Seizing the Square. 1989 Protests in China and Germany from a Global Perspective

Palm, Daniel
SpatioTemporality / RaumZeitlichkeit
240 S.
€ 47,99
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Maciej Kurzynski, East Asian Languages and Cultures, Stanford University

In this book Daniel Palm tackles the core question of modern social history: why do people continue to occupy squares? Focusing on the 1989 demonstrations in Beijing and Leipzig, but including in his analysis also more recent global moments such as the Occupy movement, Arab Spring, and Euromaidan, Palm’s work invites us to reconsider the question as to “what it means – politically – to seize a square in an increasingly interconnected world” (p. 1).

The driving force behind Palm’s inquiry is his dissatisfaction with the traditional interpretations of square protests as mere episodes of national histories. The question of German reunification and the Nazi heritage in particular have occupied the center of the German historiography dealing with the annus mirabilis of 1989. Narratives that remained influential after the Tiananmen Massacre likewise situated the 1989 protests within a national intellectual history of the Chinese avant-garde thinkers who hoped to embrace and localize the Western ideas of liberal democracy. Challenging these classical retellings, which fail to explain the spontaneous and yet synchronous nature of the protests around the world, Palm reinterprets square protests as local interventions into global transformations at the root of social and economic inequality. “When protesters seize the square, they refer to global problems and quote transnational causes of discontent, while at the same time reacting to discontent based in distinct contexts” (p. 4).

As behooves a book focused on the problematics of space, the most captivating chapters of Seizing the Square retell the local protests from the perspective of a spatial agency entangled with an increasingly globalized world (pp. 77-158). The dissenting activities in Leipzig began at the Nikolaikirche (St. Nicholas Church), where Monday prayers provided a rare opportunity to discuss political developments within the country and elsewhere, notably in the neighboring Poland where the Solidarity movement was gaining momentum. When the church authorities, pressured by the East Germany authorities, refused to host similar meetings in late 1988, the disaffected citizens moved to the square in front of the church (Nikolaikirchhof). In a parallel development, the discontented students in Beijing converged at university campuses, especially at Beida (Peking University), where the “conference fever” facilitated free exchange of ideas among students who were increasingly aware of the Gorbachov’s perestroika reforms in the Soviet Union. The unexpected death of Hu Yaobang on April 15, 1989, provided the spark which ignited the newly organized student bodies into mass demonstrations. Palm’s lively retellings of these momentous events point to their interconnectedness: while the students on Tiananmen Square closely followed the developments in Central and Eastern Europe, the “Chinese Solution” provided the lens through which the Leipzig protesters could debunk Erich Honecker’s policies in East Germany, as demonstrated by the then popular slogan “No violence; No China” (pp. 115-116). The same happened 20 years later, in 2011 and 2012, as the city centers under siege (Tahrir, Frankfurt, Oakland) kept referring to one another, gaining symbolic power through mutual support and recognition.

In his theoretically sophisticated project, Palm builds upon the work of scholars in multiple fields: global history, Marxist economy, nationalism, and comparative sociology, among others. Notions such as SpaceTime, nation-time, unreal agency, de-control, global moment, counter-space, and representational space populate the pages of the book, making for a demanding but illuminating read about the paradoxical logic of square protests that have shaped global history in recent decades.

The notion of “de-control,” for example, allows us to conceptualize the intriguing phenomenon of a square acquiring its own agency. As the space of the square becomes increasingly known for its dissident nature and attracts more and more people to join the demonstrations, the sheer fact of one’s presence on the square transforms one into a protester, regardless of political affiliation. Both in Leipzig and in Beijing, “it was the space rather than a party or idea that brought people together” (p. 159). What such spatially generated agency entailed, however, was the “unreality” of its power: with the growth of protests beyond those who initiated them, control over the dynamics on the square faded; the carnivalesque dynamic that allowed for the penetrative gathering of dissent in the first place paradoxically ended up decoupled from the interests of the protest organizers. Seizing the Square demonstrates that, while thriving on a shared moment in 1989, protesters in Tiananmen Square and Nikolaikirchhof “could disrupt order, but not replace it with a new one” (p. 14).

The notion of de-control underlies Palm’s skepticism about the capacity of square protests to challenge political authority: “the seized square did not hold any actual negotiating power in the global moment of 1989” (p. 160). The short-lived nature of protest leadership, whether in Tiananmen (Chai Ling, Wu’er Kaixi, Liu Xiaobo) or Leipzig (Christoph Wonneberger, Frank Richter, Kurt Masur), manifested the fragility of a power which did not belong to anyone in particular and as such remained “unrepresentable” (p. 169). It is in this somewhat pessimistic and undoubtedly controversial assessment that Palm’s theoretical intervention resides. As he convincingly argues, any teleological theory which claims to fully explain the emergence of protests on city squares will be necessarily “undermined by the spontaneity and chaos that comes with such disruptive moments as 1989 and 2011” (p. 207). What should be emphasized here, however, is that “seizing the square” is not the only way to produce alternative spaces in urban environments. The Anti-Extradition Movement in Hong Kong, for one, did not occupy any locale for too long; inspired by the “be water” slogan, the protesters relied on social networks to dynamically create spots of resistance across the city.1

If there is one topic that remains undeveloped in the book, it is the affective power of square gatherings. Although Palm duly notices that “the seizure of the city square in Leipzig vanquished the fear that had marked a cornerstone of the party’s legitimacy in East Germany” (p. 182) – and one might argue the same about the PRC – this positive contribution of “seizing the square” is not given much credit in the book. On the contrary, Palm again and again reminds us that the protesters “were unable to commit and enforce any negotiated compromises – let alone replace institutionalized power” (p. 178). Such an interpretation begs the question, however, whether the overarching goal of “seizing the square” is not precisely to produce an affective space free of fear and intimidation, something that authoritarian regimes can hardly tolerate. Furthermore, if, as Claude Lefort argues, democracy understands power as an “empty place” 2, continuously contested and never attached to any single authoritarian figure, then perhaps the “unreality” of power should be interpreted as a sign not of the helplessness of square protests, but rather of the freedom they manage to generate. After all, it is only in dictatorships that one person can seize the whole square for himself.

1 Shan Huang, Space of Care in the City. Doing Fieldwork in the Midst of Hong Kong’s Protest Movements in 2019, 24.11.2020, (accessed 5.8.2021)
2 Claude Lefort / John B. Thompson, The Political Forms of Modern Society. Bureaucracy, Democracy, Totalitarianism, Cambridge 1986.

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