Tiananmen Square massacre: 20 years on

Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre that ended the student revolt and the fragile Chinese experiments with democracy in the 1980s. The event will be studiously ignored in China which makes it more important the subject gets an airing elsewhere in the world. Yesterday I looked at how China used the media to control the message it wanted to get out to deny the massacre ever took place. Today I look at the events of 4 June 1989.

The massacre was the culmination of a 50 day long stand off between the government and demonstrators from 15 April to 4 June 1989. The cause of the protests was the death of Hu Yaobang on on 15 April. Hu was a youth icon and a former General-Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party dismissed in 1987 for sympathy with the growing student democracy movement. Hu was well respected as a party liberal and model reformist. Some said he died of a “broken heart”. His death ignited student anger and frustration at the lack of progress, beginning at Beijing University and spreading to the streets. Tiananmen Square was an obvious fulcrum for the protest. It is the largest plaza in central Beijing and named for Tian’anmen the “Gate of Heavenly Peace“, the entrance to the Forbidden City. It was also a significant landmark in Chinese history. In the 36-hectare square stood the massive monument to China’s revolutionary martyrs – the Monument to the People’s Heroes – and also the mausoleum containing the embalmed remains of Mao Zedong. It was here 40 years earlier Mao had proclaimed the People’s Republic and it was here also where students gathered in 1976 to protest the decision to end the mourning of popular Premier Zhou Enlai who died earlier that year. Thirteen years later, the students were back joined by hundreds of thousands of professors, writers, journalists, workers, city residents and government employees. Marchers laid white flowers mourning Hu’s death. Each march was large than the last. Many protesters went on hunger strike as momentum grew. More than a million demonstrated in Beijing and thousands more in other cities openly challenging CCP rule and demanding political reform to go with the economic reform. At the end of May, a ten-metre tall replica of the Statue of Liberty appeared in the Square near the defaced portrait of Mao.

Sensing a serious power threat, Deng Xiaoping adopted a hard-line attitude. On 26 April, the party mouthpiece The People’s Daily condemned the marches and branded them “turmoil”. The students’ responded on a placard, ‘Pleading on behalf of the people is absolutely not turmoil’. A week later, the party imposed martial law. Students and residents commandeered 270 buses for barricades to keep the army out. By the middle of May students were arriving from all over China to join the protest. The Party had to cancel a ceremonial welcome for Mikhail Gorbachev in the grandeur of the Great Hall overlooking the square. At Beijing University posters compared Deng Xiaoping, the party’s de facto leader, to the hated Dowager Empress.

On 31 May the government made the first arrests. The 11 people detained were leaders of a motorcycle club that played an important role in the demonstrations. Several hundred motorcyclists had become one of the most vivid features of the protests, screeching around the city. According to the official New China News Agency the 11 had been arrested for “disturbing the public order” and the motorcycle club was disbanded.

According to the New York Times on 5 June, the two month long demonstration was crushed the day when the government decided “to teach the students a bloody lesson”. On 2 June Communist Party elders approved the decision to put down the “counter-revolutionary riot” by force. Some 150,000 troops with tanks and machineguns were in the city facing 5,000 students in the square.

Age writer Peter Ellingsen was a Tiananmen eye-witness. Watching the marches he said it felt like someone had pulled the cork out of the bottle. The genie of democracy was loose but after seven weeks the army was about to destroy the cork, bottle and all. He saw the fighting on the night of the 4th: “On top of the tanks, soldiers in full battle gear fired into the shadows. The noise was deafening. I heard the flat thud of people being hit before I saw them fall. The tanks rolled over bodies in their way. One young man was squashed into the bitumen; his organs fanned out around his corpse.”

By 2am, hundreds were dead. The troops and tanks had massed on the northern apron of the square and rolled over the tent city of three thousand unarmed student protestors. The soldiers kept firing, hitting those standing even well away from the square. Student leaders urged their followers to flee while they could. Many walked out singing the national anthem; others were killed where they stood. No-one knows the full death tally, it may be in the thousands. According to the government, 300 soldiers and “law-breaking criminals” died.

By the morning of the 5th, the army had regained control of the square leaving only the memory of the anonymous act of defiance by the “tank man of Tiananmen”. A British tabloid named him as Wang Weilin aged 19, but nobody knows for sure. His fate was a mystery but his bailing up of 17 tanks while carrying his shopping became history.

An incensed Hong Kong built a Pillar of Shame to mourn the victims. China blithely moved on. As James Fallows wrote last week, Tiananmen is a lost memory. Chinese history students can recite chapter and verse of the Japanese cruelties in China from the 1930s onwards but most will not have any idea what happened on 4 June 1989. This is the ultimate success of the Chinese government in repressing the memory. “For a minority of people in China, the upcoming date of June 4 has tremendous significance,” said Fallows. “For most young people, it’s just another day.”

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