Chinese Civic Identity Twenty Years After Tiananmen Square

Francesca Annicchiarico
During the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, Chinese activists, made up mostly of university students, occupied Beijing’s large city center, demanding democratic reforms and recognition of their civic rights. The demonstrations were sparked by the death of a progressive reformer, whose public mourning in Tiananmen Square shortly turned into protests across China. Still, the students who took the streets of Beijing lacked clear-cut programmatic goals, though they generally voiced the need to redefine civic identity within the communist regime. The protests continued until China cracked down on the demonstrators, mobilizing some 300,000 troops to end the popular uprising; it culminated in a massacre of protesters on June 4, 1989. It has been some twenty years since the wide-scale media coverage of these protests, and we now see Tiananmen Square as the first significant instance in which the Chinese people attempted, in modern times, to establish their status as citizens.

The Tiananmen Square protests, it could be argued, were overshadowed almost as soon as they erupted. The Chinese state rather quickly and violently repressed the protests in images that have now become iconic of state power over its people. The move to bring tanks and other militaristic machinery into Tiananmen Square not only marked the end of the efforts to establish civic rights, but it also effectively blocked any possibility that the ruling class would become more open towards its people. What is more, the tactic seems to have worked: some twenty years after the massacre, the Chinese people think of themselves as subjects of a coercive state apparatus more than they conceive of themselves as citizens in a political community. That such a status has become entrenched during China’s high-velocity economy of the past several decades only underscores the problem of Chinese civic identity twenty years after Tiananmen Square. The possibility for citizenship to emerge during the Tiananmen Square protests has since been eclipsed by China’s own economic emergence in the decades that have followed.  

I open with this review of the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre because of the profound and controversial shift currently taking place in the country. China’s place in global politics and economics potentially positions its people to become citizens of our now globalized world. To understand this shift for China as a nation, and the transition toward citizenship for its people, means having an insight into the future political paths China might take. As Edward Steinfeld argues, the economic development and liberalization of China has allowed people to upgrade their status from “subjects” to “citizens” (9-15). However, we should be wary of equating China’s economic rise with its people’s civic emergence. Even Steinfeld hints at the essential problem, saying that the Chinese are still apolitical (11). How do we make sense of this apparent contradiction between being citizens and being apolitical? If civic identity plays a critical role in self-consciousness and in the relationships between individuals and the collective or the political, how can the Chinese be called citizens if they have no stake in the state apparatus determining their relationship? This paper argues that, even though the Chinese state is promoting the values of citizenship on a theoretical basis, its people do not yet identify themselves as citizens.

We will see this disparity between the views of the state and the views of the people in Ching Kwan Lee’s Against the Law, a book that documents two Chinese social groups, the old economy “rustbelt” workers and the new economy “sunbelt” workers. A quick reading of Lee’s book might indicate that the sunbelt workers seem to be emerging as citizens, as they demand legal rights and therefore seem to participate in the political process, but there are problems with such a reading that we should guard against. In short, we might easily misread their civic awareness and their demands for legal rights as a potentially emergent class of citizens. The key to understanding why their civic awareness does not raise them to the status of citizens rests on how we understand citizenship itself, and whether citizenship is determined by the state or by self-consciousness. Since these sunbelt workers do not identify themselves as citizens, we cannot conclude that China’s economic growth and liberalization has graduated its subjects into citizens.


How do we define citizenship in a modern context? We can think of citizenship from two perspectives: first, the way governments define their people, and second, the way individuals think of themselves. Steinfeld, for instance, approaches the issue of citizenship from a state perspective. He argues that dismantling the work units and a rising private sector has caused a remarkable change in the structure of society. Moreover, according to Steinfeld, the legitimacy of the state depends on forms of political participation by its people, such as paying taxes, even while prohibiting access to the political realm (7-9). However, such a view has its problems, and Steinfeld himself sets up a contradiction within his book by claiming that the Chinese have become citizens despite their apolitical status. He concludes that “[w]hat the government must do, therefore, is persuade ordinary, apolitical citizens that it rules in their interests and thus deserves their loyalty” (11). Important here is that Steinfeld acknowledges the Chinese people are apolitical; his suggestion is that if the Chinese can be persuaded that their government acts in their favor, they will see that they are citizens by default. But by adopting such a top-down approach, Steinfeld significantly limits the broader issue of citizenship. The other critical component of the argument over citizenship – that is, how the people think of themselves politically – is missing. At the very least, we could argue that recognition from both parties (the state and the people) would be necessary to discuss the possibility of citizenship in a modern context.

The distinction between what the state says and what its people think is especially important because of the mismatch between the Chinese government’s perception of its people and people’s perception of themselves. In fact, in Against the Law Lee argues that “the promulgation of laws, and the associated discourse of citizenship and legal rights, allow workers to view the self as public and to recognize the discrepancies between legal prescriptions and experiences of the absence of legal rights” (24). In other words, at a legislative level China recognizes its people as public entities, or citizens; this recognition, however, does not match the people’s real experience of denial of their citizenship status. Given this discrepancy, we can better approach the issue of civic identity in China by measuring citizenship in terms of how people think of themselves. Therefore, we should consider citizenship as a particular condition that invests the individual with some share of political power as well as a set of legal rights, such that it allows the individual to be aware of that political power and those legal rights.

The essential problem with the concept of Chinese citizenship can therefore be traced to this contradiction: individuals do not have a stake in the political system and they do not see their legal rights recognized by the state. We, too, can see this problem in two social groups that Lee analyzes in her work, the “rustbelt workers” and the “sunbelt workers.” Rustbelt workers served the communist regime in the state-owned enterprises of Northeastern China, once the center of China’s heavy industry but now characterized by economic stagnation. Many of these rustbelt workers are retirees whose pensions go unpaid by their former employers; others have been laid off or have had their jobs suspended indefinitely. Sunbelt workers are the generation of employees who are riding the wave of liberalization by migrating to the new coastal industrial poles in search of employment, often in privately owned factories (Lee, 1-8). Lee argues that both the rustbelt and the sunbelt workers are demanding an advancement of their legal rights. Speaking of the sunbelt, she writes that “[c]laims made on the basis of equality before the law and of citizens’ right to legal justice are impassioned and firm, as in the rustbelt” (195). Lee goes on to argue that even though both of these groups appeal to equality and legal justice, what they mean by those two concepts is vastly different. In the rustbelt, “The civic citizenship they have in mind is one that dovetails with the regime’s project of ‘rule by law’ rather than a ‘rule of law’ system” (Lee, 117); in the sunbelt, workers demand a “rule of law.” In other words, Lee claims that the rustbelt accepts the superior position of the government relative to the law by demanding only that the old social contract be respected; the sunbelt, on the other hand, demands that the government submit to the law, and thus requires them to implement a new legal contract. As we will see, the problem of citizenship within the rustbelt workers readily rises to the surface, but the problem of citizenship within the sunbelt workers is more nuanced. In the sunbelt, the problem of citizenship relies not so much on their relationship to their rights as their relationship to themselves. In both social groups, there is ultimately a problem with self-realization when it comes to citizenship.



We will start with the rustbelt workers. The essential reason why the modern concept of citizenship sounds foreign to them is that their legal rights are not guaranteed. As Lee explains in her book, even though the state is trying to spread a new civic identity throughout the old working class, what the rustbelt demands of the government is merely to be guaranteed the services and goods that were previously provided by the communist regime (71). When asked about legal rights, a rustbelt worker’s response is “Workers’ thinking is not that advanced!” (Lee, 116). Reactions like this show the extent to which this sector of society seems to be strongly bound to a social contract that has positioned them to be mere subjects. Moreover, Lee concludes that within rustbelt workers, “There is no criticism of the lack of popular participation in legislation, no demand for independent worker organizations, no questioning of the adequacy and rationale of law and policy set by the central authority” (117). Even the quickest read of Lee’s book, in other words, reveals to us that the lack of civic consciousness among the rustbelt workers means they lack the political experience to make claims on citizenship. Since rustbelt workers do not demand their legal rights to be guaranteed, they tend to be less concerned with political participation. This is the essential problem when discussing citizenship in the context of Chinese identity: the perception of oneself as a civic agent within a community is necessary to claim political power and therefore necessary for claims on citizenship.

Lee portrays, over and over, this kind of political powerlessness among the rustbelt workers. The protests she addresses in her book were in fact so unsuccessful that they did not involve any political breakthrough. In one instance, Lee concludes rather succinctly that “[t]he mayor refused to meet with the workers […] When darkness fell, seeing no prospect of obtaining any results, they disbanded and went home” (69). This is not to argue that success in either the political process or because of protests would be necessary to make claims on citizenship; it does, however, show the extent to which the state, even when it does nothing, can affect how the rustbelt workers relate to themselves. Even in cases in which the state agreed to the demands of the workers, it did so in such a way as to temporarily appease the protestors rather than recognize their political power (Lee, 82). We may be tempted here to read the rustbelt protests detailed in Lee’s book as indicative of their political activity, but even here there are problems. Their claims are not political in nature and they remain mostly unheard by the state, which excludes the possibility of a political outcome. Even when these claims are heard, the nature of the claims themselves are not political but economic; as one rustbelt worker described it, “We block city roads with only one demand: give us our money and we will go home” (80). While there are important ties between a modern state’s economy and its political determination, the rustbelt protests seem to have the singular goal of ensuring their livelihoods, not their political lives. As a result of the nature of their protests, the Chinese in the rustbelt cannot be considered citizens because they do not have a stake in the political system.



The sunbelt workers, however, present us with a more nuanced problem when it comes to citizenship. We might easily misread their civic awareness and their demands for legal rights, in other words, as indicating they are an emerging class of citizens. Unlike those in the rustbelt, sunbelt workers do demand the implementation of legal rights at the local level: “Once we saw the terms of the Labor Law,” one sunbelt worker relates, “we realized that what we thought of as bitterness and bad luck were actually violations of our legal rights and interests” (Lee, 170). Such an awareness of their “legal rights and interests” might lead us to conclude that they are participating in the political process. The problem here, as elsewhere, is that the sunbelt workers do not identify themselves as citizens. But can they be citizens without knowing it? The short answer is no, and this lack of identification as citizens quickly turns, in Lee’s book, into an acknowledgement that they are subjects of the state. The local governments, when they respond negatively to any claims concerning the sunbelt workers’ legal rights, drive the protesters into deep disillusionment: “We are second-class citizens, and not even that sometimes, just beasts in the eyes of the police” (Lee, 198).

We thus enter into a loop of mutually necessary conditions for citizenship: the people must perceive of themselves as citizens, and the state must recognize them as citizens. It is difficult to know which condition must be met first, but we can summarize the problem in a question: how can the sunbelt workers see themselves as citizens when the state does not guarantee their most basic labor rights? A garment worker, as a member of this sunbelt class, reported that he was told by his supervisor: “I am the boss. This is my factory. I can pay what I like to pay” (Lee, 166). Another worker clearly expresses his civic conditions: “We don’t have an inkling of citizen rights. There is no government department responsible for punishing bosses who don’t pay workers” (Lee, 199). Since the state does not intervene to protect the workers in cases like this, it is reasonable to argue that, although there might be legal rights on paper, they are not enforced. Some may argue that this contradicts my original definition of citizenship, for a state perspective is now involved in the argument. However, what is really at stake here is the impact of state policies on a citizen’s self-perception rather than how the government defines its people. As a result, sunbelt workers do not consider themselves citizens because their legal rights are not protected. It also means that, though their claims are political in the sense that they are rooted in legality, these sunbelt workers do not have a share of political power.

It is true, however, that this social group has become conscious of the existence of the theoretical rights created in their interests, and that this awareness determines a set of political actions. As one sunbelt worker put it, “The more we read these legal reports, the more we understand the legal issues involved in our own case” (Lee, 172). Addressing an illegal wage contract, another worker reported that “Some of us refused to sign, and we went to the Labor Bureau to complain about that as well” (Lee, 165). Nevertheless, their political actions do not translate into effective political power. In fact, Chinese bureaucracy subtly yet firmly blocks every political advancement attempted by the sunbelt workers. Lee explains this situation by claiming that “Chinese lawyers are prone to screening out labor cases, adopting tactics of discouragement as an indirect refusal mechanism, and misinforming and miseducating clients about the legal merits of their cases” (186). This is confirmed by the report of a worker who says that “Whenever the court was scheduled to hear our case, it was either canceled or postponed” (Lee, 188). Such mistreatments translate into a sense of political powerlessness: “We are a pitiful lot in the cities,” one worker observed (Lee, 199), while another one asked “Who cares about a weak group like us?” (Lee, 200). Clearly, the sunbelt workers do not have a stake in the political system, which causes frustration about their civic identities. They are subjected to (rather than part of) a political community, and therefore they do not view themselves as full citizens.



It should be noted that the analysis presented in this paper is limited to the cases of the old and new working classes as presented by one book on the subject. A further study of this issue would take into consideration the civic identities of the Chinese middle and upper classes. In fact, we might be tempted to read my argument that the concept of citizenship is inapplicable to the Chinese as a generalization, and to argue that there is a part of the population that does feel consider itself to be citizens. However, even though the middle and upper classes may see their legal rights implemented on a more regular basis, they are still absent from participating in the political process. Even the Chinese who have an advanced economic status or hold an influential position in the legal apparatus do not have political power because of the authoritarian structure of China. They therefore do not fit into the definition of citizenship; although they may be guaranteed a set of liberal and even economic freedoms, they are still apolitical.

Lee’s book essentially reminds us that we should be cautious in equating the economic and social rise of China to a rise in citizenship and political participation. At most, we might conclude that such an awareness of themselves as citizens slowly has been forming since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, but we must also recognize that at this point, most Chinese cannot be considered citizens given the absence of their legal rights and political power. The Chinese working classes, within both the rustbelt and sunbelt, have demonstrated the problem of citizenship in China. When, in case of a privileged social status, their legal rights are recognized by the state, they are still cut off from the political field. This issue has a compelling political significance not only because being “political agents” (Lee, 72) constitutes a big part of our role in the world, but also because of what it means for China’s future: the fact that people do not view themselves as citizens might lead to ever greater discontent in China, and eventually cause the government to lose legitimacy.


Works Cited

Lee, Ching Kwan (2007). Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Steinfeld, Edward S. (2010). Playing Our Game: Why China’s Economic Rise Doesn’t Threaten the West. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.