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Tiananmen Square protests of 1989

This stirring photograph became a symbol of the protests
The Tiananmen Square protests were a set of national protests in the People's Republic of China which occurred between April 15, 1989 and June 4, 1989, centered in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China. The protests were part of a conflict between the Chinese democracy movement and the Communist Party of China. The protest started because of the death due to illness of the former General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, Hu Yaobang, who was ousted after protests in Tiananmen in 1986. Hu was against harsh punishments to the protesters in 1986 and thus lost his position as the party secretary(ranked No.2 in the party, after Deng Xiaoping) in February 1987.

In Beijing a majority of the students from the numerous colleges and universities participated with support of their instructors and other intellectuals. The students repudiated their official Communist Party-controlled student associations and set up their own autonomous associations. The students viewed themselves as Chinese patriots—as the heirs of the May Fourth Movement for "science and democracy" of May 4, 1919. From its beginning as a memorial to Hu Yaobang, who was seen by the students as an advocate of democracy, the students' goals gradually developed over the course of their demonstration from protests against corruption into demands for freedom of the press and an end of the rule of China by the Politburo and Deng Xiaoping, a Party elder who ruled from behind the scenes.

Unlike the Tiananmen protests of 1987, which consisted largely of students and intellectuals, the protests in 1989 commanded widespread support from the urban workers who were alarmed by growing inflation and corruption. In Beijing, they were supported by a large fraction of the population, perhaps a majority. At their height, the protests involved over a million people. Similar numbers were found in major cities throughout China.

Protests and strikes began at many colleges in other cities, with many students traveling to Beijing to join the demonstration. Generally, the demonstration at Tiananmen Square was well-ordered, with daily marches of students from various Beijing area colleges displaying their solidarity with the boycott of college classes and with the developing demands of the protest. The main tactic finally hit upon was a hunger strike by several hundred to more than a thousand students. Partially successful attempts were made to negotiate with the Chinese rulers, who were located nearby in Zhongnanhai[?], a government compound. Because of the visit of Mikhail Gorbachev in May, foreign media were present in China in large numbers, and their coverage of the protests was extensive and generally favorable, although pessimistic as to the ultimate outcome. Toward the end of the demonstration, on May 30, a statue of the Goddess of Democracy[?] was erected in the Square and came to symbolize the protest to television viewers worldwide.

The Standing Committee of the Politburo, along with the Party elders, retired; but influential former officials of the government and Party were, at first, hopeful that the demonstrations would be short-lived or that cosmetic reforms and investigations would satisfy the protesters. They wished to avoid violence if possible, and relied at first on their far-reaching Party apparatus in attempts to persuade the students to abandon the protest and return to class. One barrier to effective action was that the leadership itself supported many of the demands of the students, especially the concern with corruption. However, one large problem was that the protests contained a large number of people with varying agendas, and hence it was unclear with whom the government could negotiate, and what the demands of the protesters were. The confusion and indecision among the protesters was also mirrored by confusion and indecision within the government.

The Politiburo Standing Committee was hopelessly divided between those who advocated a soft approach to the demonstrations and those who advocated a crackdown. The decision to crack down on the demonstrations was ultimately made by a group of Party elders. Although most of these people had no official position, they were able to control the military, as Deng Xiaoping was chairman of the central military commission and was able to declare martial law, and as Yang Shangkun was President of the People's Republic of China. The Party elders believed that lengthy demonstrations were a threat to the stability of the country, and abandonment of one-party rule was seen by the leadership as a recipe for chaos. The demonstrators were seen as tools of advocates of "bourgeois liberalism" who were pulling the strings behind the scenes, as well as tools of elements within the party who wished to further their personal ambitions.

In the end, martial law was declared. This by itself was not sufficient. The demonstrations continued with popular support. After several weeks a decision was made to forcibly clean the Square of protesters. Entry of the troops into the city was actively opposed by the citizens of Beijing. There were battles during the entry of the troops into the city with a few military casualties. Extensive roadblocks were constructed by the citizens of Beijing and progress was slow, but the Square was cleared of demonstrators during the night of June 4. The battle continued on the streets surrounding the Square, with protesters repeatedly advancing toward the heavily armed troops of the People's Liberation Army, who responded with automatic weapons fire. The suppression of the demonstrations was highly unpopular within the PLA, and in its aftermath there were several hundred court-martials of officers who refused orders to move against the students.

The suppression of the protest was symbolised by the famous footage of a lone protester several days after the protests standing in front of a column of advancing tanks, halting their progress.

Some lists of the victims of what became known as the Tiananmen Massacre were created from underground sources. Estimates of the number of civilians range up to 2,600 (Chinese Red Cross). Injuries are generally held to have numbered from 7,000 to 10,000. The Chinese government has claimed that no demonstrators were killed within the Square. This claim appears to be technically true, in that the demonstrators within the square itself decided to leave rather than provoke a blood bath; but it ignores the large number of casualties in the streets leading up to the Square.

Attempts were made during and after the suppression of the demonstration to arrest and prosecute the student leaders, notably Wang Dan[?], Chai Ling[?] and Wuerkaixi. Wang Dan was caught and convicted, then allowed to emigrate to the United States. Wuerkaixi escaped to Taiwan. Within the leadership, Zhao Ziyang, who had opposed martial law, was removed from power, and Jiang Zemin elevated. Members of the government eventually prepared a white paper on the incident which was published in the West as The Tiananmen Papers, which gives the government's viewpoint on the protests, although it portrays itself as the work of an anonymous dissenter within the government.

The Tiananmen Protests seriously damaged the reputation of China in the West. Much of the impact of the protests in the West was due to the fact that western media had been invited to cover the visit of Mikhail Gorbachev in May, and therefore were able to cover the government crackdown live through networks such as the Cable News Network.

Among Chinese students in the United States, there was considerable sympathy for the student protests, and the Tiananmen Square protests triggered the formation of Internet news services such as the China News Digest[?]. In the aftermath of Tiananmen, organizations such as the China Alliance for Democracy[?] and the Independent Federation of Chinese Students and Scholars[?] were formed, although these organizations would have limited political impact beyond the mid-1990s.

Within China itself, the effects of the protests were more mixed. In the immediate aftermath of the protests, conservatives attempted to roll back some of the reforms that had been undertaken as part of Chinese economic reform and reinstitute administrative controls over the economy. These efforts met with stiff resistance from provincial governors and collapsed completely in the early 1990s, as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union and Deng Xiaoping's trip to the south. The continuance of economic reform led to economic growth in the 1990s, which stood in contrast to the collapsing Soviet Union and allowed the Chinese government to regain much of the support that it had lost in 1989.

The Tiananmen square protests did put an end to discussions on political liberalization that had occurred in the late 1980s. Although there has been some increase in personal freedom since Tiananmen, discussions on structural changes to the Chinese government and the role of the Chinese Communist Party remain taboo.

Further reading

  • The Tiananmen Papers, The Chinese Leadership's Decision to Use Force Against their Own People—In their Own Words, Compiled by Zhang Liang, Edited by Andrew J. Nathan and Perry Link, with an afterword by Orville Schell, PublicAffairs, New York, 2001, hardback, 514 pages, ISBN 1-58648-012-X
  • June Fourth: The True Story, Tian'anmen Papers/Zhongguo Liusi Zhenxiang Volumes 1-2 (Chinese edition), Zhang Liang, ISBN 9628744364
  • Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now, Jan Wong, Doubleday, 1997, trade paperback, 416 pages, ISBN 0385482329 (Contains, besides extensive autobiographical material, an eyewitness account of the Tiananmen Massacre and the basis for an estimate of the number of victims.)



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