasting the government propaganda continuously at high volume, were cut off. This may have been a deliberate attempt to get acts committed, so the troops would become more obedient in carrying out repression.
Spencer: The union speakers may have been agents provocateurs?
Sharp : Yes. Several facts suggest that this was all planned. We got through a tense situation at the end of the square where the troops had arrived and were massed. Some people were throwing something at them, which was suspicious. Something was falling all around us, tinkling on the ground, and none of us could tell what it was. It wasn't bottles breaking or anything like that. But we got through that and went back to the hotel.
Spencer : These were union people?
Sharp : No, the massacre started after midnight and at about 11:00 the so-called union people had rolled up their tents and got out, adding to the suspicion of their being provocateurs.
Before we arrived in China, people had thrown paint on the picture of Chairman Mao. When the protesters had surrounded them, objecting to this, the people who had thrown the paint asked to he taken to the police. Almost certainly they were provocateurs, and the police knew all about them.
Remarkably, immediately after the massacre, the population was not intimidated. Still protesting, they were sometimes (by reports) Simply being machine-gunned in the streets. They were still trying to stop the movement of troops - sometimes simply successfully so. That famous picture of one student stopping the whole row of tanks - it happened after the massacre at Tiananmen Square.
At our hotel, the workers had declined to participate in a demonstration supporting Li Peng, but they had agreed to hang two huge red banners from the hotel windows: "Long Live the Communist Party." After the massacre, the hotel workers took down the banners. Whereas many government officials had been losing legitimacy as a result of the student demonstrations, after the massacre, people were saying that the Communist Party itself had lost legitimacy, which is terribly important in the long run.
I think this is just the beginning of a longer struggle. The massacres at Amritsar in 1919 in India were fuel for Indian struggles against the British. Likewise, Bloody Sunday in SL Petersburg in 1905 created a predominantly nonviolent revolution that almost succeeded, and within 12 years1 the Czar was out. Something like this may happen in China if their nonviolent struggle becomes more sophisticated. The students created and improvised on their own, starting from ~ knowledge base of 1 or 2 on a scale of 100, acquired from films about the Philippines. Think what might have happened if they had started at least a 50 percent knowledge of what had happened, even in Chinese history! I they had known of nonviolent struggles in other countries, and the importance of shifting tactics, they might have avoided some of the deaths.
Spencer: It is distressing that any violence against the army took place, whether by agents provocateurs or otherwise, since the film clips of it gave the regime exactly the evidence it needed for a propaganda campaign. Western journalists now say this has actually turned public opinion in favor of the government.
Sharp : That I can't judge though I am skeptical. Often what changes is not people's private opinions but their public statements and actions. The population's solidarity with the movement was very clear. The 38th army was stopped in its arrival in the capital before we arrived; this was initially a spontaneous action of the population. Later the protest leaders asked people in other parts of the city to do the same. The fearlessness after the massacre shows that the population was nauseated. If now, in order to protect their families or their own lives, they make certain statements, I doubt that that's the whole story.
Certainly there were soldiers killed that night. As one paper reported, when one soldier was killed, his body was burned and left there as evidence. He had killed a young child immediately before that - which does not justify what happened, but does reflect the outpouring of people's rage.
Government propaganda could then use it to discredit the movement. In its propaganda, the government concentrates on the movement's atypical acts of violence, arson, and killing. Those acts were clearly the exceptions, some of them probably provocations.
Spencer : Unfortunately, it will be harder now to organize - partly because the regime is using such force. Unlike the Middle East, where the lines of cleavage are ethnic, in China it will be impossible to know which side another person is on before taking the risk of trying to recruit him to that movement. In such a situation, do you think that organizing is still possible?
Sharp : Well, the situation you describe has, of course, existed in Communist China for decades. According to the New York Times, the regime already may have killed hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people. Of course there's fear of punishment for expressing dissenting opinions. Executions there are nothing new, and the political police are efficient and technologically well-equipped. Yet the movement arose in this very situation.
Comparable resistance has occurred against the Nazi occupation in Europe, in the Soviet Union, and in Eastern Europe, where theoretically it was impossible. So it is only a matter of time until new resistance arises.
Mubarak Awad: They now know that they did it and that it went on for many days. That shows the Chinese that they have it in them to resist that monster that nobody is supposed to talk about or touch. People will start asking each other whether it is going to happen again. And I think it is going to happen again. People will say, we did it one time, and next time we'll do it better. There will be a third time and a fourth time. And we will have to be more organized, read more, and distribute more, to get the villagers and everybody with us. The spark is there. People know that they could have victory. Next time, the students will have a goal; they will tell the whole Chinese people: "This is what we want. And whatever they want, they will finally achieve. Instead of stopping it, this massacre is going to increase the credibility of students, probably in all universities. It cannot just go unnoticed in all the universities.
Spencer : I hope not. Do you believe that this whole unsuccessful attempt improved the chances for future steps and that it should be celebrated, even though it ended in tragedy?
Awad : Yes, I think so.
Sharp : I do too. The movement is further ahead now than before it started. Knowledge about it had already spread throughout China while it was happening. Some students had travelled five days and five nights by train to get there. Most of the students killed in Tiananmen Square were from outside Beijing. Their families and their villages will know when they dc not return. That is bound to arouse pain and memories.
Some people will say, "Aha! We must turn to violence!" in an emotional reaction, without rationally assessing the costs or the strategic stupidity of that course of action. But on the other hand, in such cases as Burma, where mass killings took place at the end of the Burmese uprising last fall, the resistance movement did not abandon nonviolent means. They just calculated: We must regroup, we must plan, we must become more sophisticated, we must organize better, so the struggle for Burmese democracy can arise again. I sense some of that feeling among Chinese, and also in the Western press, at least during the first week after the massacre. The New York Times said that this is not the end. This is quite remarkable because, when martial law was declared in Poland in 1981, all of our commentators were saying: "Solidarity is dead. It's crushed." Everyone who knew anything about nonviolent struggle regarded that as nonsense. Remarkably, in China they did not immediately say that, but that this may be the beginning of something bigger.
Spencer : What errors do you think the students made?
Sharp : It is always a dubious project, with limited knowledge, which is all I have, to make strategic assessments, particularly of blame. However, I think there were two or three strategic errors. One was over-reliance on symbolic types of action, such as flying flags, and erecting the statue of the goddess of freedom. Moreover, these symbolic and psychological tactics involved physically occupying a certain spot which is of tremendous significance to the government -- with the Mao mausoleum there, the Great Hall of the People on one side, the Museum of the Revolution on the other side, the Forbidden City at one end and at the far end one of the great buildings of the emperors. To assert there a demand for freedom and democracy and to refuse to move, combined with the earlier hunger strikes, imposed a great psychological pressure. They were occupying the entrance to the compound where all the top government officials lived! It's a far more dramatic affront to dignity than if, in the midst of Watergate, protesters had occupied the porch of the White House for weeks! This defiance of authority and attack on legitimacy required the government and the party either to give in or to stop the students.
Now, they could have done something much milder. There are all kinds of ways they could have cleared the square without killing anybody.
Spencer : Would tear gas have been sufficient?
Sharp : It might have been. Tear gas was used for the first time the afternoon before the massacre. Or they could have used a variety of other means - even one that is sometimes used in Western countries: bringing in ambulances and stretchers and lifting limp protesters and carrying them away, to deposit them some miles away. There are ways.
But I've learned some sayings in China. One is that you "kill the pig in order to terrify the monkey." The massacre was obviously not meant to punish those who were killed, but to intimidate the rest of the population.
Awad : In the beginning they could simply have lied. They could have shaken hands with the students and told them, "You are great, thank you for this. It hadn't come to our attention; we appreciate that." Then they could go on doing whatever they wanted. But they refused to do that. The question is, why did it take them so long to do anything? Then later on, they started hiding from their own people what had gone on that they had put on the TV themselves.
Spencer : Gene, do you view the attempt to hold onto Tiananmen Square as too ambitious a tactic?
Sharp : Yes, I think there were one or two errors there. One was that, due to their lack of knowledge about nonviolent struggle, many students refused water, thinking that is what a hunger strike is, which caused them to deteriorate physically very quickly. The hunger strike had to be called off after only a few days, whereas if they had been taking water, they could easily have held out for 30 days.
Spencer : And a continuous hunger strike wo131d have been better than a hunger strike that was quit and switched to, say, a goddess of freedom?
Sharp : Well, changing tactics per se isn't necessarily bad but, in this case, I think that if they were going to use a hunger strike, it was desirable to continue it, since it was having a huge psychological impact. If they had known more, they might not have refrained from water. Not all of them did.
Also it is very easy to admire their great bravery; they knew the dangers. Many of them were ready to die and knew they probably would. But they were concentrating on that, rather than thinking strategically: How can we plan to win? Both approaches could have been combined, but I heard people emphasizing the first, not the second. To continue occupying a site of such symbolism threatened the legitimacy of the regime and mobilized such popular support that it created a serious power problem for the regime. And the brutality of the repression shows how threatened they felt by it.
In retrospect I think the Beijing University students were tactically correct in calling for a halt to the occupation of the square. They should have declared a victory when the citizenry had successfully blocked the entrance of the 38th army into the city. If they had declared a victory at that stage, the) could have shifted strategies to go dc more outreach to the ordinary people throughout the country. They should have convinced the other students (who had come in from about 350 universities, as far away as Inner Mongolia, Sichuan, and Hunan) that staying in the square, for which they had come to Beijing, was not the only way to support the struggle. The new stage would have been to go to the people and talk to civil servants and soldiers. To win, you've got to get the civil effect, to go on strike. That's a long struggle.
The movement split the regime, mobilized public support, and de-legitimated the government, if not the party. These were major accomplishments. They could have shifted then to some other strategy, becoming less vulnerable than in the square, and produced better results with fewer costs.
Spencer : Some say that the statue may not have been a good idea be-cause it seemed to indicate too much affinity for the United States.
Sharp : I don't agree. I heard nobody allude to any American connection to the statue. It was not a mere imitation of the Statue of Liberty. To be sure, it was a woman, but with Chinese features and hair style, holding the torch of liberty with two hands because liberty was harder to achieve and maintain in China than anywhere else. They set it up at a symbolically significant, potentially provocative place, directly staring at Mao, facing th arches into the Forbidden City. It was most inspiring, this white statue, with the flags flying, music blaring, and ordinary people milling around with children. An old man was riding a tricycle with his elderly wife on the back. Hundreds of these people milling around all the time and giving support, V signs. I don't think it was dismissed as an American intervention.
Awad : Even if it was an American symbol ,they took the Russian concept also. I saw a student with a very big sign in English and Russian, supporting the new freedom in Russia.
In this struggle were people who had no idea about nonviolence at all; they just start talking to the soldiers, organizing, discussing what they have to do. An organization came from nothing. That's the most beautiful thing that happened in China.
Spencer : Many people seem to have participated in the decision-making.
Awad : What was behind those students? They have teachers. Are they teaching them about freedom? We don't know where the professors stand. Did you talk to professors?
Sharp : We sought appointments with professors to ask where they stood on the issues but there was no time. I do know there were differences of opinion and rivalries among the students as to who should be official leaders. However, these were seemingly limited, compared to what they might have been under the circumstances.
Awad : China is not going to separate itself again from the world. When you are open to the whole world, you see what others elsewhere are doing. Youth are the same everywhere. Their ideas are: I want to think, I want to be myself. Those ideas are everywhere.
Spencer : It seemed to be just about democracy, not economic reforms.
Awad : Because students started it, and they did not push forward with the labor unions and others.
Spencer : Evidently there was some support among the workers, but does anybody know whether many peasants took any position on the matter?
Sharp : I have no information. In an interesting article a week or so ago in the New York Times, Harrison Salisbury reported that, immediately after the massacre, students went out to the countryside where there were no telephones, to spread the message to the peasantry that something terrible had happened in Beijing. They tried to reach the peasants ahead of the government propaganda, to plant the seeds of suspicion about the inevitable government lies. Creativity and organizational sophistication were required to organize outreach to the province Salisbury was visiting. The peasantry being the mass of the population they are terribly important. But Chinese intellectuals doubt how sophisticated they can be on political issues or even how much interest they have, because their live are so poor and limited.
Spencer : Canadians are distraught by feeling that we can't do anything. Is there any way to con tribute to the movement?
Sharp : Listen to whatever the Chinese students in Canada say they need and want. Another important thing for the future, people won't have to start from zero every time, is to provide the knowledge that is distilled from the experiences of people-power movements throughout the world and throughout history. Except Gandhi's autobiography being published in Chinese (which is one of the worst books to make available on nonviolent struggle) there appear to have been no books available there on nonviolent struggle in any language. Chinese books should have been published five years ago outlining what is know about nonviolent struggle, people power movements. These should be made available in varying degrees of strategic and political sophistication or simplification to get the basic ideas across to the masses.
Spencer : Which books should b made available first?
Sharp: Some of these are not yet fully completed. There is one piece of mine which has been published in Arabic, The Role of Power in Nonviolent Struggle, which distills the basic analysis in my three-volume Politics of Nonviolent Action down to about 30 manuscript pages. The Albert Einstein Institution has given a grant to the Foundation for Democracy in Burma to publish it in Burmese in Thailand. That is probably the shortest kind of thing except for some stories that give the basic idea of noncooperation.
Awad : I expect the Chinese themselves will start research on their own to compare their nonviolent struggles to those of their fathers and grandfathers, to start investing in themselves.
Spencer : That would be something that we could contribute here - assistance in such publications.
Sharp : Yes. Well, we could receive money specified for translation of materials into Chinese, for example.
Maybe some of the Chinese student organizations in Canada may set up such funds. We didn't normally meet in the hotel in Beijing because it was regarded as dangerous, but one night we were adventurous and there were seven or eight people in our hotel room. One of them was a leader of the action in the square. He is probably dead now, but since they didn't know us, in order to establish some credibility, I mentioned this particular publication that we had given a grant for and he said, "Can't you do the same for China?"
The amazing thing is that they came so far, starting with only their ingenuity and their creativity. It is terribly moving. It's not surprising that they made some mistakes here and there but this is certainly not the end.
One idea that's being put out is that, for diplomatic relations, we have to deal with the existing Chinese government and not rock the boat. That is just garbage! We should help oppose them. But the final struggle will be waged by the Chinese people themselves.The translation of Gene Sharp's research is funded through a nonprofit organization, the Albert Einstein Institution, 1430 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138 USA.