Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre that ended the student revolt and the 1980s fragile Chinese experiments with democracy. The event will be studiously ignored in China which makes it all the more important the subject gets a good 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 want to look at the events of 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 proximate cause of the protests was the death of Hu Yaobang on 15 April. Hu was a youth icon and a former General-Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party dismissed in 1987 due to his sympathy for the growing student democracy movement. Hu was well respected as a party liberal and reformist. Some said he died of a “broken heart”. Whatever the cause, his death ignited student anger and frustration at the lack of progress. The anger began at Beijing University and spread to the streets.
Tiananmen Square was an obvious fulcrum for the protest. It is the largest plaza in central Beijing and got its name from the 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 where students gathered in 1976 to protest the decision to end the mourning of popular Premier Zhou Enlai who died that year.
13 years later, the students were back to occupy the square and were joined by hundreds of thousands of professors, writers, journalists, workers, residents and government employees. The people were proclaiming a new version of the republic. In the square, marchers laid white flowers mourning the death of Hu Yaobang. Each march was larger than the last. Many went on hunger strike as momentum grew. More than a million demonstrated in Beijing and thousands more in dozens of other cities. All openly challenged CCP rule and demanded 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 threat to their power, Deng Xiaoping and the old guard adopted a hard-line attitude. On 26 April, 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. The party was forced to cancel a ceremonial welcome for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev planned for 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 of the protest. The 11 arrested were leaders of a motorcycle club that played an important role in the demonstrations. Several hundred bikers had become one of the most vivid features of the protests, screeching around the city. According to the official New China News Agency they were arrested for “disturbing the public order” and the motorcycle club was disbanded. It was an ominous precursor for what was to happen four days later.
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 fightback 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 3,000 unarmed student protestors and half a dozen hunger strikers. The soldiers kept firing, hitting those standing 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 the tank man as Wang Weilin, aged 19, but this is not verified. Nobody knows what happened to him. And yet his bailing up of seventeen tanks while carrying his shopping was captured forever as the iconic moment of Tiananmen.
But most of the story has been lost. 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 in Tiananmen Square 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.”