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Tiananmen Square Massacre - 1989

The Tiananmen Square protests came as the culmination of almost a decade of reform, protests, and reactionary politics. Following the death of Mao Zedong the new Chinese leadership began to embark on a process of reforms and economic development that began to accelerate in the early 1980s. Politically this meant that Mao's Cultural Revolution was officially declared a catastrophe and the reformist Zhao Ziyang was installed as premier in 1980 and the even more reformist Hu Yaobang was installed as General Secretary of the Party in 1981. The reforms greatly improved the standard of living and culture also began to flourish as well.

But with the reforms came added protests and political dissent as people took advantage of the relaxed environment to push for even greater reforms. At the same time, party elders began to fear that scope and pace of reforms was too great and putting the communist system in jeopardy. Hu Yaobang became the scapegoat by the party elders and was forced to resign as General Secretary and was replaced by Zhao Ziyang. Li Peng, a former Vice Premier, became Premier. This only furthered the attack on Zhao Ziyang's reform program, and when he called to accelerate his price reform program he drew complaints about inflation and a desire to return to a more centralized economic system.

Former party leader Hu Yaobang’s sudden death on 15 April 1989, and the student demonstrations that began two days later, caught the regime unprepared. While it apparently had expected demonstrations around the 70th anniversary of the 4 May Movement, Hu’s death and the unexpectedly large size and rapid growth of the demonstrations that followed kept the regime off-balance and led to mis-judgments throughout the crisis. The students, also, were probably surprised by the turnout, but moved more quickly. Their early successes in the face of leadership indecisiveness heightened the students’ sense of power.

The Tiananmen Square Movement ("Tiananmen" means "heavenly peace") began calmly in May of 1989. Students camped in the Square, calling for more say in government as well as more freedoms to express themselves individually. They held demonstrations, sit-ins and hunger strikes. The protest was a massive camp-out in the Square to mourn the reformer Hu Yaobang, and to protest the stagnation of reforms, call for increased democracy and increased liberalization within the Chinese Communist Party. The protestors erected a giant "Goddess of Democracy" statue as they were cheered on by the police. Also of note is that the protests were carried on live TV across the world. The protests began to grow despite government efforts to contain them and even spread to many other cities including Shanghai, Chengdu, and Guangzhou.

Zhao Ziyang appeared to believe that he could exploit the demonstrations and halt the conservative inroads on his refonn programs. lt appears almost as though he was willing to stoke the ?res of discontent in order to regain the political advantage. From the outset of the crisis in mid-April, Zhao consistently set himself apart from the hardliners.

Chinese leadership decisions leading up to the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations and the subsequent purge by Deng Xiaoping and other party hardliners of the demonstrators‘ supporters appear to have gone through four major phases:

  1. From 15 to 26 April, the regime tried intimidation, making statements and publishing editorials that were so provocative, they fueled rather than cooled the demonstrations.
  2. From 26 April to 20 May, then party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang tried to soften the regime‘s tactics, causing an irreparable split between Zhao and the hardliners. Zhao compounded his errors by going outsidethe party. Zhao and his supporters — once they realized that they could notalter the hard line decided upon on 24 April — tried to use the crowd to intimidate Zhao‘s opponents within the party and leadership. Zhao’s efforts to change the policy — and the participation of his supporters in the demonstrations — probabIy contributed to the euphoria of the students, encouraging their intractability and eventually deepening the disillusionment and resentment against the regime.
  3. The hardliners regained control over decisionmaking in the third phase, 20 May through 4 June, which culminated in the bloody-crackdown on Tiananmen Square. Martial law was declared on May 20 and the army was brought into Beijing on June 3 and 4. The regime underestimated the depth of feeling against it and the staying power of the demonstrators, underscoring the degree to which it was out of touch with the population. The regime, faced with the unwillingness of units from the 38th Group Army to press through the crowds blocking its progress toward Tiananmen Square, redoubled its efforts to keep the military in line. Deng‘s trip to Wuhan on 22 May probably had that goal - as well as ensuring the military's alleigiance to him personally. The protests came during the middle of a Sino-Soviet summit meeting and was incredibly embarrassing for the Chinese communists there, and there is also some speculation that they were frightened by the earlier events in Romania, where protests had dissolved into extremely bloody street fighting that ultimately led to the overthrow of the communist regime and the execution of Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu.
  4. Finally, beginning on 5 June the hardliners turned their attention to consolidating power and removing potential threats to their control. On June 4th when 30-40,000 protesters had gathered in the Square, Deng Xiaoping sent in his army. The PLA used armed force to eliminate the protestors, possibly killing hundreds or even thousands. Thousands of protesters were beaten, hundreds were shot, and a few individuals were horribly flattened by armored tanks. Reports mentioned the army firing into the crowd indiscriminately, sometimes even killing their own soldiers if they happened to be in the way. The protestors responded by surrounding military vehicles, burning APCs, and attacking the soldiers with rocks and Molotov cocktails. The attacks did not stop until the protests were completely eliminated, and the protesters were detained and kept for political "reeducation," along with many party members and government officials. After the protests were broken up the army remained in Beijing for several days afterward. There were reports of limited fighting within the PLA, with the 27th Army being ready for attack by other PLA units on June 5 (The 27th Army was the one blamed for the worst killing).

On the basis of leadership statements and press reporting during these four phases, Deng Xiaoping probably approved of and directed the entire crackdown. He signed the order sending the troops into Tiananmen Squareon 3-4 June; he brought back the old guard when the party Standing Committee faltered; and he personally dealt with the military. Deng was clearly worried that the demonstrators would lead China toward anarchy. He witnessed the crowds in the square, knowing that demonstrations had spread to cities throughout China and were increasingly supported by workers and party and government o?icials. When the crowds began sporting signs calling for his dismissal, the independent student and worker unions grew in size and aggressiveness, and his protege Zhao broke with the leadership and made his pitch for the crowd’s support, Deng clearly believed that Communist Party rule was in jeopardy.

As in previous Chinese political crises, the formal channels failed. In intraparty disputes where the divisions are too deep to permit a compromise — in both Mao’s struggle against the party apparatus in 1966 and Deng’s ouster of the Maoist faction in 1978-79, for example — one side tries to move the dispute outside the inner circle once it realizes that it cannot win party approval. These actions invariably undermine the party‘s imageof unity and counteract its attempts to portray itself as infallible.

When Deng and the Communist Party proceeded with a relentless witch hunt for the remaining leaders, hundreds more were imprisoned. A Chinese government report listed 300 deaths and 8,000 serious injuries - but much of the world feared that these "low" numbers were not accurate. In the end, the Chinese government claimed that the death toll was approximately 200, but the Chinese Red Cross reported 2,000 to 3,000 deaths. Amnesty International had records of over 200 people who were still imprisoned in 2001, twelve years later, for their involvement in Tiananmen Square demonstrations. Leading reformist and former Chinese Communist Party Secretary General, Zhao Ziyang, died under house arrest in China on January 17, 2005, at the age of 85.

The international community reacted very strongly to the events in Tiananmen Square, almost universally condemning the repression. The uprising and subsequent repression gave the conservatives within the Communist Party a resurgence until reform picked up once again, this time led by Deng Xiaoping, calling for a more market oriented economy adding more young reform-minded leaders to top positions.

In December 2017, a newly released British diplomatic cable claimed that at least 10,000 people were killed by the Chinese army during the Tiananmen Square crackdown. The estimate was 10 times higher than commonly accepted figures. The secret diplomatic cable seen by the AFP news agency at Britain's National Archives gave gruesome details of the 1989 Chinese army clampdown on pro-democracy protesters. "Minimum estimate of civilian dead 10,000," the British ambassador at the time, Alan Donald, said in a telegram to London on June 5, 1989, a day after the violent suppression.

Once the Chinese soldiers arrived in Tiananmen Square, "students understood they were given one hour to leave square but after five minutes APCs attacked," Donald wrote. "Students linked arms but were mown down including soldiers. APCs then ran over bodies time and time again to make 'pie' and remains collected by bulldozer. Remains incinerated and then hosed down drains.... Four wounded girl students begged for their lives but were bayoneted," Donald said, adding: "Army ambulances who attempted to give aid were shot up." Beijing claims some 200 civilians and several dozen police and military personnel were killed during the crackdown.

On the 30th anniversary of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square massacre, the government made an array of efforts to block all public mention of that historical event, not just in China but even in other countries. Within the country the government preemptively targeted potential critics, including elderly parents of the massacre victims, jailing them or temporarily removing them from major cities. Online censorship increased, with government censors aggressively blocking even indirect references and images from all online platforms, including, for example, an image of books lined up facing a cigarette packet in a pattern invoking the famous video of a man facing down tanks on a Beijing street. The CNN website, normally accessible in the country, was blocked on 04 June 2019, and officials broke up a live CNN newscast in Beijing on June 4 by rushing between a news reporter and cameraman as they were broadcasting, demanding CNN staff stop reporting. Other international media outlets faced increased monitoring and detentions for reporting focused on the anniversary, including one reporter who was detained for six hours. Censors at domestic internet companies said tools to detect and block content related to the 1989 crackdown reached unprecedented levels of accuracy, aided by machine learning as well as voice and image recognition.

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Page last modified: 30-06-2021 11:38:44 ZULU