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Mainstream, Vol XLIX, No 9, February 19, 2011

Bliss was it in that Dawn!

Monday 21 February 2011, by Nikhil Chakravartty


In the wake of the memorable mass upsurge in Egypt we reproduce the following piece by N.C. on a similar uprising in China in 1989—it was published on May 27, 1989 precisely a week before the massive student movement in Beijing was brutally suppressed on June 4, 1989.

Like a thunder-lap it has burst. The massive student upsurge that has gripped China today has no parallel in history. A new page is being added to the great revolutions in the annals of humankind—the French, the Russian, the Chinese and our own. We are witness today to an unprecedented concentration of millions of students, disciplined and determined, and by the very demonstration of their solidarity for the cause of democracy attracting intellectuals and workers. By their resolute determination they could win over the armed forces to the point that a section of officers publicly demanded the rescinding of martial law.

Here is a remarkable case of mass civil disobedience disarming the authorities of their authority. Fortyone years after Gandhi’s martyr-dom, his commandment is being vindicated in Beijing’s historic Tiananmen Square. A nation whose leadership had once claimed that power flows from the barrel of a gun is proving by deed that more powerful than the gun is the awakened consciousness of the people. Here is the revolutionary message of our time.

In terms of the current developments in the communist world, the upheaval in Beijing, backed by reverberations all over China, brings out sharply that major structural reforms in the sphere of the economy will have to inexorably force the demand for unshackled democracy. There could be no impetus for individual endeavour on the economic sphere without the full flowering of democracy.

A significant feature of the mammoth student upsurge in China today is that while it has repudiated any dishonouring of Mao Zedong, it did not at the same time lionise him nor did they turn to Mao for inspiration. Instead, they have tried to recapture the spirit of the great May 4 movement which had stirred China exactly seventy years ago. The spirit of patriotic assertion for national self-respect endures even through changes in the social balance of forces. This is a point which needs to be emphasised—the intensity of patriotic fervour in defence of national self-respect and national interests.

This phenomenal assertion of student power in China has taken by total surprise China’s leadership of the government and ruling party. So much so that the political leadership found itself out of tune to the point that its threat of martial law only reinforced the students’ determination and spirit of defiance. In other words, it is clear as daylight that those in authority had totally misjudged the nature and magnitude of the ferment that stirred the students. Not only in China but in other countries as well, unique mass stirrings have been coming up, whose dimensions turn out to be unpredictable for those in authority. What we are witnessing today in China should serve as a warning to ruling establishments all over the world that in this period of historic transition, they will have to encounter challenges of momentous magnitude. The day of the stereotype in politics is over, for this is indeed a period of revolutionary renewal. And so watching what’s happening in Beijing today, one is tempted to recall the words of the poet who, witnessing another revolution, had exclaimed:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,

But to be young was very heaven!

(Mainstream, May 27, 1989)

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