Tian’anmen Square protests, 25 years on

Tank Man

The iconic image of Tian’anmen 1989

JISHOU, HUNAN — In the spring of 1989, hundreds of thousands of Chinese university students, intellectuals and other citizens occupied Tian’anmen Square in Beijing, demanding greater civil rights and social freedom to parallel China’s new free-market economic policies.

The protests ended in bloody clashes between protesters, police and the army on June 4, leaving 2,600 dead and 2,000 injured, according to Red Cross estimates. In addition. 400 soldiers went missing. Other organizations have higher casualty estimates, and as high as 5,000 dead.

In any event, it was one of the bloodiest events in recent Chinese history, and a protest movement that has yet to be repeated.

Officially, the protests and the crackdown allegedly authorized by then-Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping 邓小平 never happened. China’s history books and the national history museum say nothing about the Tian’anmen protests, and if they do, no mention is made of the thousands of casualties. The government’s censors have blocked Internet searches of the event, and even the date. Searching Wikipedia’s English and Chinese sites will get you nowhere. (I used the Spanish site to check my facts. You Anglophiles can use the English site if you prefer — if you’re outside mainland China.)

In the last few weeks, I’ve noticed that it’s become harder to access Google’s services, including Gmail. Whether the slowdown has something to do with the June 4 anniversary, I can’t say for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Great Firewall of China were deliberately throttling Google’s traffic.

Deng Xiaoping is widely admired in China for his “opening up” policy of the 1970s and ’80s, which allowed the formerly insular China to become an important player on the world stage. But he’s also quietly suspected to have given the orders to stamp out the protests.

China’s revolutionary leader, Mao Zedong, died in 1976. By that time, US President Richard Nixon had paid his historic visit to “Red China” and “ping pong” diplomacy had warmed relations between the two former Cold War enemies. Mao’s death led to a power struggle within the nation’s leadership. While Deng Xiaoping never became premier or supreme leader of China, from 1978 to 1992 he was the most influential member of the leadership.

Under Deng’s reformist leadership, China abandoned the centralized economy of the Soviet Union and adopted a more capitalistic model — “socialism with Chinese characteristics” — that allowed its citizens more economic freedom and foreigners more opportunities to invest in China.

China GDP 1952-2005

Note the growth in China’s GDP after the “opening up”

By 1989 China’s economy was improving, its people better fed than before, and it was well on the way to become influential in the world economy.

Meanwhile, the former Soviet Union was loosening restrictions on civil rights with Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost. Many in China wanted the same kind of liberalization. Now that Chinese had the freedom to make money on their own, they also wanted freedom of the press, free speech and free assembly, and a more open and transparent form of government.

Students in Beijing’s top universities were the instigators of the protests that began in April of 1989, mostly in the capital but also in other cities like Chongqing. The students were joined by intellectuals, workers and other disaffected citizens, and by May about 100,000 protesters had occupied Tian’anmen Square. Food and water were supplied by local citizens, as well as the protesters friends and family.

Although there were members of the government who were sympathetic to the protests, demands to meet with top leaders of the country failed. The protests intensified, alarming hardliners in the leadership of the Communist Party.

It’s important to note here that the residences of the nation’s leaders are fairly close to Tian’anmen Square. The main political offices are adjacent to the Square, as is Mao’s memorial and the Forbidden City.

Martial law was declared on May 20 –against the advice of several retired generals in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) — but Beijing residents prevented the army from entering the city. After a temporary pullback of forces, a much larger military force –200,000 soldiers from five PLA districts — converged on Beijing from all sides. A full scale assault on the protesters began on June 3.

The assault ended the next day. Students were escorted back to their campuses, or walked there on their own, and the army pulled out during June 5-7. It was during the pullout that a lone protester walked in front of a convoy of tanks, stopping them temporarily, to be known ever since as “Tank Man.”

Many army soldiers and officers — estimates are about 3,500 — disobeyed orders to fire on the students, and were later punished or discharged from service. There were some reports that they were executed for insubordination, but there is no definite proof of it. Government leaders who were sympathetic to the Tian’anmen protesters were also purged, and there was a general reshuffling of leadership in both the military and government.

Deng appeared publicly in June 9 to denounce the protesters as “counter-revolutionaries” bent on overthrowing the government and to praise the army for its heroic efforts to quell the insurrection. He also honored the soldiers who had died in the conflicts.

Martial law was not lifted until January 1990, more than six months after the protest was put down.

Incidentally, one important figure in the Tian’anmen protests was Liu XiaoBo ((刘晓波), who won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, much to the consternation of the Chinese government. Liu has been in prison since 2009, serving an 11-year sentence for “subversion.” He is one of the authors of Charter ’08, a manifesto demanding that the government obey the nation’s constitutional protections of free speech and free press, and that China become more democratic.
For more information (a lot more!), Shanghaiist.com has published a collection of links about the Tian’anmen protests of 1989.

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