Thursday, February 22, 2024

Revisiting the Tiananmen Square Protests

Washington, DC – The Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 offered a glimpse into the violent nature of Chinese politics under the Communist Party of China (CPC). From a historical and contemporary perspective, the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 should remind the world of the ruthless nature of Chinese polity under the CPC. As the world commemorates the 32nd anniversary of the incident, recalling the powerful imagery of the tank man and scores of people who lost their lives, it is important to flag the new normal that China is the rising power and is out to claim its position on the global stage. While the world’s attention focuses on the atrocities and severe violations of international law by the Russian aggressors in Ukraine, it is critical not to forget China’s continued suppression of human rights. 

The prominent actors on the political map were Deng Xiaoping at the core, while other leaders, including the Elders, Li Peng, Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang, and later Jiang Zemin, also played an important role. Intra-party elite rivalry for power and ideological contestation provides one indication of how the CPC responded to the protest movement. The other factor underpinning the protests was the worsening political and economic situation, characterized by runaway inflation, credit crunch, and corruption. All these factors undoubtedly contributed to the widespread unrest.  

The conventional narrative portrays the protest movement as a bid for democratization. However, as Vijay Gokhale, India’s former Foreign Secretary, aptly recalls in his book on the subject, “the students’ concerns were overwhelmingly limited to their grievances,” which mainly related to better job and education opportunities, the problem of elitism, and the demand for some personal freedom. The death of Hu Yaobang, former General Secretary, provided the incendiary spark as students spontaneously gathered to mourn the leader. Tens of thousands gathered on the day of Hu’s funeral, calling for greater freedom of speech and less censorship. Zhao Ziyang and his supporters favored negotiations to defuse the protests. But the hard-liners prevailed and pushed Zhao from power. In the following weeks, protesters gathered in Tiananmen Square, with numbers estimated to be up to one million. 

The transition of widespread protests into an anti-Party movement was rapid when on 26 April 1989, the Peoples Daily published an editorial labeling the students as counter-revolutionary elements fomenting turmoil. Press freedom formed a crucial plank of the protest. For instance, many media people were among the citizens marching alongside students against press censorship, as evident in the suppression of the liberal newspaper World Economic Herald

On 13 May, hundreds of student protesters went on hunger strike to push for talks with CPC leaders. It is estimated that one million people joined the protests in Beijing to express their support for the students on hunger strike and demand reform. On 3 June, the Chinese leadership sent in regular troops to enforce martial law, which had already been imposed but was being disobeyed by local citizens. 

A Uyghur, a Hui and a Kazakh protesting in Beijing -May 1989.

What transpired on the midnight of 3-4 June when the Square was forcibly vacated has remained a matter of speculation. On 5 June, a man faced down a line of tanks heading away from the Square. He was carrying two shopping bags and was filmed walking to block the tanks from moving past. At the end of June 1989, the Chinese government said 200 civilians and several dozen security personnel had died. In 2017, newly released UK documents revealed that a diplomatic cable from the then UK Ambassador to China, Sir Alan Donald, had said that 10,000 had died. As time passed, it became clear that Deng Xiaoping was in complete control, and all moderate forces had been side-lined. Officials like Hu Qili and Yan Mingfu, who had backed Zhao Ziyang’s more moderate policies, turned on him, often criticizing him for poor leadership.

Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Wang Jiaxiang.

The narrative can be partially reconstructed based on declassified documents from the US State Department. The US Embassy sent regular cables from Beijing (almost daily) on the incident. The 3 June cable notes that troops, using automatic weapons, had advanced its tanks, Armored Personnel Carriers (APC), and trucks from several directions towards Tiananmen Square. The cable also reports that the American Embassy believed that the 50-70 deaths reported in the foreign media were probably much too low and notes that several American reporters “were severely beaten by Chinese troops on Tiananmen Square.” The US Secretary of State’s intelligence summary for 4 June reports that “deaths from the military assault on Tiananmen Square range from 180 to 500; thousands more have been injured.” It also describes how “thousands of civilians stood their ground or swarmed around military vehicles. APCs were set on fire, and demonstrators besieged troops with rocks, bottles, and Molotov cocktails.” 

The Chinese government sent armed troops and hundreds of armored military vehicles to enforce martial law and forcibly clear the streets of demonstrators. The objective was to ‘restore order’ in the capital. Eyewitnesses recall that as troops approached the demonstrators, they opened fire without warning. As the troops kept firing, some of those running away were shot in the back. Others were crushed to death by military vehicles. The Tiananmen Square massacre remains taboo in China and attempts to discuss, commemorate, and demand justice are not permitted. Since 1989 many people have also been imprisoned for commemorating events or questioning the official line. 

The Tiananmen Square 1989 massacre was a turning point in China’s history, just as the COVID-19 pandemic is turning out to be. Also, strangely, just as Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign provided him the means to consolidate power absolutely, Deng Xiaoping used the 1989 events to gain control over the party. In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic in China in 2020, it appeared momentarily as though Xi Jinping was not in control. As a true CPC member and leader, Xi’s important lessons from the 1989 events are “Eliminate enemies, keep party elders at bay and never become Zhao Ziyang.” The CPC dislikes uncertainty and prefers complete control to ensure the stability of the party. Anything that creates ripples across the Chinese lake is seen as distortion and immediately put down. The world needs to recall Tiananmen for precisely this purpose. The current developments in Ukraine should not take global attention away from the long-term goal of China as the next superpower.  

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