Remembering the '89 Tiananmen Square protests
By: Paulina Mangubat
Twenty-seven years ago, Beijing’s historic Tiananmen Square was rocked by a series of student-led pro-democracy protests. These protests, which were triggered by the death of former Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang, eventually led to aggressive state military action that culminated in the Tiananmen Square Massacre on June 4, 1989.
This isn’t the first notable Chinese historical event to make headlines in the past few weeks. On May 24, the New York Times’ editorial board urged the Chinese Communist Party to more critically—and publicly—engage with the events of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution.
It’s now been about half a century since civilian unrest reached its peak during the Mao years. Given China’s conservatism under sitting CCP president Xi Jinping, who has most recently made headlines for his hardline stances on disputes in the South China Sea, vigorously assessing all Chinese mass movements and their discontents could be a helpful means of encouraging an otherwise authoritarian regime to democratize. As such, we shouldn’t let the anniversary of one pivotal Chinese historical event distract us from another.
In the eyes of many Westerners, the Tiananmen Square Massacre follows the archetypal narrative of democratic-minded students rising up against a ruthless authoritarian government.
To be clear, this isn’t an inaccurate assessment. Protesters initially mobilized around the passing of Hu Yaobang in April of 1989 precisely because he was widely regarded as a liberal reformer. Gatherings in Tiananmen Square to mourn Hu Yaobang’s death gradually transitioned into all-out protests calling for party accountability, workers’ control of industry, and what Americans might recognize as First Amendment protections: freedom of speech and press. When the government crackdown was first announced by Chinese Prime Minister Li Peng on May 20, protesters had already been occupying Tiananmen Square for seven weeks.
When Li Peng announced the crackdown, he essentially called for the enactment of martial law. On the morning of Sunday, June 4, tens of thousands of Chinese troops armed with submachine guns and tear gas grenades flooded into Tiananmen Square. As a result, hundreds, potentially thousands, of civilian protesters were killed by government forces.
But to the Chinese government, the blood spilled on that day was nothing more than collateral damage caused by a reckless “counter-revolutionary rebellion.” In the days following the massacre, the Chinese government simultaneously downplayed the number of civilians slaughtered by the People’s Liberation Army and highlighted police and military deaths. In accordance with martial law, journalists were restricted from taking notes or photographs and conducting interviews in the aftermath of the massacre. More recently, in 2009, the Chinese government apparently cut off BBC and CNN’s news coverage commemorating the 20th anniversary of the massacre.
To many political and cultural commentators, the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square Massacre aren’t so unrelated. The bloody events of June 4, 1989 hearken back to the Cultural Revolution-era Red Guard attacks against perceived members of the bourgeois. More importantly, they indicated a dangerous shift toward an era of conservatism that betrayed the more liberal reformist rhetoric characteristic of the Deng Xiaoping years.
Furthermore, the lack of government transparency about the Tiananmen Square Massacre has fanned the flames of academic interest. In 2001, an anonymous Chinese compiler published The Tiananmen Papers under the pseudonym Zhang Liang. The Tiananmen Papers, which was eventually translated and released for a Western audience, contains government documents and editorial commentary about the dynamics within the Chinese Communist Party during the protests. The authenticity of the government documents provided in the book have been called into question; still, there’s no question that state-sponsored subterfuge cannot be separated from the Tiananmen Square Massacre entirely.
The controversial prospect of democratization hangs over modern-day China, just as it did in 1989. Many Chinese individuals regard democratization as a lofty, noble end goal. Party officials, on the other hand, would disagree.
Regardless, political speech remains the primary mechanism for both positive and negative political change. If we are to prevent similar tragedies from occurring in the future, we must discuss the Tiananmen Square Massacre loudly, publicly and honestly.
To view The New Yorker’s slideshow of photographs from the ’89 Tiananmen Square protests, click here.
Paulina Mangubat is a communications intern for the EastWest Institute. She is a Barnard College senior majoring in political science and East Asian studies. She tweets @paulinaVEVO.