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Assessing the "Beijing Spring" in China and Abroad: Academic Analysis and Media Reports

During the actual time of the Chinese Democracy Movement (i.e. from October/November 1978 to its final suppression in April 1981), international media brought a lot of attention to the events. On the one hand, China had become much more accessible to Westeners (including diplomats, journalists, students, ...), and many foreign media stationed correspondents in Beijing. At the same time, more and more Chinese lost their fear of contacts and open conversations with foreigners.

In the course of the years 1977 and 1978 (especially since Deng Xiaoping's return to official politics after July 1977) it had become clear that just a few years after Mao's death, China could undergo a much profounder political and economic transformation than originally thought. It was a time for new thinking and utopia, although nobody knew yet where the journey would go.

Western media focused mainly on three aspects talking about China: First, it was the end of an international isolation brought by the Cultural Revolution, clearing the way for changes in the relationship between the big powers, and heralding a new role of China's influence on developments elsewhere. Secondly, the new citizens' movement was largely seen in the context of Eastern European dissidents challenging Marxist-Leninist authoritarianism and embracing Western ideas of human rights and democracy. And thirdly, there still was a huge fascination for the most populous country of the world and its "mysterious" twists and turns. Not unlike just a few years before when many had become fascinated by Mao's Cultural revolution, they were now carried away by the awakening of the Chinese "masses" to Western ideas and ways of life, making the Democracy Movement a fascinating detail.

As early as in 1979, when the writing of big-character posters and publishing of independent journals were still in full swing in China, already some books and even best-sellers appeared on Western markets, and there were early attempts by sinologists and political scientists for academic review and analysis, with more to follow in the coming months and years.

In the course of the 1980s though, after the repression of the movement by the CCP leadership and the arrest of the main activists, the interest abroad seemed to subside a bit, observers tended to focus more on the economic upsurge in China and changes in everyday life. Only when the new Tiananmen students' movement gained momentum in April and May 1989, Western interest for political debates in China grew again. But then the events that led to the bloody intervention by the Chinese military on June 4, became the main focus of attention for international media and academic reviews, the Beijing Spring of the late 70s and early 80s became almost forgotten. Only in the late 1990s new publications on contemporary Chinese history tried to analyse more in depth the end of the Mao era and the reasons and circumstances for China's rise to a new economically successful, but politically authoritarian world power.

Inside China, still under the influence of Leninist principles guiding the media ("transmission belt for politics"), the "Beijing Spring" was hardly talked about at all, concealed from textbooks and even academic publications, with very few exceptions, for example concerning Deng Xiaoping's direct interventions, or some "internal" media for higher party officials who allowed a limited debate on questions of democratization and human rights.

Activities of the avant-garde artists and writers of the "Beijing Spring" continued to be regularly reported in the official media during the 1980s and later on, although political events and circumstances could strictly not be mentioned in such articles (such as the street march together with political activists demanding democracy and artistic freedom on October 1, 1979 in Beijing).

After 1989, the "Beijing Spring" and its open debate on civic rights or one-party rule, became an even more tabooed topic that media or academics would better not touch on.

In Taiwan, that was still staunchly anti-communist at the time of the "Beijing Spring", the events on the mainland were closely followed and analyzed by official institutions, as they were perceived as a long-awaited rebellion against the communist regime. Research institutes and secret service departments monitoring communist China, collected and published all kind of material relating also to the Democracy Movement. But this interest was short-lived as well (and available research funds became less generous) as Taiwan became more concerned with its internal political changes.

In the British colony of Hong Kong, enjoying a high degree of freedom of the press, Chinese language media unremittingly published eye-witness reports and documents of the Chinese Democracy Movement, and there was substantial interest among parts of the population who had their own roots in the mainland. A pivotal role in the reporting was played by a number of smaller magazines, often run by young intellectuals who had fled from communist China. Later, after the year 2000 when Hong Kong was already unter Chinese administration (but still enjoying a high degree of media freedom), it were local universities and small publishing houses that offered an opportunity to Chinese authors and academics to print documents and analyses of the "Beijing Spring" that could not be published on the mainland.

For those who were originally active in the movement between 1978 and 1981, there was at first no opportunity to tell their own story. Most of the key figures were in jail, and others who remained in China, could not dare to speak openly about personal feelings and interpretations. Only after their release from labor camps, and when they had come into exile to Europe or the US in the late 1990 and after the year 2000, they would start talking about their experiences and memories (including the interviews conducted for this website). And to some limited extent, within the spaces that internet now opened up in China, you can also find some prudent accounts and debates inside Chinese society, among academics and former participants of the "Beijing Spring". 


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