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Tiananmen Square Protests, 1989

On April 15, 1989 the Communist leader, Hu Yaobang, died. He had been a doctrinaire Marxist, but many students had seen him as free of greed and corruption. They respected Hu Yaobang for having possessed kindliness toward people in general. With Deng Xiaoping in mind, some of these students complained that the wrong Communist had died.

The Communist Party held a memorial service for Hu Yaobang at the Great Hall of the People at Tiananmen Square, and at the square over 100,000 students massed to join in the mourning. Three students, considering themselves representatives of the others, went to the steps of the Great Hall of the People on bended knee with a petition that they wished to hand-deliver to China's premier, Li Peng. They refused to give it to lesser officials who were willing to deliver the petition to Li Peng, so it remained undelivered. Later, with righteous indignation, they went before meetings of students and expressed outrage that Li Peng had not himself come out of the Great Hall of the People to accept their petition. The outraged students decided to do something about it. They decided to create a new, independent student organization, and they called for boycotting classes. They launched a movement they called "the Great Revolution for Democracy against Dictatorship."

Deng Xiaoping was outraged at what he saw as naïve, absolutist and arrogant youth similar to those who had risen during the Cultural Revolution. An article in the People's Daily inspired by Deng denounced the students for creating chaos. The students responded with more outrage, and the student movement's leaders handed the government a petition that demanded dialogue with the government. Believing in their supreme importance the students insisted that the dialogue had to begin the following day, May 3, otherwise they would take to the streets on May 4 – the anniversary of the great rising in 1919.

The students had their May 4 demonstrations, but nothing developed to their satisfaction. Society was ignoring them. On May 13, to dramatize their frustration, about 400 students began a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square. The hunger strikers demanded that the People's Daily criticism of the students be retracted. Meanwhile, groups of students had been moving through the city trying to rally support from the public and demonstrators had begun dramatizing their cause by disrupting traffic and releasing air from bus tires.

The hunger strike caused a great sensation. The number of hunger strikers grew. And a few intellectuals took advantage of the sensation to express their support for more democracy in China. Verbal attacks were made against Deng Xiaoping, including calling him China's "last emperor without a title." And more than a million people in Beijing were daily converging on Tiananmen Square.

The economy was growing at almost ten percent per year – a success. But prices had risen, and there were 1.1 million unemployed in Beijing.  The Communist Party was frightened by the prospect of workers linking themselves with the student protesters.  Rather than moving the Communist Party to reform as the students wished, Party officials were moving toward a harder stance against dissent, and support within the Party for reform was losing ground. The most prominent among the Party reformers, Zhao Ziyang, was on the verge of being demoted. On May 19, Zhao Ziyang moved the students in Tiananmen Square with a farewell address. Tears were in his eyes, and this impressed the students. Zhao Ziyang asked the students to stop their hunger strike. The students the hunger strike and resorted to the tactic that had been a part of the civil rights movement in the United States – a sit-in.

Expressing a harder line than that of Zhao Ziyang, Premier Li Peng made a speech that the students disliked, and 200,000 responded by resuming the hunger strike. That same day, May 20, the government declared martial law, and hundreds of thousands of people from Beijing began blocking intersections in the city to prevent the troops from attacking the students in Tiananmen Square. On May 23, over 10,000 intellectuals and about one million others marched in protest against martial law. it was impressive enough that the government hesitated and ordered the troops that it had sent to Beijing to withdraw.

The withdrawal of troops lessened tensions, and by May 29, the demonstration at Tiananmen Square was wearing down, as demonstrations do. Students who had emerged as leaders during the previous month had been urging their fellow students to end the hunger strikes, to return to their campuses and to continue their struggle for democracy through a more decentralized attempt at dialogue with the government. The majority of the students from Beijing left Tiananmen Square. They believed that they had made their point and they were putting their hopes in peaceful transitions and gradualist reforms.

Then on May 30, the demonstration in Tiananmen Square was revived by dissidents erecting a thirty-foot-high, plaster and styrofoam statue called "The Goddess of Democracy." New people were entering the demonstrations at Tiananmen Square, many from other cities, where demonstrations had also been occurring. At Tiananmen Square speakers denounced retreat as a betrayal of principle. They claimed that the government would never speak to them unless they maintained the kind of pressure that they were applying.

Many in China's countryside – where eighty percent of the population still lived – viewed the demonstrations with dismay or disfavor. Demonstrations of unrest and some organizing was taking place in various cities. The government had a choice of letting the demonstrations fade or of showing its opposition to disorder. It chose the latter. Deng Xiaoping was not about to tolerate more of the upheaval that had wrecked the Communist Party and China in the sixties. The army was coming.

Some at Tiananmen square were prepared for violence. Among them were groups with names such as the "Dare to Die" squad, the "Flying Tigers," "Warriors of Democracy" and there was the group with the appropriate name of "Children's Army Squad." A good number of the demonstrators ignored their inability to stand against the same army that had been used against the Red Guards.

These were new times in television coverage in China by the foreign press. The foreign press had missed the slaughter in March 1947, when Chiang Kai-shek's army killed from 8,000 to 10,000 people in Taiwan's capital, Taipei. The foreign press and television crews had missed the slaughter in Indonesia in 1965, when people died in the hundreds of thousands. But the foreign press was now present for the great spectacle at Beijing.

On May 31, pro-government demonstrations by soldiers and by peasants occurred in Beijing. On June 3, seasoned troops loyal to Deng Xiaoping, with tanks and armored personnel carriers, stood just outside town. Late that night they began rumbling through the city toward Tiananmen Square, forcing their way through barricades. They fired on a few people whom they saw as an actual physical threat – as armies are instructed to do. Well after midnight, the military turned off the lights in the square, and the demonstrators were warned to leave the square. Some did. Many did not, and they were forced out by troops advancing from all sides. Some of the demonstrators who escaped from Tiananmen Square joined with other student supporters and retaliated against isolated army groups and soldiers in places in the city. They burned military vehicles and killed a few soldiers. The entire day of June 4 the army spent quelling disorder through the streets of Beijing. Officially 23 students and 300 soldiers were counted as having died. The Beijing Red Cross put the number of demonstrators killed at 2600.


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