By Elaine Dunn

To those of us who were around in 1989, the words “June Fourth” or “Tiananmen Square” conjure up the horrific images of students bloodied and killed by their own government during the night; bodies piled high and shoved with disregard into a corner of a hospital.  It also brought up the image of a lone man holding a shopping bag in each hand, blocking the advancement of a row of tanks in bright daylight the following day.

Yet, 26 years after the Tiananmen Square Massacre, there is a whole generation born after that date who may know nothing about this historic moment in the Chinese struggle for democracy.  If you search the Internet in China or in any Chinese media site, you will find “no match” come up repeatedly.  To this day, the Chinese government does not acknowledge the carnage that took place the evening of June 3 through early June 4, 1989.  


So what led up to June 4, 1989, and what was the result of the weeks of public protests?

Death of Hu Yaobang

In early 1989, corruption within the Chinese government was rampant; prices of consumer goods were skyrocketing; Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), then chairman of the state and Communist Party and his designated successor, Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang (趙紫陽), were feeling the heat.  Student unrest had been increasing, calling for political reforms and an end to official corruption. 

Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦) was the General Secretary of the Communist Party from 1981-1987, a “comrade” of Deng.  Hu instigated a series of anti-corruption, economic and political reforms under the direction of Deng, which alienated some of the powerful Party elders.  In addition, Hu’s embrace of the Western suit over the Mao suit and his suggestion of adopting Western eating utensils versus Chinese chopsticks to prevent the spread of contagious diseases were considered an insult to Chinese traditions and did not curry him any favours within the Politburo.

Hu’s efforts to move China toward a modern economy and open political system met with resistance from the “old guards” and military officials.  Furthermore, his tolerance of dissidents was viewed as a major violation of political principles.  When student demonstrations spread in 1987, Hu was the scapegoat.  He was forced to resign in disgrace.

Upon news of his death on April 15, 1989, thousands of university students gathered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to mourn him.  As the day wore on, the students called for democracy, press freedom and other reforms.  

Unrest spreads and the loss of “face”

Demonstrations spread to other cities with workers joining in with complaints of their own: inflation, low wages and inadequate housing.  By April 22, government’s fear of chaos and revolution mounted as more than 100,000 student protesters gathered on the square and began a boycott of classes.  Three student leaders demanded a meeting with Premier Li Peng (李鹏).  Li did not respond to the students’ demand. 

Before Zhao, then General Secretary of the Communist Party, left on a scheduled state visit to North Korea April 23-30, he had called for the Party to use only "persuasion" and "legal procedures" in dealing with dissident students.  However, Li called a meeting with Party members who had no sympathy for the students.  On April 26, an editorial titled “The Necessity for a Clear Stand Against Turmoil" appeared in the People’s Daily denouncing the students, which led to more demonstrations.  More demonstrations sprung up in cities outside of Beijing.  Protesters, at this point, counted within their ranks people from all walks of life, from scientists to lower-rank military personnel to doctors and nurses to bank employees, and from all age groups.  And, of course, the growing protests caught the attention of the foreign press.

Two clearly divided camps within the Politburo formed:  Zhao, who believed legitimate complaints by the protesters should be addressed, and Li, who pushed for an end to protests before any reforms were to be considered.

Upon his return from N. Korea, Zhao made a speech and expressed support for the students’ patriotism, in contradiction of the April 26 editorial.

When May 4 came around, more students congregated on the square to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement (五四運動)- a 1919 student protest that also took place at Tiananmen Square in response to the government’s weak response to the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, where German rights in Shandong were transferred to the Japanese.  In 1919,the Chinese students viewed that act as a betrayal by Western powers and a humiliating diplomatic defeat for China.  

The following week, many students returned to class and the government was preoccupied in preparing for Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to Beijing.  Deng insisted the students be gone from the square before Gorbachev’s arrival, saying, “a tiny minority was stirring up the majority."  But the students were not prepared to call off their demonstration.  In fact, the students began a hunger strike on May 13 in Tiananmen Square in protest of the government’s failure to address their demands for a meeting.  They also thought Gorbachev’s visit is a timely occasion to demand political reform since the Soviet Union had already embarked on that path.  The foreign press in town to cover Gorbachev’s visit turned their attention to the students in the square instead.

On May 15, Gorbachev’s welcome ceremony at Tiananmen Square had to be cancelled and relocated to the airport instead.  Gorbachev’s motorcade through Beijing streets was blocked by the many protesters.  This was a huge loss of face for the Chinese government on the international stage.

Martial law declared

The Zhao and Li camps dug their heels in firmer in their differing “solution” to dealing with the protesters.  Unfortunately for Zhao, Deng sided with the Li camp and by May 18 a decision was made by the Party elders and the Politburo members to declare martial law.  The morning of May 19, it was estimated that 1.2 million protesters descended on Tiananmen for a mass sit-in in protest of the upcoming martial law.  

When troops were deployed on May 19 to disperse the protesters, Beijing residents poured onto the streets to block their approach to the square.  For three days, the soldiers could reach neither the square nor retreat!  The Beijing people, though, fed the soldiers and reasoned with them about why they, the soldiers, should not be on the “dark” side as they were supposed to be protecting the citizens, not crushing them..  More loss of face for the government.

Demonstrations continued the ensuing week and an air of jubilation swept through Tiananmen Square.  The students erected a sculpture on the square in the likeness of the Statue of Liberty, calling it the “Goddess of Democracy.”  The government, though, fearing things had gotten totally out of hand, started devising a harsher pushback.  Deng indicated the students need to be cleared from Tiananmen Square by 6 a.m. of June 4.  Troops from other parts of the country were brought in (so none had any Beijing ties such as family members on the square) to suppress the demonstrators.

At around 10:30 p.m. of June 3, things did get out of hand.  The protesters started yelling for reforms near apartment buildings occupied by high-level Party members.  A bus was set on fire.  When the soldiers tried to break through the protesters’ barricades, rocks were thrown at them.  The soldiers took aim and shot the protesters.  By 1 a.m., the troops reached Tiananmen Square and tried to clear the square.  The students refused to leave and began yelling at the soldiers, who then opened fire.  Civilians trying to rescue the wounded were also shot.  At the end of June 4, many unarmed civilians had been killed and thousands more wounded.  How many were killed?  To this day, there is no definitive figure.  The Chinese Red Cross provides a death toll in the mid-2000s whereas the Chinese government figure is 241 dead.

Final act of defiance

By midday of June 5, when the army seemed to have regained control of Beijing, the iconic image of the Tiananmen Square incident was seared into the minds of millions around the world: an unidentified young man stepped in front of a convoy of tanks coming up Chang’an Boulevard toward Tiananmen.  The first tank tried to go around him.  He moved in front of it again.  This side-step-and-stop “dance” was repeated several more times until the tank finally stopped and turned its engine off.  The young man then climbed on the tank and spoke with the driver.  Then he got off the tank.  A group of people escorted him to the side of the road where he disappeared into the crowd.  No one knew who the “tank man” was or what became of him.

The aftermath

While “tank man” was able to get away unscathed, many protesters were not as lucky.  Neither was Zhao Ziyang.  On June 24, he was accused by his political rival, Premier Li Peng, for “making the mistake of supporting the turmoil and splitting the party."  Furthermore, because of "the serious nature and consequences of his mistake," he was dismissed as General Secretary and essentially remained under house arrest until his death in January 2005.

International outcry was swift.  Three weeks after the bloody crackdown, the U.S. and its allies imposed a series of economic and diplomatic sanctions against China, including, but not limited to, the withholding of development assistance, sales of military and police equipment, and suspension of high-level official visits.  

To Chinese who lived through this painful and horrifying experience, most view their government with mistrust and alienation.  Hong Kong students have, in all the years since 1989, held an annual vigil to commemorate what took place in Beijing.  During last year’s “Umbrella Revolution,” what happened at Tiananmen was at the back of the minds of many protesters’ parents. 

Chinese citizens today have less freedom of speech than in 1989 even though they do have more freedom for non-political activities.  If questioned, most mainland Chinese would probably say they believe in and value democracy, but they also accept the political climate as the government provides them social benefits.  What else can they say?

Deng’s pivot to an “open economy” after Tiananmen directed the Chinese to focus on making money instead of focusing on political reforms.  This led to rising corruption and a general decline in morals, evident in the proliferation of  the fù èr dài (富二代) - the privileged progenies of the newly rich and high-level government officials - the “second generation rich, the princelings.”  After two decades of rapid economic growth, the current government under Xi Jinping is cracking down on corruption and reviving nationalism so as to build social cohesion.  

Also, since 2014, the Chinese government has begun restricting access to Western culture with the increased censorship of many Western television programs, movies and publications.  The Great Firewall (of China) -- massive Internet surveillance and content control system -- is in place to filter out and screen online material from abroad.  It guarantees that Chinese citizens will know only what the government allows them to know.  It’s quite clear that the Chinese government does not want its citizens to have a role in politics or self-government.

By suppressing discussion of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, can the Chinese government make this sorry episode in its history go away?  Most China experts believe the trauma of Tiananmen is just below the surface of the “collective mind” of the Chinese.  The longer it is suppressed and unaddressed, the more pronounced it will be when it re-emerges.  

Until then, how can the Chinese government admonish the Japanese on erasing history re: Nanjing Massacre when it is essentially doing the same regarding June 4, 1989, at Tiananmen Square?


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