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Tiananmen Square: 20 Years Later

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"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.

As the demonstrations continued and the hunger strike went into overdrive, the government sent the military into Beijing to break up the protests and restore “order.”

General Secretary Zhao Ziyang was ousted from his leadership position and soldiers and tanks roared into the city, initially blocked by protesters and citizens. Vehicles were burned and used as roadblocks, while some elements of the military assumed full combat defensive postures against the protesters. The People’s Liberation Army attempted to clear streets using tear gas, rifles, and tanks. Students in the Square began to debate whether or not to withdraw peacefully as the military offensive raged onward.

The military assault on Tiananmen Square began on June 3 at 10:30 pm.

Armoured personnel carriers and armed troops entered the Square from a range of positions, firing indiscriminately, according to eyewitnesses. Soldiers fired weapons into crowds and beat students with sticks, even capturing some attempting to leave the Square and beating them. Tanks entered the Square on the early morning of June 4, crushing people and vehicles.

By 5:40 am on June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square had been cleared of protesters.

Today, we remember the events of Tiananmen Square because of the ineradicable images. Photographs and video of the Unknown Rebel, the unidentified man who stood in front of a line of Chinese tanks following the massacre, remain among the most well-known images in world history.

Determining the number of people killed in Tiananmen Square is difficult. Some hypothesize that troops burned many of the bodies to destroy verification of the killings. The Chinese government continues to stem information of the Tiananmen Square massacre, offering its own approximation in the form of an “official figure” of 241 dead with 7,000 injured.

The Tiananmen Square massacre stands as a testament to the power of images and the power of the press. Having been invited to China to cover the visit of Gorbachev, many foreign press outlets were in an ideal position to cover the site. One wonders how much worse things could have been had the press not been present at all. International press was silenced during the Beijing crackdown, as the Chinese government shut off all satellite transmissions.

The Chinese government vigorously censors much of the dialogue about Tiananmen Square. The Square is closely guarded on and around June 4 of every year to contain further protests or gatherings. Journalists are also barred from the Square.

Organizations like the Tiananmen Mothers attempt to circulate petitions regarding the events, but this information rarely reaches any mainstream Chinese media outlets.

Today, on the 20th anniversary of the massacre, the Chinese government has restricted access to overseas websites including Twitter and has shut down television broadcasts from CNN and other news stations regarding the events in 1989. While there has been some progress and, arguably, less censorship in 2009 than previous years, many sites are still blocked.

Some student protesters from the massacre have been detained and deported, too,

June 2, 2009, marked a meeting between U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Chinese President Hu Jintao to discuss a “stronger cooperative relationship.” As the United States highlights the events of Tiananmen Square with attempts to fortify economic ties and improve “strategic dialogue” while recognizing China’s policy of censorship and oppression, the calls to reveal the names of the dead ring fairly hollow.

In fairness, pressure from the international community and some of China’s closest allies doesn’t seem to make much of a difference with a government still focused on suppressing information and repressing  the voice of its people.

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About Jordan Richardson

  • Maurice,

    Good to see you posting again, even if we do disagree. Sorry to hear about the layoff from Micron Engineering. I agree with Clavos about the moving company idea. Just make sure your own back is up to the job.

    I was laid off from an American firm in March, and am very nervous about accepting employment from Americans. I just can’t rely on them to stay in business….

    You’re right about corporations needing a thorough look-see – along with banks, stock brokerages and the rest of the business structure that has failed you so magnificently. But the ass-holes in power are not the ones to do the examining – decent, intelligent citizens like you are the ones who should be entrusted with the job.

    As for killing the creditor – that is the only alternative you have to coughing up all that you own to him. Eventually, the Chinese will want to collect on their teds. They invented paper money. They know better than any suit from an American university its weaknesses….

  • I was wondering if anyone but me would find it incongruent. I see I can always count on you – well, almost always.

  • Jordan Richardson

    This country has been anti-corporation for a long time

    Really? Did anyone tell the corporations?

  • “This country has been anti-corporation for a long time and it is time we change that and try to rebuild our golden goose.”

    Who exactly, Maurice? General public sentiment? People who don’t count? The media? I think it’s a half-truth. It’s arguable that those who do count – even the governmental powers, and yes, even in the present administration – are not against corporations, especially the big multinationals.

    Perhaps what we’re seeing is a kind of disconnect between appearances and reality.

  • Clavos


    Really sorry to hear about the layoff. From all I hear, you’re absolutely right about the surplus of engineers on the job market. The moving company idea sounds like a good one on a couple of levels, not the least of which is you can keep an eye on them all day.

  • Clavos

    This country has been anti-corporation for a long time and it is time we change that and try to rebuild our golden goose.

    Quoted for Truth.

    If we don’t, we’re lost. Unfortunately, under the present regime, strengthening our commercial base isn’t even in the back seat, it’s in the trunk.

  • Maurice

    Geez, Ruvy that is kind of a downer! I have preached that very concept in the past – manufacturing leaving and design and marketing to follow. It is happening faster than I predicted. Micron lost its manufacturing last year and now design (me included) are being replaced by over seas talent. I have to disagree with your kill the creditor comment. Perhaps we need to focus on an economic battle instead of a military one. And we need to take it as seriously as they do. This country has been anti-corporation for a long time and it is time we change that and try to rebuild our golden goose.

  • A bug (on this site) refused to carry the data from the comments box to the comments thread. Apparently it has been fixed.

    I’ll say this much about Jordan’s article, and hope you all comprehend. He who pays the piper calls the tune. The Chinese are manufacturing most of what is used in the world, and they are collecting the money for it. In other words, instead of spending wealth, they are creating it.

    Their methods can be brutal – no gainsaying that. But America’s methods can be brutal too. And they have been. One American, who continually writes articles on torture, has learned eo apply Chinese water torture…. However, that is all just minor quibbling. The bottom line is that America is bankrupt – and China is the creditor.

    Either learn to pay up and shut your mouths – or kill the creditor.

  • Maurice


    I was finally laid off from Micron. I now have time to blog a little in between looking for work. So many thousand of Engineers have been laid off that I am seriously considering a career change. My last 2 sons are strong and stupid so I have been thinkings about a father and son moving business. Maybe call it Felony Moving? Perhaps that is too revealing of their past. Hope all is well with you.

  • Till tomorrow the, Jeannie.

  • Jeannie Danna

    Well Jordan and Roger, I’ll talk with you both tomorrow about whatever we want! Free country and all…:)

  • Well, Maurice. I spent the first sixteen years of my live in Poland when it was a satellite. Not quite the same, I’m certain, of the “reign of terror” in China.

    Still, you definitely experience the fresh breeze of freedom once in the West. A problem is, most Americans don’t really appreciate what they’ve got. (Again, I’m not certain whether my use of the present tense in the penultimate statement is correct,)

  • Jeannie Danna

    Maurice, I can’t agree with you. I believe in the best America has to offer not the worst.

  • Clavos

    Hey, Maurice, haven’t heard from you for a while!

    Your outlook for our new government is remarkably like mine.

    Not surprisingly.

  • Maurice

    I worked for Motorola in Hong Kong one year after the attack in Tiananmen square. I was the only American. All the local engineers would lower their voices when I would ask their thoughts on what happened. I could feel their fear.

    Our own government will soon be the same as theirs. Once they control all industry, banking and healthcare then those that don’t assimilate well will be beaten and killed.

    Some people just don’t like to see other people living free.

  • Jeannie Danna

    Why are you such a bully?

  • Clavos

    I’m open to suggestions?

  • Why a question mark?

  • Clavos

    But what can we do about the incorrigibles on the BC Politics site?

    Mind your own fuckin’ business?

  • Also, could you explain your #17 better. I’m not certain I’m getting your point.

  • I’m aware, Jeannie. The reason I didn’t respond because I don’t want to antagonize you. What I did there was a thought-experiment of sorts?

    What did you mean by “you remember”?

  • Jeannie Danna

    Roger, I read your article and left a comment…

  • Jeannie Danna

    Is Jordan typing a long answer or has he left his own thread?

  • Jeannie Danna

    Roger! you remember.

  • Jeannie Danna

    I heard Ron Paul the other night wanting to dis-ban everything and get rid of the government. Ha! No department of Agriculture. Want some E-coli? No department of Education. We’ve seen the cretins here that slipped through the cracks. Give me a break!

  • Great point again.

    And you might add that the country is as weak as its weakest link, no?

  • Jeannie Danna

    I have this little saying that only seems to make sense to me. Do you want to hear it? Well here it goes.
    “You are only as free as your country is strong.”
    This means that not only do you need laws, but you need to make those laws to look out for the individual as well as the whole. Not the special interest groups or the wealthiest party.

  • #11,

    Good point, Jeannie. But what can we do about the incorrigibles on the BC Politics site?

  • BTW, Jeannie & Jordan,

    Heard something interesting the other day –

    Acting out/on your value system is a form of prayer.

  • Well, Jordan. I happen to be stuck in Hopkinsville, KY (Christian County) – a rural town – and Wal-Mart is the greatest operating concern. It had practically driven all small and local retailers out of business, made downtown and Main Street into a ghost town – with the result that apart from one Starbucks, it’s the town’s “cultural center.”

    Doesn’t say much for that part of KY.

  • Jeannie Danna

    Yes, I know what your saying every little step helps even if it’s only one or two people at first we are all basically like sheep, no offense to sheep, but we do what we see others do. I started carrying my own shopping bags about six months ago,we are really behind the times around here, and people looked at me like I was a cyclops! Now, I see bags for sale in the stores and other people bringing in their own..:)

  • Jordan Richardson

    I get that it doesn’t seem like there’s much a single person can do, but when there are lots of “single persons” operating in similar fashion I think it can make a difference.

    I think real change happens slowly and sometimes quietly in the hearts and minds of our children and of their children’s children. If they see us refusing to act simply because we don’t think it’ll make a difference, they won’t act. And if they won’t act…well, you get the picture.

    It is a matter of, like B said, doing what we can when we can do it. We must never be discouraged to act, we must never stop striving to do more.

    Personally my wife and I boycott Wal-Mart and most box stores as much as we can. We don’t purchase Chinese goods (we buy local whenever we can) and we attempt to learn as much as possible and continue the spread of dialogue. It’s easy to allow ourselves and others to fall into the trap of hopelessness and to feel like our actions, small as they are, are just a drop in a bucket.

    But sometimes a drop at a time is the only way to fill that bucket, I guess (cheesy as it sounds), and there’s no way I’d ever stop trying to do more, to do better.

  • Jeannie Danna

    We should all be tank man! Stand up to corporate America and stay the hell out of Wal-Mart! They stopped buying American products ages ago. Of course I’m not referring to Amazon.com 🙂

  • Very good points, Baronius. I, too, avoid Chinese goods like a plague. Practically everything that Wal-Mart carries these days is made in China. Yet, people keep on swarming there like there was no tomorrow.
    Unfortunately, we do seem to need China to get out from under the hole we’ve dug out for ourselves. That’s the purpose of, is it Geithner? recent visit.

  • Baronius

    But how exactly can I stand up for the people of China? I avoid Chinese goods whenever possible. What that usually means is, I’ll put something back on the shelf and try to find it at another store, but if it’s something I need I’ll buy it at store #2. Whoop-de-doo. That’ll change the world.

    I support candidates who talk about human rights, and that’s something, but the Chinese government is so evil (and big and distant) that there’s not much I can do. Jordan did the most important thing, putting this article on the internet. If it sneaks past totalitarian Google, then it will let the Chinese people know: we remember; the people of the West will do what we can.

  • Clavos

    Regrettably too many people would rather have nice, cheap things rather than stand up and sacrifice for their fellow human beings.

    Including every last one of our craven politicians.

  • Jordan Richardson

    I don’t know what happened to Tank Man, Jeannie. There are a few theories and rumours, but nothing substantial. I think he was whisked away by Chinese police pretty quickly after his heroic act. Some say he was immediately executed.

    Whatever happened to him, he remains a symbol for heroism and bravery. Watching that video gave me chills.

  • Like computers made in China.

  • Nice piece, Jordan. Regrettably too many people would rather have nice, cheap things rather than stand up and sacrifice for their fellow human beings.

  • Jeannie Danna

    Hi Thought you might like this great article and so many interesting links I had to pull my way back out so I could write to you…:) I heard once that tank man either died or was in prison. I don’t want to believe this.:(

  • Baronius

    Thanks for writing this article.