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The Pitfall of Popularity: The Dynamic of Radicalization in the 1989 Tiananmen Student Movement

By Zitian Sun

Date: October 22nd, 2020

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This paper investigates the dynamic of radicalization during the 1989 Tiananmen Student Movement. I ask why the students escalated their tactics and demands just when the government offered to negotiate. I argue that the dynamic was driven by the division between moderate and radical students. Moderates used the radicals as leverage to encourage the regime to negotiate. Radicals, however, were able to draw more public attention through their more dramatic actions, and the increased attention from abroad led to flows of resources to radical leaders. When the regime began to negotiate, the radical students staged a massive hunger strike. The inability of moderate students to control the actions of the radicals undermined their ability to extract concessions. The regime hardliners responded by marginalizing the regime soft-liners, ending the negotiation, and repressing the movement violently. This study critically engages theories of radicalization, such as those put forth by Ruud Koopmans, Francis Fox Piven & Richard Cloward, and Sidney Tarrow.

About the Author

Zitian Sun is a graduate student at the Department of Politics, New York University. His main research focuses are states’ repression tactics, organizations in contentious politics, and radicalization dynamics in social movements, with a regional focus in East Asia. His works apply mixed methods to explore mechanisms of decisions among less organized communities within authoritarian settings. His on-going project, “The Pitfall of Popularity,” is addressing the impact of meso-level interactions among protesters with respect to radicalization. Prior to his career at New York University, Zitian Sun received his Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees from American University, Washington, D.C.

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