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Stephen Zunes

Stephen Zunes

Posted: June 4, 2009 11:36 AM

Remembering Tiananmen Square


Twenty years ago, on June 4, I was at Camp Thoreau in New York's Catskill Mountains. Though I had already become a full-time academic, I was still involved in the topical folk music circles in which I had hung out for much of the previous decade and had come down from Ithaca to join this annual gathering of politically-conscious folk musicians for a weekend of workshops, jam sessions and performances.

As we were clearing our dishes from dinner, I came upon the kitchen volunteers huddled around the radio listening to incoming reports of the massacre then unfolding in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

Serving as the emcee for the concert that evening, I broke the news to the 300 or so singers, songwriters, and musicians assembled. I looked out upon an audience composed of amazing performing artists - Fred Small, Betsy Rose, Cathy Winter, Charlie King, Matt Jones, and many others - who had spent their lives singing songs about such struggles for freedom and justice. The shock, anger and despair was overwhelming.

I reminded them that, despite efforts by the corporate media to portray the student movement in China as some kind of campaign against socialism, it was in fact a campaign against the tyranny and injustice of Communist Party rule and for a more just and democratic society, a society where workers and peasants had power in reality, not only in name. Indeed, I informed them, the song most frequently sung by the student protesters during the seven weeks they had occupied the heart of China's capital was none other than "The Internationale."

I then asked Pete Seeger and Sis Cunningham to join me on stage. Unlike these two veteran radicals - who had sung with Woody Guthrie in the Almanac Singers back in the 1940s - few of my generation knew the words to this international socialist anthem, so I had written them up on butcher paper which I held up for the audience to see. With Pete (accompanying himself on his banjo), Sis, and I leading the chorus of mostly professional singers, nearly 300 voices came together in harmony singing

Arise, you prisoners of starvation!
Arise, you wretched of the earth!
For justice thunders condemnation:
A better world's in birth!
No more tradition's chains shall bind us,
Arise you slaves, no more in thrall!
The earth shall rise on new foundations:
We have been nought, we shall be all!

As this diverse group of left-wing musicians sang out together, many of us through our tears, we were making a powerful witness in song, not just in protest of the tragedy then unfolding in Beijing, but at the betrayal of 20th century socialism by all those who, in its name, had become a new class of oppressors and exploiters.

Despite the calamity which took place in China that day, the student martyrs had given the world a glimmer of hope. While the nonviolent movement that had emerged that spring in Beijing and in towns and cities throughout China was brutally crushed, other largely nonviolent movements would emerge elsewhere in the coming years that would bring down scores of autocratic regimes, ranging from monarchies to Communist dictatorships to right-wing military juntas.

By the end of that year, such unarmed insurrections would usher in democratic governance in Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Chile, and Kenya. During the 1990s, nonviolent movements brought down dictatorships in Mongolia, Mali, Thailand, Madagascar, Indonesia, Nigeria, and elsewhere. This decade has seen strategic nonviolent action play the pivotal role in overcoming corrupt and autocratic rule in such countries as Serbia, Nepal, Georgia, Ukraine and the Maldives.

Liberal democracy does not automatically bring social justice, but it is a necessary first step. Dictatorial rule, even in the name of "socialism," cannot. The form democracy takes will vary based upon a given society's history, culture and social conditions, but those in leadership must be accountable to their actions, individual freedom must be respected, and sovereignty must ultimately rest in the people.

We want no condescending saviors
To rule us from their judgment hall,
We workers ask not for their favors
Let us consult for all:
To make the thief disgorge his booty
To free the spirit from its cell,
We must ourselves decide our duty,
We must decide, and do it well.

Indeed, it is up to those in China and elsewhere still suffering under oppressive rule to lead their own struggles for liberation from tyranny. We cannot trust that the U.S. government or any other government can legitimately engage in "democracy promotion." However, global civil society can offer the kind of international solidarity -- in opposing arms transfers to human rights abusers, in providing workshops on strategic nonviolent conflict, and in raising global awareness of these struggles -- that is so important for those struggling for freedom and justice.

It is a solidarity that is based not upon whether the oppressive regime being challenged is an ally or an adversary of the Unted States or what kind of economic system it claims to adhere to. It is a solidarity based upon nothing less than a universal respect for fundamental civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.