"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.