In Solidarity: The Past and Future of Student Protests

Wang Dan was seventeen when he was sentenced to eleven years in prison. Known as the main student leader in the Tiananmen Square protests, he became part of the violent struggle for democracy in China when he was still in university. Because of his involvement, Wang became a political prisoner and spent the better part of a decade in jail until he was exiled to the United States. Although he has not returned to China since, he is advocating for democracy even now, giving speeches throughout the U.S. and rallying foreign support for China’s democratization.

But this article is not about Wang, nor is it about Tiananmen Square. Rather, it is about students like Wang, who was part of group shaped by their belief in democracy. Student protests, regardless of their ultimate success, are a perennial aspect of modern world history. This is because universities are fertile grounds on which the seeds of their ideals can grow to extraordinary heights. Wang’s time at Peking University transformed what were once only his ideas into the unforgettable Tiananmen Square protests.

Students are often the first to respond to autocratic threats; countless instances have seen them gather as the first barricades of resistance. October 14th, 1973 is a day that Thailand now calls the “Day of Great Sorrow”. The country had been under the rule of a military government for several years, and while that itself was not a rare occurrence, this particular regime was marked by the offensively corrupt tactics it was using to stay in power. Student leaders from several universities, along with other intellectuals of that time, started to petition for the end of this military government. They gathered sympathizers in front of the country’s Democracy Monument – the existence of which stung of irony – in a peaceful demonstration. By its final days, the protest had grown to more than 500,000 people. The government was ultimately forced to cave to the protestors’ demands, but a minor altercation with the police had unexpected ripple effects, and shots were fired into the crowd. A total of seventy-seven people were killed, many of them students, and all the victims are remembered today as martyrs who had to sacrifice far too much for their cause.

Since the history of student activism is full of examples, people usually know what they are risking when they stand up to government overreach. Things can get very nasty, very fast, and news about casualties is sometimes swept under the rug, like the fates of those killed during the events of Tiananmen Square. But in forming congregations against the terrifying forces of unjust governments, these students organize nonetheless. Idealism is strong among the youth, and grows even stronger in the presence of others who share the same views.

Kathleen M. Blee, author of Democracy in the Making: How Activist Groups Form, talks about how culture is essential to activism. In her book, she quotes Doug McAdam, a professor of Sociology who says that activism is a “collaborative cultural project” that doesn’t grow from a need for any compensation. She also quotes Gary Alan Fine, another sociologist, who describes an activist group’s culture as:

a system of knowledge, beliefs, behaviors, and customs shared by members of an interacting group to which members can refer and which they can employ as the basis of further interaction. Members recognize that they share experiences, and these experiences can be referred to with the expectation that they will be understood by others, and will become tools by which to construct a social reality.

This description paints a picture of on-campus activism quite well. Culture, in this case, is not necessarily the culture of a certain ethnic group or nation. It is instead the culture that results from the shared principles of these students. Students bond over their collective image of what the world should look like, and form ties through their overlapping visions. Each person may be driven by personal experiences that influence their political views, but connecting these different experiences illustrates a common understanding that every student is fighting for the same thing.

In an article for The Nation, Rosa Schwartzburg wrote about her part in a student protest against Hungary’s increasing authoritarianism. Just last year, she and her fellow students camped out in the freezing December cold in front of the country’s parliament to express dissatisfaction with the current regime, which was threatening to shut down her university. The regime had already targeted many institutions of higher education across Hungary. It defunded the Eötvös Lorand University, a well-known institute of the humanities, took control of the country’s textbook makers, and even banned certain degrees. A government-run education system is frightening because of the future implications – power over education is pretty much the power to change history itself, as it means the power to mold the ideas of the youth through their impressions of the past.

Censorship is an effective tool for autocracies everywhere. In the name of removing “sensitive” content, autocratic governments can curb resistance by eliminating the sense that there is anything wrong with the status quo. Institutions of higher education are strong political forces because they are essentially the breeding grounds for free speech and political ideals. Whether it be on the grass in front of campus buildings or in closed rooms, students are relatively safe from persecution in expressing their views.

Machiavelli’s The Prince, a must-read for aspiring totalitarians, says that a prince should take up residence in the state that he has recently taken control of, because there he can solve problems more efficiently, stifling all attempts of rebellion before they grow out of hand. Waging wars for territory is no longer contemporarily relevant, but the reasoning behind Machiavelli’s statements is timeless. Governments seeking to strengthen their power will “take up residence” in the education system so they can better terminate (i.e. censor) any threats that emerge. Autocratic governments purposefully target universities because they actually are dangerous to its control. This is why student movements are important, and why no one should underestimate the potential of collective action.

It is possible that Wang Dan sounds more like legend than man. His fame may have turned him into another blurry figure in history, to be read about but never empathized with. Who would look at a picture of Wang standing bold in a crowd’s midst, brows furrowed and megaphone in his grip, and think that they were anything like him? The truth, however, is that he is but one part of the ever-present fight for democracy. Wang’s extraordinary conviction distinguished him from his peers, but there will continue be others like him in the future. New voices will emerge, imploring the world to listen, and they will know that while it can be dangerous to advocate for solidarity, it is necessary and worth it to do so anyway.