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Tiananmen Square Twenty Years On

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From TP

John Horvath


Although most refer to the protests in China as part of a student movement for freedom and democracy, in actual fact there were many other sectors of civil society also airing their grievances

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the 1989 student movement which ended with a bloody crackdown in Beijing on June 4th. Indubitably, this event was an important piece of world history much like the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, the Prague Spring in 1968, or the Solidarity Movement in Poland during the 1980s. As in Budapest, Prague, and Warsaw, attention in China twenty years ago primarily focused on what was happening in the capital. Although Beijing inevitably became the epicenter of a movement for social and political change, large scale demonstrations also happened in many other cities as well, not to mention the countryside.


No one can cover up historical facts forever, and the truth will eventually reveal itself.

– Zhu Rongji, Mayor of Shanghai (June 8, 1989)

Regrettably, as with the former communist states of Central and Eastern Europe, this aspect to the events of 20 years ago in China has been quickly forgotten or simply overlooked. Instead, the [extern] image of tanks rumbling down to Tiananmen Square is what people remember most of those days. But even the burning images of Tiananmen Square seem to have become gradually tucked away in the minds of many as globalization makes those events seem somehow remote.

And yet, the government and many of the officials responsible for the bloody crackdown in Beijing and the rest of China are still in power. Now that they have learned to walk on two legs (as Orwell prophetically noted in his novel Animal Farm), countries which supposedly champion the ideals of freedom, justice, and equality have simply turned their heads and looked the other way. As one observer [extern] lamented:

Twenty years later, the haunting bright color of June 4th massacre [sic] has faded. The new found prosperity in China masks all the pain. The person who ordered the massacre of the unarmed students has long been defined as a Great Man. No one is allowed to speak about it.

Yet some take issue with this, claiming that a massacre at Tiananmen Square never even took place. According to [extern] Jay Mathews, a former Washington Post bureau chief in Beijing, “as far as can be determined from the available evidence, no one died that night in Tiananmen Square.” While admitting that there was chaos and confusion that night, he maintains that many of those who died that night were killed outside the square and were victims of a mass riot as opposed to a military crackdown. Mathews concludes:

Journalists have to be precise about where it happened and who were its victims [sic], or readers and viewers will never be able to understand what it meant.

A similar point of view is taken by Gregory Clark, an economist and professor of economics at the University of California, Davis. In an Op-Ed entitled [extern] Birth of a massacre myth, written last year just before the Beijing Olympics, Clark maintains that not only was the Tiananmen Square Massacre a myth, but that the students themselves were mostly responsible for what had happened.

If indeed what happened at Tiananmen Square is a myth as Matthews and Clark claim, then this wouldn’t be the first time that such elaborate propaganda was used in order to manipulate our understanding of current affairs. During the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989, for instance, rumors began to circulate that a 20-year-old student called Martin Smid had been beaten to death by riot police during a demonstration. While these reports were disputed by the government, thousands of people took to the streets in protest at the killing and a memorial was even erected in his honor. As it later turned out, Martin Smid didn’t exist; instead, he was a secret police agent named Ludvík Zifcak who was at the demonstration and lay on the street, pretending as if he were dead.

Along these lines, there has been much debate as to what exactly happened that night in Tiananmen Square, with suggestions that the western media (in collusion with the CIA and/or NSA) was responsible for creating and spreading the myth of a massacre. Some who were at the scene likewise question what really happened at Tiananmen Square that night. Hou Dejian, a singer-songwriter from Taiwan who was in Beijing 20 years ago, [extern] notes:

Some people said that two hundred died in the Square and others claimed that two thousand died. There were also stories of tanks running over students who were trying to leave. I have to say that I did not see any of that.

Another person, who was a student at the time and took part in some of the demonstrations, [extern] recalls:

At the beginning it was all about anger towards the CCP [Chinese Communist Party]. Then gradually there was some doubt kicked in about what exactly happen on 4 June. I started to question the ‘tens of thousands students killed’ story line. […] I expanded my search to other universities and colleges in Tianjin through my high school ties but only managed to meet one student who was on the square that night. According to him the students moved out of the square before the PLA moved in […]. My classmates and I had not been able to locate one single student who was killed, injured, or witnessed the killing on that day.

Without a doubt, the question of whether students were actually shot in the square or in other areas of Beijing as well as the precise number of those killed, whether a few dozen or a few thousand, remains a moot point. It can’t be denied, however, that there was the sound of gunfire coming from in and around the square for several hours. Also, many were taken to hospital that night with gunshot wounds. In the end, the fact that soldiers with live ammunition were used to clear the square and the surrounding area is more of an issue than agreeing on the precise number of those killed or wounded, who they were, and where they were shot. As Joseph Stalin once cynically noted, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”

The brutality of such government action, which is akin to state terrorism, is an issue not limited to China or the past, but is one that even Europe has trouble dealing with in the present. Hence, the bloody police crackdown in Budapest in 2006 was not only an uncomfortable event for the Hungarian authorities to deal with, but was also uncomfortable for EU leaders as well – even though no-one was actually killed (but several were severely wounded). Consequently, the Hungarian government and the EU dealt with the problem in the same way that China has dealt with what happened in Tiananmen Square – total silence, in the hope that the incident would somehow fade away and disappear from view altogether.

Return of the the desire for change?

Although it seems much of what happened in China 20 years ago may have become muddled and buried with the onset of time, it nonetheless can never be completely forgotten. In fact, the current financial crisis may have actually rekindled interest into the events of 1989. This is because the social and economic conditions of the present are very much similar to those of the past. Corruption, inflation, and the gross imbalance in the distribution of wealth ultimately led to the eruption of the student movement in spring 1989, for which the death of Hu Yaobang acted as catalyst.

Ironically, these very same conditions appear to be resurgent not only in China but within the countries of Central and Eastern Europe as well. The historiography of the two is likewise very similar. One of the main reasons that the communist regimes within Central and Eastern Europe were thrown out onto the trash heap of history was because of the dire economic situation faced by the individual countries of the East Bloc. Some kind of change was inevitable and many of the communist leaders of the time were astute enough to see the writing on the wall. Some were not, such as Ceausescu in Romania; as a result, he paid the ultimate price for his dogmatism.

Subsequently, it appears that the countries of Central and Eastern Europe – like China – have come full circle. Once again economic issues have pushed the desire for change to the fore. The only difference between then and now is that there is no quick and easy replacement for capitalism as there was for communism. Also, many of the political leaders within Central and Eastern European don’t appear willing to notice the writing on the wall. Indeed some of them, having already once changed from communism to capitalism, are not to keen on having to undergo another change again.

The exact same process can be said to have been happening in China recently. Thus, the government is more concerned now than ever before to make sure that the events of 1989 remain buried in the past. In many respects, for the past couple of years the government has undertaken a form of low-intensity warfare against a large segment of the population in order to push forward its neo-liberalist agenda. Greed and corruption combined with frenzied economic growth has uprooted many. Battles between the authorities and displaced farmers and peasants are commonplace in China, yet the western corporate media, together with the Chinese authorities, keep such news from the wider public, preferring instead to portray China as a modernizing economic superpower.

Aside from the lack of an easy replacement for capitalism, another reason why revolutionary change hasn’t yet broken out in China (or Central and Eastern Europe, for that matter) is that there isn’t a charismatic figure upon which this ferment and rebellion can cling to. It’s another story altogether whether such a figure would be capable of controlling the events unleashed.

In 1989, however, such figures did exist. The most prominent of them all was Mikhail Gorbachev of the now defunct Soviet Union. Many question his wisdom and ability in controlling the chain of events that his ascension to power in the 1980s caused. Nevertheless, his personality was enough to nudge events forward. A case in point was with the regime of Eric Hoenecker in East Germany. Upon visiting the communist state to mark the 40th anniversary of its founding, crowds chanting “Gorbi help us” was enough the shake the regime to its foundation.

Although he was admired in the West, the problem with Gorbachev was that he was in little control of events which were attached to his name. The same held true in Hungary during the 1956 revolution with its so-called “leader” Imre Nagy. Like Gorbachev, Nagy was thrust center-sage into a situation that was very fluid. In the case of Nagy, he actually was pulled and pushed along with the tide of events. His actual influence on the course of events, therefore, was minimal to say the least. Nevertheless, people needed an image to cling to, and his was the only one around at the time.

This vey same process can be said to have happened in China in 1989, both in the person of Gorbachev and Hu Yaobang, the former general secretary of Chinese Communist Party who died of a sudden heart attack on April 15th, 1989. It was the death of the latter which had sparked the turn of events that ultimately led to the bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. While Yaobang’s death provided the spark which started the ball rolling, it was the visit of Gorbachev which had quickened the pace somewhat. His was the first visit by a Soviet leader to China in three decades. It was a historical event, and over a thousand reporters from all around the world were going to Beijing to cover it. Thus, it was the best opportunity to attract international attention to the student cause.

Although most refer to the protests and rallies in China as part of a student movement for freedom and democracy, in actual fact there were many other sectors of civil society also airing their grievances. As one demonstrator [extern] recounts:

There were factory workers [that] demanded better pay and work conditions. Restaurant workers protested against luxurious dinner parties paid by public funds. Workers from Beijing Steel protested in support of the students… It was spectacular and exciting.

There appears to be some dispute, however, about the student movement in and of itself. Some challenge the assumption of overwhelming public support for the students, pointing out that many derided the student protests as merely another cultural revolution of sorts. Others pointed to the disorganized nature of the student protests; although student leaders were calling for democracy and an end of corruption, the way in which they viewed and conducted themselves was very much elitist and seemed to run against the very ideals they were supposedly demonstrating for.

June 4th, 1989 was a tragedy for China

Yet, as with any type of revolution or mass uprising, there is bound to be a certain amount of chaos and not everything can be expected to run like a clockwork orange. Not only this, although much has been made of the bloody crackdown and the events leading up to it, what is often overlooked is that for several weeks demonstrations throughout China were relatively peaceful. Philip J Cunningham, in an article entitled [extern] The Forgotten Meaning of Tiananmen, attempts emphasize this aspect. He underlines the fact that the authorities contributed much to the upbeat atmosphere at the beginning through the restraint they initially showed. Thus, when remembering the events in China some 20 years ago Cunningham feels that what is of more significance is what happened in the weeks prior to the crackdown at Tiananmen Square and not so much the tragedy of June 4th, 1989.

While there is no doubt that the spirit which prevailed in the first few weeks of the demonstrations and protests are something which should be savored, Cunningham’s idea of how the government showed “restraint” during this period is open to debate. Indeed, inaction by the authorities is not necessarily an instance of so-called “restraint”. Rather, it reveals the internal disagreement within the ruling elite of how to best handle the situation. Furthermore, Gorbachev was then set to arrive soon and Beijing was filled with foreign reporters, so the government had its reputation to think of.

In the end, aside from all the disagreements of whether the bloody crackdown in and around Tiananmen Square was a massacre or not, how many were killed and wounded, who were the real victims and perpetrators, and where exactly atrocities took place, one thing is for certain: June 4th, 1989 was a tragedy for China, and the events of 20 years ago should never be forgotten. As one person aptly [extern] summed up:

Iin the end, it was simply a case of an immature government using immature suppression tactics against immature students. It could have been no big deal if rubber bullets and high pressure water canons were used instead of [the guns and tanks].

Then again, considering the lethal way in which the Hungarian police used rubber bullets and high pressure water canons to put down demonstrations in Budapest on October 23, 2006, using “not so live” ammunition doesn’t guarantee that a police action will be “no big deal”. Instead, it’s ultimately a question of how much a government respects the people over whom they govern – and not rule.

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2 Responses to “Tiananmen Square Twenty Years On”

  1. Although tragic, it must be defined in all accuracy as a “counter-revolution”, in that it sought to restore capitalism along the lines espoused by Gorbachov and Reagan. The model of the Statue of Liberty put up in the Square is not coincidental. Big hyperthetical: would the average Chinese citizen be better off now if it had succeeded?

    • Most probably not…but I believe in “ad hoc” systems. The question is, is capitalism a good system? And the following one is, is capitalism the best system for China?

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