Lessons from Tiananmen for today’s university presidents

James A. Millward
6 min readApr 25, 2024


25 April 2024

Thirty-five years ago, in April 1989, Chinese students from Beijing’s elite universities began their occupation of Tiananmen Square. Their issues were different from those of American students today. Chinese demonstrators voiced concerns about corruption, inflation, the effects of on-going market reforms, and lack of free press and participatory governance. Today’s students at Columbia, NYU, Harvard, Yale, University of Minnesota, University of Texas, Brown, USC and other campuses are mounting an antiwar movement, calling on their institutions to divest from Israel in light of the unprecedented levels of civilian death in Gaza, and for the US government to stop supplying Israel’s offensive war machine. Another big difference: as it turned out, Chinese students faced far more serious and long-lasting repercussions than seems likely for American students, even those violently arrested by police. At least so far.

Despite the evident distinctions, however, there are thought-provoking similarities between the springtime student movements of China in 1989 and those in the US in 2024 — in particular, in the excessive rhetoric about and reactions to both movements. In 1989 as now, the students ask for a lot, right away. To many in powerful positions, they seem impetuous, unruly, irresponsible and unrealistic. But the issues they raise are weighty and can’t easily be denied. And the students speak with moral certainty borne of youth and the very fact that they are students: they have done everything we asked of them to gain admission to the most elite universities in the land. They have read the books we assigned them. And what they have learned leads them to conclude, with great clarity, that bad things are happening, and that these bad things must stop. But the students are persistently denied access to channels of influence; their organizations are suspended; their calls for justice are dismissed, censored or declared impractical or illegal. So they camp out in the Square, on the Common, or in the Yard, where their voices, chants and signs cannot be ignored.

To many, these student encampments are not just inconvenient, but amount to lese majesté, a challenge to rightful authority. Though the students are managing their new al fresco communities pretty well, under the circumstances (according to an “admirable code of conduct,” as reported by Howard French), many outsiders don’t see in them hope for a democratic, inclusive future. Rather, through narrowed eyes, such critics perceive only chaos — or at least pretend to perceive it. But efforts to discredit, intimidate and disperse the students through the usual accusatory labeling (Black Hands! Tools of hostile foreign forces! Terrorist sympathizers! Anti-Semites!) aren’t working. Suspending or threatening to expel the students isn’t stopping them either — they aren’t the pliant, careeristic drones you thought they were, but put principle higher than pragmatism, some even above their personal safety (parents are panicking about this). Still worse, the students’ outcry is opening rifts within the power structure itself. Professors turn out in support of their students. Administrations and political parties split over how to deal with the kids, revealing deeper fissures across the system. A growing faction clamors for violence to “restore order,” using the students for their own political purposes.

It was when things had come to this point that Deng Xiaoping declared martial law and sent troops to clear Tiananmen Square with lethal force. University presidents, do not imitate Deng Xiaoping’s example! (Some in New York, Minnesota, Texas, California and elsewhere already have, unleashing police on peaceful protesters in public spaces on the campuses they pay tuition to attend. How do those videos look to you?)

Universities should ignore the callous and disingenuous calls of pundits and right-wing senators and congressmen to deploy the military (which is what the National Guard is) against non-violent student antiwar protesters in their sleeping bags. That kind of “corrective action” will only make things worse. If nothing else, think of the lawsuits from these students’ parents when a bunch of them get hurt or killed. Deng was willing to shoot students and crush them under tanks to clear them away. Are you?

So what is to be done? Here is a solution. It requires compromise, but also offers benefits to both university administrations and student protesters: Form a committee.

Include elected representatives of activist student groups on that committee. This will require lifting those suspensions and campus bans you ineffectually imposed on some students before — but they are not ill-behaved children: they are the thought leaders you need to be talking to. Also include representatives of alumni, faculty, staff, administration and trustees on this committee. Bring in the development officers and university lawyers, too. And let this committee, in transparent and deliberative fashion, consider ways in which you can reduce your institution’s contribution to the on-going lethality.

As you go through the portfolio, activist students and faculty will learn the many constraints under which a university functions. They will learn that divestiture can’t be done overnight, nor can it easily be complete. But you will find some low-hanging fruit: investments in firms directly connected to things you’d rather not be responsible for or see splashed across the front page of the campus paper. Start the process of reinvesting in a manner that better reflects your values and kills fewer people. (You could even think about climate change at the same time.) Would such divesting from war stocks really cost the university more than the cost of lawsuits, extra security, and bad PR?

Meanwhile, don’t worry about the campers on your lawn. In fact, help them out: stop flying police helicopters over their heads all night, in return for negotiated quiet times with fewer songs and chants and a clear camp perimeter. Maybe bring in porta-potties and help out with trash pick-up. Make sure that no one harasses anyone on either side. Final papers are coming due; exams aren’t far off. If students feel there’s a process underway in which they are involved, they will start to strike camp on their own.

This may seem like giving into pressure — but you truckle to rich donors and grandstanding politicians all the time, so why not work with actual members of your own community, whom large majorities of your student body agree with? They, not cynical provocateurs and performative politicians, comprise your future alumni donor base, and they will be more inclined to give later if you refrain from cracking their heads now. By inviting passionate students into substantive discussions, you will drop the control rods into a reaction that’s getting too hot. It is a truth as old as bureaucracy itself that there’s no better way to slow things down than to commend it to a committee.

Students, you don’t want to slow things down, and may fear being co-opted by such a process. That is a valid fear, and you should resist committee stalling. Had Chinese leaders not panicked in 1989 that the Communist Party itself would split, they might have coopted Beijing students into the system, just as past emperors sometimes granted rebel leaders official posts to bring them into the fold. After 1989, the PRC party-state essentially did that, by offering economic growth to garner the enthusiastic support of China’s intellectuals and middle class for nearly three decades without political liberalization (though that liberalization was needed, and China is now suffering from that delay).

But, students, the main impact of divestiture, at least from your one institution, will be at first symbolic, not economic. Just starting a process to consider how your university can divest from the most egregious war stocks will send a powerful message and encourage similar processes on other campuses and in other institutions around the US and the world.

University presidents, confrontation may be your first impulse amidst all the outsiders goading you to violence, but no good will come of it. Compromise — and a committee — will serve everyone better than a bloodbath in the quad.



James A. Millward

James A. Millward 米華健 is professor of history at Georgetown University and mandolinist for By & By.