Watching History Happen: Tiananmen Square, June,1989

Remembering the massacre that the Chinese government wants the world to forget.

Tiananmen Square, Beijing, Early June, 1989

I’m a news nerd going way back, and could probably name more world leaders at the time than a lot of adults. There wasn’t so much children’s television back then as there is today.

The 1980’s was a decade of incredible political and social change across a great swath of the earth, as hundreds of millions of people in different countries began to reject communism en masse. Things were looking shaky politically for communists in the Soviet Union and in eastern Europe, and if the communists were no longer in charge in Moscow, this could lead to it happening in other communist capitals outside the region.

In China, a student uprising in Beijing in 1989 had me believing that change was also imminent in the worlds most populous country. For weeks, news footage from Beijing showed a large and apparently growing mass of student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. The government had resisted moving in immediately to crush the demonstration, which it surely saw as an insurrection.

When it was over, unknown numbers of people were dead and injured, fired upon by the People’s Liberation Army. Today the Chinese government is trying to erase the Tiananmen Square Massacre from its history. I am doing my part to ensure that history never forgets it.

15 April,1989-The protest begins.

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Hu Yaobang

Hu Yaobang, the former Communist Party chief and a leading reformer, dies of a heart attack at the age of 73. Following his death, thousands of pro-democracy protestors, primarily university students, begin to converge on Tiananmen Square. What began as a period of mourning would soon become a protest, as students called for more democratic freedoms.

There was a growing discontent among many students in China, and calls for democratic reform began to rise from them. They wanted an end to one party rule, and more of the democratic freedoms that were being enjoyed in the West.

There was also a demand for more and better economic reforms. The government had begun to allow a very limited form of capitalism within the economy, but an ever growing poor working class was demanding to be heard. Poverty was on the rise and unemployment was a major concern. Students also wanted the education system to be reformed such that they would be prepared for the new and highly regulated free-market style system.

26 April, 1989

As the number of protestorscontinued to grow in Tiananmen Square, there had been surprisingly no efforts to put down the protest. Within the government, two factions were at odds as to how to deal with the situation. The official head of the Communist Party, Zhao Ziyang, is a moderate. his sense is that the demonstrations will eventually dissipate.

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Zhao Ziyang

Meanwhile, Party hardliners like Li Peng would prefer swift action be taken to end the demonstration, which had by now swelled to tens of thousands of students, all gatherinmg in the square.

But on April 26th, the state-run People’s Daily ran an editorial that would inflame tensions. Titled “The Necessity For A Clear Stand Against Turmoil”, it accused the students of rejecting the Communist Party. The views expressed in the editorial closely mirrored those of Deng Xiaoping, China’s defacto supreme leader.

Li Peng

Still so young and naive.

I hadn’t even reached my 20th birthday yet, and like many I held out hope that China would join the other nations of the world that were shedding communist ideologies. I found some hope in the fact that the protests had gone on for as long as they had without the government cracking down. I was optimistic that the reformist faction withing the government would somehow win the day. I still had a great deal to learn about Chinese politics and culture.

13 May, 1989

Two days before a visit by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev a large number of students go on a hunger strike, frustrated by the government’s unwillingness to open a dialogue with them. The demonstration would cause Gorbachev’s motorcade to avoid Tiananmen Square, and create an embarassment for the Chinese government.

19 May, 1989

34 days after the protests began and knowing that time was running out, Zhao Ziyang went to Tiananmen Square in an unsuccessful effort to broker a compromise with the students. During what would be one of his final political acts, he reportedly told the students “We have come too late.”

20 May, 1989

People’s Liberation Army troops begin moving towards the city centre as the government declared martial law across much of Beijing. As protestors attempt to block their movements, the troops are ordered to hold their fire.

21 May-1 June, 1989

There is no visible security presence in the square over the course of the next ten days. Demonstrations would continue amid a festival like atmosphere, but within 72 hours the mood would change drastically.

2 June, 1989

Senior Communist Party officials approve a plan to end the demonstration once and for all. Force will be used to end the “counter-revolutionary riot”.

4 June, 1989 0100 hrs

As troops begin advancing towards the city centre, protestors have erected barricades to stop them. Armored personnel carriers would be used to break through the barricades, and soldiers began firing at protestors with live ammunition.

By dawn, scores lay dead, and officials began clearing the square. Angered by what they saw, citizens would push their way forward towards the line of troops in one corner of the square. Again gunfire erupted, and more citizens were cut down by their own troops.

Officials would declare the operation a success, but government-run Pekimg Radio English language service would announce defiantly that thousands had been killed in a barbarous suppression of the people, calling it a gross violation of basic human rights.

5 June, 1989

Tank Man

The images that flashed across our T.V. screens that day would be among the most iconic of that generation, and would provide the most famous images to come from the ordeal in Beijing. A solitary man, armed only with what looks to be a bag, places himself squarely in front of an advancing column of tanks.

Viewers around the world watched in awe as the unknown figure, known only as Tank Man, positioned himself in front of the advancing tanks, halting their progress. When they tried moving around him, he moved back in front of them again in one of the most heroic acts of defiance ever captured on video.

Eventually, a figure runs toward the man from off screen, dragging him to safety. Their fate is not known.

9 June, 1989

Deng Xiaoping appeared on T.V. a few days later, praising the military officers who had crushed the counter-revolutionary riot. There is little doubt that China’s senior leader ordered the brutal crackdown which resulted in an untold number of deaths, though the number is thought to be in the thousands.

Path to the current day

China would continue on with the economic reforms that have made it the powerhouse it is today. The Chinese Communist Party will likely never allow for the democratic reforms sought by the students thirty years ago. It is content to reap the economic benefits of capitalism while embracing brutal and dictatorial governance.

While overall wealth in China has greatly increased and a new emerging middle-class has begun ti appear, what continues to remain is the poverty, unemployment, and human rights abuses of thirty years ago. This is not something that China is willing to admit.

The Chinese goverment is trying it’s damnedest to erase the events of thirty years ago from history. It can try to hide the truth from its own citizens all it wants, but we will never let them forget. It’s still an evil regime, only now it has money.

D.B.

Timeline: Tiananmen protests

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-27404764

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