But main event which sparked off the demonstrations shows political democracy itself a very important concern. Towards end-1986, elections held for local people's congresses (main organ of local government) across China. Only level of government in China to be directly elected. Precedent for people using elections to express dissent, despite fact that party list of candidates almost always got elected. During DWM, in 1980, activists had stood for election to local people's congresses; some made good showing despite harassment and intimidation of them and supporters. In some cases elections had to be blatantly rigged, or the results disregarded, to prevent democracy activists actually winning seats.
Concessions expected in 1986, because of renewed debate about political reform and apparently positive signals from Hu Yaobang and others at top of CCP. So when in November the National People's Congress actually tightened the rules about independent candidates in the local elections, thus making it harder for people not approved by the CCP to stand, caused great anger and frustration that the elections were being interfered with.
1986 elections, though, still liveliest China had experienced under CCP rule. Some passive resistance to compulsory voting (noted by former "rightist" and veteran dissident and writer, Wang Ruowang of Shanghai). He reported that in one Shanghai district, first round of elections declared void because of high number of invalid ballot papers. One of the ways in which ballot papers were spoiled was by writing in such names as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, or the names of characters from popular Chinese novels.
Sometimes names written in more obviously political: "At a Mechanical Technical School, the invalid ballots contained the names of Fang Lizhi, Liu Binyan (journalist and dissident who has since had to leave China for exile in the US) and Wang Ruowang. In other districts, people wrote words which expressed their dissatisfaction openly." Rather than dispersing after casting their votes, people stayed to hear results, reportedly applauding and laughing when names of Fang Lizhi, Mickey Mouse et al read out.
Elections in factories also disrupted – in some cases workers had to be forced to cast a vote by being threatened with fines if they didn't. Demonstrations held by students of Science and Technology University in Hefei, Fang Lizhi's university, to protest against Party interference in elections; soon spread to Shanghai. Head of Party, Hu Yaobang, took conciliatory line with students, but CCP conservatives favoured crackdown. Crucially, Deng Xiaoping himself said "bourgeois liberalization" had clearly gone too far – authorized local Party authorities to end demonstrations, which they did.
Hu Yaobang took responsibility for demonstrations; resigned as Party head mid-January 1987. Subsequently became hero for student demonstrators in 1989, because believed sympathetic to earlier demonstrations. Earlier in career had been Communist Youth League official, so seen as "student's friend". NB: hardly any worker involvement in 1986-7, despite beginnings of late-80s strike wave coinciding with it. CCP successfully spun the protests to workers as the whinging of an already privileged group (nobody really likes students), dissuading them from making common cause this time. No further mass demonstrations on democracy issues until 1989, but discussion of political reform continued, e.g. in various "democracy salons", often on university campuses. Wang Dan, later a student activist in 1989, involved in a prominent one at Beijing University.
Discussion encouraged by development of political reform in many Eastern European countries and in Gorbachev's Soviet Union – some ruling parties even giving up monopoly of power to compete with legalized opposition parties. One of Wang Dan's early essays hailed these developments as the future of all socialist countries, and stressed the need to struggle for such change from below. Invoked the spirit of 1956 – the Hungarian and Polish uprisings and China's own 100 Flowers. 1989 was a year of anniversaries – 70 years since May Fourth, 40 years since the PRC was founded, 200 years since the French Revolution, 10 years since Wei Jingsheng had been imprisoned (Fang Lizhi and others called for his release as a suitable way of marking all of these). Plans were afoot among student activists for some sort of protest to mark the May Fourth anniversary – the most appropriate one for a student challenge against an illegitimate government not seen to be serving the best interests of people or nation.
But in fact didn't have to wait that long. Overtaken by events, as a massive popular protest movement, millions strong, of a kind which should not have been possible in the PRC, broke out and found just enough political space in its first few days of existence to gain unstoppable momentum. Even though nobody involved in it had this aim, it almost brought down the CCP government in China. It was the biggest shock they'd ever had, and this accounts for much of their more recent treatment of even mild expressions of dissent: they do not intend to be surprised this way again. But the death of a leader is a dangerous time in China, and no-one can control when it happens.
3 Outbreak and course of the 1989 Democracy Movement Hu Yaobang died on 15 April 1989, and in doing so launched the 1989 Democracy Movement. Hu's reputation among students crucial: widely believed to have opposed campaigns against bourgeois liberalization and to have supported student calls for more democracy. Demonstrations ostensibly to show respect for Hu, but quickly developed into large-scale movement criticizing CCP for corruption, mismanagement, failure to establish democracy.
Parallel with death of Zhou Enlai sparking off April Fifth Movement. Posters read: "Those who should have lived, have died. Those who should have died, still live" – meaning Deng should have died, not Hu. Very large demos not only in Beijing, but in cities and towns all over China; biggest over a million strong. In Beijing, student demonstrators occupied Tiananmen Square from end-April to early June; marches through city applauded and supported by nearly all urban citizenry.