On April 15, 1989, students began to gather in Tiananmen Square, the spiritual heart of China, to mourn Hu Yaobang, a reformist official who had died that day. What began as a remembrance in Beijing became a national movement challenging Communist Party rule. Over the next few weeks, more than a million people would congregate in China’s capital, and protests would occur in 370 other Chinese cities.
Without this being their intention, the citizens of China almost overthew the Communist Party. Deng Xiaoping, the country’s leader then, ended the “counter-revolutionary turmoil” with a murderous campaign.
But that was a quarter century ago. Whether the Communist Party likes it or not, the Chinese people are now restless. We are seeing far more protests, and the protests are often violent.
Today, on the 25th anniversary of the slaughter in Beijing, most analysts nonetheless think Party rule is secure. They advance many points, but none so fervently as the notion that the state is so coercive that there has been no chance for an opposition to form. Consequently, they look at China and see no force that can bring the Communist Party down.
In at least one significant way, China watchers today are the intellectual descendents of Lenin, who, in the words of the great political scientist Samuel Huntington, “glorified” organization. The Russian proved that if revolutionaries paid attention to detail, they could succeed in overthrowing an old order. Since the Tiananmen massacre, there has been virtual unanimity that there will be no successful challenge to China’s Communist Party because, among other reasons, no one is sufficiently organized to take on Beijing.
It is true that the Party, with an almost unprecedented obsessiveness, has rooted out potential competitors. But who says a machine-like opposition is a prerequisite to political change in today’s world? For a quarter century, we have lived in a post-Leninist age of “leaderless revolution.”
Chinese history is filled with impossible rebellions that succeeded, including the ones that toppled China’s first imperial dynasty, the Qin, and the last, the Qing. The mighty Qin line was ended by a revolt started by two impressed laborers who faced execution for reporting late for work. The Qings went down after an accidental explosion that Sun Yat-sen, considered the leader of the revolutionary forces, read about while in Denver. The world didn’t foresee the Beijing Spring of 1989, so we have to wonder if we are missing something now.
China is particularly unstable at this moment, with citizens thinking they have rights and taking to the streets whenever they feel aggrieved. Popular opinion counts for much more now than it ever has in Chinese society. The combination of the concept of self-rule and the power of instant communications, which has never existed before, has magnified the strength of activists. Ideas, therefore, are more powerful than they have ever been. Beijing’s opponents may look weak and scattered to us, but appearances reveal almost nothing about their ability to change China.
In China in 1989, there were no leaders at first, and no one was planning to remove the Party from power. Yet as soon as students began to congregate in Tiananmen, long-repressed grievances – especially about rampant inflation and seemingly out-of-control corruption – were felt with new force.
In a struggle waged in the minds of a population, a thought can start out small and spread rapidly. The concept of representative governance, dominant throughout the rest of the world, can sweep away Chinese authoritarians overnight. Imagine how Tiananmen in 1989 would have ended if news traveled across China over the Internet instead of by phone and fax.
Actually, we don’t have to imagine. There was a “miracle” in the Philippines in January 2001 when “People Power 2,” a mass protest, brought down the government of President Joseph Estrada. Estrada was finished when an unknown Filipino sent out a text message urging people to congregate at a well-known intersection in Manila. Other citizens urged friends and relatives to join by sending text messages (“Go 2 EDSA. Wear blck.”). The crowd grew exponentially, beyond the expectation – or control – of anyone. Ringleaders of the anti-Estrada forces didn’t lead the protest – they took advantage of it. A demonstration that would never have happened in the past occurred spontaneously and grew electronically. Eventually the military, gauging public opinion by the size and fervor of the crowd, switched allegiance and forced Estrada to resign.
What happened in Manila can occur in Beijing. China can change overnight. The next time the Chinese people take to the streets in great numbers, they will win.
Gordon G. Chang is the author of "The Coming Collapse of China." He writes a weekly column at Forbes.com. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.