"Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed." – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Erected as a national monument of the People’s Republic of China, the Monument to the People’s Heroes sits on the Southern edge of Tiananmen Square. It was constructed in the 1950s and built in the memory of those who laid down their lives in the revolutionary struggle of the 19th and 20th centuries. Mao Zedong’s handwriting adorns the front of the monument with a statement reading “Eternal glory to the people's heroes!”
Twenty years after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, one wonders if those words have new meaning.
As the largest open-urban square in the world, Beijing’s Tiananmen Square is a massive area. It is named after the Tiananmen (Gate of Heavenly Peace, literally) that sits to its North and separates it from the Forbidden City.
Starting in April of 1989, a series of demonstrations would culminate in what is now known in some Chinese circles as the June Fourth Incident or Six-four. Led largely by students and intellectuals sparked by the death of Hu Yaobang, the protests began as public displays of mourning over the pro-market, pro-democracy leader.
Student gatherings began to form on April 15, as groups constructed shrines in memory of Hu Yaobang. On April 17, a group of 500 students marched to the Eastern gate of the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square and continued mourning. Various speakers were featured, with some criticizing social problems in China. Soon, however, the large gathering was determined to be “obstructive” and police intervened.
At midnight on April 17, a massive assembly of students numbering in the thousands marched from Peking University to Tiananmen Square. Nearly a thousand students from Tsinghua University also joined, meshing with civilians and other students mourning Hu Yaobang.
The mourning turned into a demonstration, with students gathering and drafting assorted petitions with ideas that they wanted to impress upon their government. The air was filled with the singing of patriotic songs and stirring speeches of students and others offering their demands and ideas.
The protests escalated over the coming days, with students and teachers at universities proposing strikes. On the night of April 21, 100,000 students marched into Tiananmen Square and the government of China began to take notice. As the students prepared for the funeral of Hu Yaobang, the government began attempting to break up any civil unrest by spreading propaganda.
Students and supporters were enraged by the government’s response and the protests continued to escalate. Calls for democratic reform were continual themes among the protesters and, despite a lack of leadership or organization, their point was clear to the public.
May 13 marked a visit by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Huge groups of students occupied Tiananmen Square, staging a hunger strike with the intent of forcing government officials to begin talking. On May 19, General Secretary Zhao Ziyang approached the students in the Square and urged them to end the hunger strike. Dialogue between students and government officials began, in part somewhat urged on by the presence of foreign media due to Gorbachev’s visit. On May 30, the Goddess of Democracy statue was erected in the Square as a symbol of the protesters.
The government reaction to the protests was mixed. Some favoured a direct approach to end the protests immediately, while others identified with what the students wanted. The protests were seen as express opposition to the Communist State and a menace to the ruling Politburo. The pandemonium of the Cultural Revolution was to be avoided, so a single-party system was to be maintained at all costs.