Reading Shen Tong's Almost a Revolution

The post-Mao political order was ushered in at the Eleventh National Party Congress in August of 1977. The congress proclaimed the formal end of the Cultural Revolution, placing the blame for it on the "Gang of Four," led by Jiang Qing, Mao’s widow. By December of 1978, Deng Xiaoping, known as a moderate, successfully consolidated his leadership of the Party, and launched a reform program known as "The Four Modernizations." By developing technological expertise in the fields of agriculture, industry, science, and defense, China hoped to emerge as a modern industrial state by the century’s end. Alongside these reform measures, a popular movement emerged in 1978-1989 calling for a "fifth modernization," namely democracy. A "Democracy Wall" emerged in Beijing where, for a period, people freely posted their ideas, testimonies of past injustices and insufferable hardships, and criticisms of party hardliners. The wall was subsequently abolished and the leaders of the movement arrested. Calls for the furthering of democratic reforms and a greater tolerance of expressive freedom by China’s intellectuals and students culminated in the 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, Beijing.

Almost a Revolution is a memoir of China's democracy movement and the June 1989 Tiananmen Square Incident as seen through the eyes of student leader, Shen Tong. As an organizer of the "dialogue delegation," whose goal was to negotiate with the government, Shen offers an insider's record of the day-to-day decisions that led up to the events of June 4, 1989. This book highlights the bold aspirations, hopes, and political motivations of a new generation of Chinese who protested the restraints imposed by their country's government.

Discussion Questions

  1. What was the Democracy Wall and why did the Democracy Wall Movement come to an end in 1979? Based on your reading, what was the main content of the dazibao, big-character posters? Who were the authors of these posters? What were the reactions of on-lookers to these posters? Why?
  2. Part II of Almost a Revolution provides a chronological unfolding of the events that culminated with the army’s intervention on June 3-4, 1989. Use this material and/or information available at the Gate of Heavenly Peace website (http://www.tsquare.tv/) to explore, for example, how the movement developed, the students demands and the government’s response, or what democracy and freedom meant to the participants of the movement.
  3. Does an understanding of and sympathy for historical developments mean that we cannot make judgments about the political systems that have resulted? Or are there certain values — such as personal liberty and the right of free speech — that we hold to be absolute and can thus maintain as a standard in deciding what constitutes the best system of government?

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