We celebrate the painful anniversary of the Tienanmen massacre. We read continually that the cruel Chinese Imperial régime massacred thousands of its own citizens who were peaceably gathered in Beijing’s main square, only because they were asking for a little freedom.
Yet we know this is untrue
- The sit-in on Tienanmen Square was not that of the Chinese among themselves, but an attempted coup d’état by partisans of ex-Premier Minister Zhao Ziyang.
- Dozens of soldiers were lynched or burned alive on the Square by « peaceful demonstrators », and hundreds of military vehicles were destroyed, before any intervention by Den Xiaoping’s soldiers was implemented against them.
- The US specialists of the « colour revolutions », including Gene Sharp, were present on the Square to organise Zhao Ziyang’s men.
In 1985, a social scientist, Gene Sharp, published a study commissioned by NATO on Making Europe Unconquerable. He pointed out that ultimately a government only exists because people agree to obey it. The USSR could never control Western Europe if people refused to obey Communist governments.
A few years later, in 1989, Sharp was tasked by the CIA with conducting the practical application of his theoretical research in China. The United States wanted to topple Deng Xiaoping in favor of Zhao Ziyang. The intention was to stage a coup with a veneer of legitimacy by organizing street protests, in much the same way as the CIA had given a popular facade to the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh by hiring Tehran demonstrators (Operation Ajax, 1953). The difference here is that Gene Sharp had to rely on a mix of pro-Zhao and pro-US youth to make the coup look like a revolution. But Deng had Sharp arrested in Tiananmen Square and expelled from the country. The coup failed, but not before the CIA spurred the youth groups into a vain attack to discredit Deng through the crackdown that followed. The failure of the operation was attributed to the difficulties of mobilizing young activists in the desired direction.
Most people in the western world remember the Tiananmen Square Massacre this way:
- Students protest for democracy in Beijing, China, in June of 1989.
- Chinese government sends troops and tanks to Tiananmen Square.
- Student protesters are brutally massacred.
In essence, this is a fairly accurate depiction of what happened around Tiananmen Square, but the situation was much longer-lasting and more chaotic than this outline suggests. The Tiananmen Square protests were student-led demonstrations calling for democracy, free speech and a free press in China. They were halted in a bloody crackdown, known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, by the Chinese government on June 4 and 5, 1989. The Chinese government has always characterised the response to the Tiananmen Square protests as legitimate defence against a counter-revolutionary riot or rebellion.
Pro-democracy protesters, mostly students, initially marched through Beijing to Tiananmen Square following the death of Hu Yaobang. Hu, a former Communist Party leader, had worked to introduce democratic reform in China. In mourning Hu, the students called for a more open, democratic government. Eventually thousands of people joined the students in Tiananmen Square, with the protest’s numbers increasing to more than a million prior to the massacre.
At issue was a frustration with the limits on political freedom in the country—given its one-party form of government, with the Communist Party holding sway—and ongoing economic troubles. Although China’s government had instituted a number of reforms in the 1980s that established a limited form of capitalism in the country, the poor and working-class Chinese still faced significant challenges, including lack of jobs and increased poverty.
The students also argued that China’s educational system did not adequately prepare them for an economic system with elements of free-market capitalism. Some leaders within China’s government were sympathetic to the protesters’ cause, while others saw them as a political threat. Nonetheless, by the time the Tiananmen Square Protests and Massacre were over less than two months later, more than 10,000 people lay dead, far more than previous estimates ranging from 250 to 3000.
What really happened that spring in Beijing?
BACKGROUND TO TIANANMEN:
By the 1980s, the leaders of China’s Communist Party knew that classical Maoism had failed. Mao Zedong’s policy of rapid industrialization and collectivization of land, the “Great Leap Forward,” had killed tens of millions of people by starvation.
The country then descended into the terror and anarchy of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), an orgy of violence and destruction that saw teenaged Red Guards humiliate, torture, murder and sometimes even cannibalize hundreds of thousands or millions of their compatriots.
Irreplaceable cultural heirlooms were destroyed; traditional Chinese arts and religion were all but extinguished.
China’s leadership knew that they had to make changes in order to remain in power, but what reforms should they make? The Communist Party leaders split between those who advocated drastic reforms, including a move toward capitalist economic policies and greater personal freedoms for Chinese citizens, versus those who favored careful tinkering with the command economy and continued strict control of the population.
Meanwhile, with the leadership unsure of which direction to take, the Chinese people hovered in a no-man’s land between fear of the authoritarian state, and the desire to speak out for reform. The government-instigated tragedies of the previous two decades left them hungry for change, but aware that the iron fist of Beijing’s leadership was always ready to smash down opposition. China’s people waited to see which way the wind would blow.
THE SPARK – MEMORIAL FOR HU YAOBANG:
Hu Yaobang was a reformist, who served as General Secretary of the Communist Party of China from 1980 to 1987. He advocated rehabilitation of people persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, greater autonomy for Tibet, rapprochement with Japan, and social and economic reform. As a result, he was forced out of office by the hardliners in January of 1987, and made to offer humiliating public “self-criticisms” for his allegedly bourgeois ideas.
One of the charges leveled against Hu was that he had encouraged (or at least allowed) wide-spread student protests in late 1986. As General Secretary, he refused to crack down on such protests, believing that dissent by the intelligentsia should be tolerated by the Communist government.
Hu Yaobang died of a heart attack not long after his ouster and disgrace, on April 15, 1989.
Official media made just brief mention of Hu’s death, and the government at first did not plan to give him a state funeral. In reaction, university students from across Beijing marched on Tiananmen Square, shouting acceptable, government-approved slogans, and calling for the rehabilitation of Hu’s reputation.
Bowing to this pressure, the government decided to accord Hu a state funeral after all. However, government officials on April 19 refused to receive a delegation of student petitioners, who patiently waited to speak with someone for three days at the Great Hall of the People. This would prove to be the government’s first big mistake.
Hu’s subdued memorial service took place on April 22, and was greeted by huge student demonstrations involving about 100,000 people.
Hardliners within the government were extremely uneasy about the protests, but General Secretary Zhao Ziyang believed that the students would disperse once the funeral ceremonies were over. Zhao was so confident that he took a week-long trip to North Korea for a summit meeting.
The students, however, were enraged that the government had refused to receive their petition, and emboldened by the meek reaction to their protests. After all, the Party had refrained from cracking down on them thus far, and had even caved in to their demands for a proper funeral for Hu Yaobang. They continued to protest, and their slogans strayed further and further from the approved texts.
EVENTS BEGIN TO SPIN OUT OF CONTROL:
With Zhao Ziyang out of the country, hardliners in the government such as Li Peng took the opportunity to bend the ear of the powerful leader of the Party Elders, Deng Xiaoping. Deng was known as a reformer himself, supportive of market reforms and greater openness, but the hardliners exaggerated the threat posed by the students. Li Peng even told Deng that the protesters were hostile to him personally, and were calling for his ouster and the downfall of the Communist government. (This accusation was a fabrication.)
Clearly worried, Deng Xiaoping decided to denounce the demonstrations in an editorial published in the April 26th People’s Daily. He called the protests dongluan (meaning “turmoil” or “rioting”) by a “tiny minority.” These highly emotive terms were associated with the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution. Rather than tamping down the students’ fervor, Deng’s editorial further inflamed it. The government had just made its second grave mistake.
Deng and the Elders ordered that an editorial be placed in the People’s Daily accusing the students of causing “turmoil,” a word only used in serious situations. The high ranking Communist leader Wang Zhen, one of the Elders, said, “We’ve got to do it, or the common people will rebel…These people are really asking for it. They should be nabbed as soon as they pop out again. Give ’em no mercy…Anybody who tries to overthrown the Communist Party deserves death and no burial”.
Not unreasonably, the students felt that they could not end the protest if it was labeled dongluan, for fear that they would be prosecuted. Some 50,000 of them continued to press the case that patriotism motivated them, not hooliganism. Until the government stepped back from that characterization, the students could not leave Tiananmen Square.
But the government too was trapped by the editorial. Deng Xiaoping had staked his reputation, and that of the government, on getting the students to back down. Who would blink first?
SHOWDOWN, ZHAO ZIYANG VS. LI PENG:
General Secretary Zhao returned from North Korea to find China transfixed by the crisis. He still felt that the students were no real threat to the government, though, and sought to defuse the situation, urging Deng Xiaoping to recant the inflammatory editorial.
Li Peng, however, argued that to step back now would be a fatal show of weakness by the Party leadership.
Meanwhile, students from other cities poured into Beijing to join the protests. More ominously for the government, other groups also joined in: housewives, workers, doctors, and even sailors from the Chinese Navy! The protests also spread to other cities – Shanghai, Urumqi, Xi’an, Tianjin… almost 250 in all.
By May 4, the number of protesters in Beijing had topped 100,000 again. On May 13, the students took their next fateful step. They announced a hunger strike, with the goal of getting the government to retract the April 26 editorial.
Over a thousand students took part in the hunger strike, which engendered wide-spread sympathy for them among the general populace.
The government met in an emergency Standing Committee session the following day. Zhao urged his fellow leaders to accede to the students’ demand and withdraw the editorial. Li Peng urged a crack-down.
The Standing Committee was deadlocked, so the decision was passed to Deng Xiaoping.
The next morning, he announced that he was placing Beijing under martial law. Zhao was fired and placed under house arrest; hard-liner Jiang Zemin succeeded him as General Secretary; and fire-brand Li Peng was placed in control of the military forces in Beijing.
In the midst of the turmoil, Soviet Premier and fellow reformer Mikhail Gorbachev arrived in China for talks with Zhao on May 16.
Due to Gorbachev’s presence, a large contingent of foreign journalists and photographers also descended on the tense Chinese capital. Their reports fueled international concern and calls for restraint, as well as sympathetic protests in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and ex-patriot Chinese communities in Western nations.
This international outcry placed even more pressure on the Chinese Communist Party leadership.
Early in the morning on May 19, the deposed Zhao made an extraordinary appearance in Tiananmen Square. Speaking through a bullhorn, he told the protesters: “Students, we came too late. We are sorry. You talk about us, criticize us, it is all necessary. The reason that I came here is not to ask you to forgive us. All I want to say is that students are getting very weak, it is the 7th day since you went on hunger strike, you can’t continue like this… You are still young, there are still many days yet to come, you must live healthy, and see the day when China accomplishes the four modernizations. You are not like us, we are already old, it doesn’t matter to us any more.” It was the last time he was ever seen in public.
Perhaps in response to Zhao’s appeal, during the last week of May tensions eased a bit, and many of the student protesters from Beijing grew weary of the protest and left the square.
However, reinforcements from the provinces continued to pour into the city. Hard-line student leaders called for the protest to continue until June 20, when a meeting of the National People’s Congress was scheduled to take place.
Hearing the calls for a prolonged protest, on June 2 the Communist Party Elders met with the remaining members of the Politburo Standing Committee. They agreed to bring in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to clear the protesters out of Tiananmen Square by force.
THE TIANANMEN SQUARE MASSACRE:
Martial Law Declared
On May 13, a number of the student protesters initiated a hunger strike, which inspired other similar strikes and protests across China. As the movement grew, the Chinese government became increasingly uncomfortable with the protests, particularly as they disrupted a visit by Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union on May 15.
A welcome ceremony for Gorbachev originally scheduled for Tiananmen Square was instead held at the airport, although otherwise his visit passed without incident. Even so, feeling the demonstrations needed to be curtailed, the Chinese government declared martial law on May 20 and 250,000 troops entered Beijing. By the end of May more than one million protesters had gathered in Tiananmen Square. They held daily marches and vigils, and images of the events were transmitted by media organizations to audiences in the United States and Europe.
On the evening of June 3, only about 4,000 demonstrators, most of them students, were left in Tiananmen Square. The others had mostly gotten bored and went home. Some of those who remained squabbled over whether they should leave or hold their ground and die as martyrs. The scene was very tense, in the words of some: “hysterical.”
On the night of 3 June, United Press International reported that a statement was repeatedly broadcast on Chinese television, claiming:
“Tonight a serious counter-revolutionary rebellion took place. Thugs frenziedly attacked People’s Liberation Army troops, seizing weapons, erecting barricades, beating soldiers and officers in an attempt to overthrow the government of the People’s Republic of China.
“For many days, the People’s Liberation Army has exercised restraint and now must resolutely counteract the rebellion.
“All those who refuse to listen to reason must take full responsibility for their actions and their consequences.”
At 1 a.m. on June 4, Chinese soldiers and police stormed Tiananmen Square, firing live rounds into the crowd. Although thousands of protesters simply tried to escape, others fought back, stoning the attacking troops and setting fire to military vehicles. Not only the student protesters, but tens of thousands of workers and ordinary citizens of Beijing joined together to repel the Army. They used burned-out buses to create barricades, threw rocks and bricks at the soldiers, and even burned some tank crews alive inside their tanks. Reporters and Western diplomats there that day estimated that thousands of protesters were killed in the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and as many as 10,000 were arrested. Leaders worldwide, including Gorbachev, condemned the military action and, less than a month later, the United States Congress voted to impose economic sanctions against China, citing human rights violations.
By then, protests had spread to more than eighty cities across China, with many thousands of demonstrators calling for some sort of more open, democratic political system that would end the corruption, privilege, and brutality of Communist rule. The massacre in Beijing and government led violence in many other cities were also a reminder that the Communist Party’s power grew out of the barrel of a gun. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Review of Books, June 5, 2014]
That night, around 10:30 pm, the PLA returned to the area around Tiananmen with rifles, bayonets fixed. The tanks rumbled down the street, firing indiscriminately.
Students shouted “Why are you killing us?” to the soldiers, many of whom were about the same age as the protesters. Rickshaw drivers and bicyclists darted through the melee, rescuing the wounded and taking them to hospitals. In the chaos, a number of non-protesters were killed as well.
Contrary to popular belief, the bulk of the violence took place in the neighborhoods all around Tiananmen Square, rather than in the Square itself.
Throughout the night of June 3 and early hours of June 4, the troops beat, bayoneted, and shot protesters. Tanks drove straight into crowds, crushing people and bicycles under their treads. By 6 a.m. on June 4th, 1989, the streets around Tiananmen Square had been cleared.
A 2017 declassified document, written little more than 24 hours after the massacre, provides horrific detail of the massacre, alleging that wounded female students were bayoneted as they begged for their lives, human remains were “hosed down the drains”, and a mother was shot as she tried to go to the aid of her injured three-year-old daughter. Written on 5 June 1989 by Sir Alan Donald, the then-British ambassador to China, the hitherto secret cable has now been placed in the UK National Archives at Kew, where it was found by the news website HK01.
The ambassador said his account of the massacre of the night of 3-4 June was based on information from a source who had spoken to a “good friend” in China’s State Council, effectively its ruling cabinet. In unflinching detail, Sir Alan told London that the “atrocities” against thousands of pro-democracy protesters in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square had been coordinated by the 27 Army of Shanxi Province, whose troops he described as “60 per cent illiterate and called primitives”.
Sir Alan said previous waves of troops had gone in unarmed to disperse the protesters, many of whom were students. Then, Sir Alan wrote, “The 27 Army APCs [armoured personnel carriers] opened fire on the crowd before running over them. APCs ran over troops and civilians at 65kph [40 miles per hour].” Sir Alan added: “Students understood they were given one hour to leave square, but after five minutes APCs attacked.”
“Students linked arms but were mown down. APCs then ran over the bodies time and time again to make, quote ‘pie’ unquote, and remains collected by bulldozer.“ Sir Alan reported as speculation that Deng Xiaoping’s Communist government chose the 27 Army for the operation because its troops were “the most reliable and obedient”.
He reported that from what he had been told, 27 Army troops had used dum-dum bullets and “snipers shot many civilians on balconies, street sweepers etc for target practice”. “27 Army ordered to spare no one,” he wrote. “Wounded girl students begged for their lives but were bayoneted. A three-year-old girl was injured, but her mother was shot as she went to her aid, as were six others.” The cable also alleges that the massacre continued even after the first wave of killings.
Sir Alan wrote: “1,000 survivors were told they could escape but were then mown down by specially prepared MG [machine gun] positions. Army ambulances who attempted to give aid were shot up, as was a Sino-Japanese hospital ambulance. With medical crew dead, wounded driver attempted to ram attackers but was blown to pieces by anti-tank weapon.”
It seems that most of those killed were not student protesters but ordinary Beijing citizens, many of whom happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Never before had the People’s Liberation Army turned its weapons on the Chinese people with the intention of murdering so many of them. Demonstrations at Tiananmen Square in 1976 and 1987 had been broken up with batons and tear gas not guns and tanks. 1
In another incident, the cable said, the troops even shot one of their own officers. Sir Alan wrote: “27 Army officer shot dead by own troops, apparently because he faltered. Troops explained they would be shot if they hadn’t shot the officer.”
The final sentence of Sir Alan’s cable reads: “Minimum estimate of civilian dead 10,000.” Crackdowns also occurred in more than 200 cities all over China. What occurred in these places is still largely unknown.1
In 2014, however, it was reported that a confidential US government file quoted a Chinese military source as saying the Communist regime’s own internal assessment believed 10,454 people had been killed – a figure that would fit Sir Alan’s initial estimate.
Jianli Yang, a survivor, still has clear memories of that deadly June day: “I saw a lot of people being killed,” Yang told Breitbart News at a rally at the U.S. Capitol on the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. “I saw tanks run over students.” “That changed my life,” said Yang, who said he “narrowly escaped” from the protest and has since devoted his life to fighting for freedom and democracy in China.
Wu Pei, a school teacher, told Newsweek, “Around 4:00am, soldiers encircled our group. Several hundred in our group lined up and filed off peacefully. But when we got to Beijing Music Hall [west of Tiananmen Square], some students started screaming, ‘Don’t panic, nobody panic!’ Everyone started to run. Suddenly gun shots crackled around me and the air filled with gas. Just then a tank rolled through the bike lane, crushing people behind me who couldn’t get out of the way. I still can’t endure that [memory]. I’ll never forgive them for that.”
Fang Zheng, another survivor, was run over by a tank during the Tiananmen Square protests and lost the lower extremities of both legs. Despite government pressure to lie about the incident, Fang became a voice of truth about China’s repressive regime. Wu’er Kaixi, one of the protest leaders, also survived and spoke to CBS News on the 30th Anniversary:
Some witnesses also stated that the PLA carted away many bodies; they would not have been included in a hospital count.
“TANK MAN” OR THE “UNKNOWN REBEL”:
The city lapsed into shock during June 4, with just the occasional volley of gunfire breaking the stillness. Parents of missing students pushed their way to the protest area, seeking their sons and daughters, only to be warned off and then shot in the back as they fled from the soldiers.
Beijing seemed utterly subdued the morning of June 5. However, as foreign journalists and photographers, including Jeff Widener of the AP, watched from their hotel balconies as a column of tanks trundled up Chang’an Avenue (the Avenue of Eternal Peace), an amazing thing happened.
A young man in a white shirt and black pants, with shopping bags in each hand, stepped out into the street and stopped the tanks. The lead tank tried to swerve around him, but he jumped in front of it again.
His historic showdown was broadcast live around the world on C.N.N. The incident didn’t take place at Tiananmen Square but rather east of the square on the Avenue of the Eternal Palace, just beyond the old Beijing Hotel.
Everyone watched in horrified fascination, afraid that the tank driver would lose patience and drive over the man. At one point, the man even climbed up onto the tank and spoke to the soldiers inside, reportedly asking them, “Why are you here? You have caused nothing but misery.”
After several minutes of this defiant dance, two more men rushed up to the Tank Man and hustled him away. His fate is unknown. However, still images and video of his brave act were captured by the western press members nearby, and smuggled out for the world to see. Widener and several other photographers hid the film in the tanks of their hotel toilets, to save it from searches by the Chinese security forces.
Ironically, the story and the image of the Tank Man’s act of defiance had the greatest immediate effect thousands of miles away, in Eastern Europe. Inspired in part by his courageous example, people across the Soviet bloc poured into the streets. In 1990, beginning with the Baltic states, the republics of the Soviet Empire began to break away. The USSR collapsed.
Time magazine called him one of top 20 leaders and revolutionaries of the 20th century. A song about him appeared in a Wim Wenders film. John Kamm, the director of the Dui Hua Foundation a San-Francisco-based human rights group, told the Los Angeles Times, “For me he represents the unknown soldier of the Chinese democratic revolution. What’s so strange is that his act of bravery was conducted in plain view of the world. But other than seeing his act, we know very little about him.”
But as well known as he in the West few in China have seen him. No newspaper has shown his image. Attempts to pick up the image on the Internet are blocked by government censors. Some of the few Chinese who have heard of him doubt whether he is even Chinese.
THE AFTERMATH OF TIANANMEN 1989:
The protesters who survived the Tiananmen Square Incident met a variety of fates. Some, particularly the student leaders, were given relatively light jail terms (less than 10 years). Many of the professors and other professionals who joined in were simply black-listed, unable to find jobs. A large number of the workers and provincial people were executed; exact figures, as usual, are unknown. Massacre victim’s families claim the government is still carrying out a ‘white terror’ (threats, intimidation, and detention) to keep them from speaking out even three decades later.
Bao Tong, the most senior party official to be jailed after the demonstrations, spent seven years in prison and was placed on house arrest after that. Decades later, he is still being monitored by guards 24 hours a day and was still not allowed access to the Internet or own a fax machine or even a reliable cell phone.
Chinese journalists who had published reports sympathetic to the protesters also found themselves purged and unemployed. Some of the most famous were sentenced to multi-year prison terms.
As for the Chinese government, June 4, 1989 was a watershed moment. Reformists within the Communist Party of China were stripped of power and reassigned to ceremonial roles. Former Premier Zhao Ziyang was never rehabilitated, and spent his final 15 years under house arrest.
Shanghai’s mayor, Jiang Zemin, who had moved quickly to quell protests in that city, replaced Zhao as the Party’s General Secretary.
Since that time, political agitation has been extremely muted in China. The government and the majority of citizens alike have focused on economic reform and prosperity, rather than political reform. Because the Tiananmen Square Massacre is a taboo subject, most Chinese under the age of 25 have never even heard about it. Websites that mention the “June 4 Incident” are blocked in China.
Even decades later, the people and the government of China have not dealt with this momentous and tragic incident. The memory of the Tiananmen Square Massacre festers under the surface of everyday life for those old enough to recall it. Someday, the Chinese government will have to face this piece of its history.
Good Websites and Sources on the Tiananmen Square Protests: Photos rarehistoricalphotos.com; Tiananmen Square Documents gwu.edu/ ; Gate of Heavenly Peace tsquare.tv ; BBC Eyewitness Account news.bbc.co.uk Film: The Gate of Heavenly Peace has been praised for its balanced treatment of the Tiananmen Square Incident. Gate of Heavenly Peace tsquare.tv.