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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. These students were still moved by the values of altruism, and 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. 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 attack on the students be retracted. Meanwhile, groups of students had been moving through the city rallying 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. And the students responded. They ended 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, upset once again, 200,000 resumed 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. Proportional to the U.S. population this would have been a demonstration of something like 250,000 people. At any rate, 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 occurred in various cities in China, but the unrest was not as massive as had been the unrest ten years before in Iran that brought down the Shah. Nor was the regime in power as crippled as had been Kerensky's government in Russia in November 1917. And unlike Mexico in 1910, China was without a lot of guerrilla armies about to overwhelm an unpopular dictatorship. Nor was this Romania, Hungary or Poland, where Communism had come with a foreign army – or Czechoslovakia.

The government had a choice of just letting the demonstrations fade or of showing its opposition to disorder. It chose the latter, somewhat similar to Herbert Hoover not tolerating the camp of the Bonus marchers in Washington in early 1932, or the U.S. government not tolerating the demonstrations at the Pentagon in 1967. Deng Xiaoping was not about to tolerate more of the upheaval and idealism that had wrecked the Communist Party and China in the sixties. The army was coming.

Some at Tiananmen square were there for the excitement. Some others were prepared to fight. 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 still thought about principles rather than their ability 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 – as they had been in Vietnam – and the Communist regime regretted it.

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 and crushing anyone who stood in their way. 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 had died. The Beijing Red Cross put the number of demonstrators killed at 2600.


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