On the fourth of June 1989, thousands of students died in a massacre that has come to be known as the June Fourth Incident in China. It was a horrifying occurrence built up after five weeks of protesting, demonstrating and speaking out against the Chinese government and its regime, carried out mainly by university students, but also ordinary workers and older intellectuals. The core of the protesting was done in Tiananmen Square, Beijing: the nation’s symbolic and geographical central space. It has long been a gathering place for protestors in China.
The protests did not take long to spread around the country. At least four hundred cities protested, reflecting the broad dissatisfaction of China’s working population with the social results of the reform decade. Ten years previous to the Tiananmen Square protests, Mao Zedong died and the period of Maoism ended. Mao was the leader of China, who, according to Deng Xiaoping, was “seven parts right and three parts wrong”. Mao introduced several policies that sent China’s economy down the drain, and Deng Xiaoping was the man who finally replaced him.
He became the Paramount Leader (a term used to describe the political leader of China) of China and the Chairman of the Central Military Commission. Deng was the most powerful man in the country. He put in place several reforms that helped heal China’s economy after the disaster of the Cultural Revolution, a decade long period of political and social persecution. But his economic reforms led to extremely high inflation levels and government corruption. There were still restrictions on public expression and citizens remained without voices in parliament.
To the general populace, it appeared that rich were just getting richer and the powerful were only becoming more and more powerful. The protests began with the death a man named Hu Yaobang. Hu became something of a martyr to the protesters of 1989. Born into a peasant family in 1915, Hu became a member of the Chinese Communist Party in 1933, when he was just eighteen, eventually becoming the General secretary of the communist party in 1981. Hu was a reformist; he encouraged political reform more than any other leader of his generation.
Many Chinese citizens viewed him as incorruptible. After assisting student protests demanding democratic styled freedoms in 1987, Hu was forced to resign for “mistakes on major issues of political policy”. A man of the name Zhao Ziyang replaced him. Hu, however, still remained on the Politburo, the policy making-committee of the communist party until he died on the 15th of April 1989. Hu’s death sent the students of Beijing in an uproar. Students marched to mourn his passing and the marches quickly became less about Hu, and more about speaking out against the government.
As one student put it, “We want democracy. Hu Yaobang’s death is not the reason for this demonstration. It is the excuse. ” In the days after his death, Beijing University students put up posters praising and mourning Hu, and indirectly criticizing the government. The first major demonstration was on the seventeenth of April, as thousands of Beijing students marched to Tiananmen Square crying chants of protest such as “Long live Hu Yaobang! Long live democracy! ” The crowd was large, at one point reaching over four thousand people.
Most of the students remained in the Square overnight, and the next day held a sit-in at the entrance to the Great Hall of people. More protesters join the students. They had several demands; repudiation of past official campaigns against liberalism, press freedom, more money for education, abolition of regulations against demonstrations, they wanted leaders to reveal their incomes and wanted a complete reassessment of Hu and the validity of his beliefs of democracy and freedom. The government ignored the students’ demands.
Similar protests were also held in Shanghai, with groups of up to several thousands students conducting spontaneous demonstrations around the city. The Chinese government held a memorial service for Hu on the twenty-second of April. The night before, as many as one hundred thousand student protestors gathered in Tiananmen Square, including scores from other cities. Authorities ordered the students to leave, as the square was to be closed for the funeral. The students ignored their demands and slept the night on the Square.
The memorial was held in the Great Hall the following day and was broadcasted to the students. As the service was in progression, three students pressed through police lines to present the Chinese leaders with a petition and see the Premier of State Council (similar to a Prime Minister), Li Peng. Though the students knelt and pleaded for over an hour, no leaders showed themselves leaving the students disappointed and angry. Protests and demonstrations continued and on the twenty-sixth of April, the People’s Daily, the party’s official paper, ran an article denouncing the students for causing chaos and Deng arned them to stop the demonstrations. The editorial had backfired, rather than scaring the students into suppression, the exact opposite occurs. It enraged the students, and the protests continued. The students began to receive increased support from Chinese citizens, especially factory workers. As the students refused to back down, unrest began to form in the Chinese Communist Party. Zhao Ziyang appeared to have a soft spot for the students and wanted the party to show support towards them. He believed the two opposing sides could come to an agreement.
Premier Li Peng and government hardliners disagreed with him and believed they should use force to quash the protesters, using military force if necessary. On the fourth of May, the students celebrate the anniversary of the May Fourth Movement in 1919, the very first student demonstration, by marching to Tiananmen Square. Afterwards, it appeared a majority of protestors lost interest in the movement and the amount of demonstrations decrease. Mikhail Gorbachev, head of the Russian Soviet Union, planed to arrive to China on the fifteenth of May.
This was a highly publicized event, as the relationship between China and the Soviet Union had been rough for some thirty years. Over a thousand journalists had gathered in Beijing to film the Sino-Soviet Summit. The students took advantage of the press by putting on white headbands and beginning a hunger strike two days prior to Gorbachev’s arrival. At least 3,000 students were fasting by the end of the thirteenth. One student stated while in hospital for the second time in a matter of days, “We are too obsessed with the movement to concern ourselves over our own physical condition. They were willing to go above and beyond for their cause. The protestors demanded that; government officials would hold televised live talks with them; the government would publish a favorable re-evaluation of the student movement; and the government would retract the April twenty-sixth editorial from the People’s Daily that criticized the students. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens converged to the square to show their support to those fasting, and eventually at least one tenth of the population was showing it’s support to the movement, including old people and children.
On May the seventeenth, Zhao traveled to the Square and pleaded with the students, begging them to cease the fasting, but they ignored him. On the fifth day of the fast, the government met with the core leaders of the protest to discuss their demands. Neither side was willing to budge. On the nineteenth of May, Zhao made his final public appearance by meeting the protesters in the Square. With tears in his eyes, he explained to them that he couldn’t resolve the situation. Zhao was then stripped of his government post.
The student’s act of rebellion brought the world to Tiananmen; foreign media focused their attention on the student protesters rather than the Sino-Soviet Summit, and images of students fainting and being taken away on stretchers by medics appeared all over western media. Deng was humiliated. On the nineteenth of May he formally declared Martial Law and the students called off the hunger strike. Deng sent convoys of the People’s Liberation Army to the city, sending an overall amount of about three hundred thousand soldiers, a majority of which were from out in the country, rural areas that hadn’t heard much about the protests.
Protestors blocked the soldier’s entry to the city. People flooded into the streets to stop them getting into the city. They talked to the soldiers, tried to appeal to them, asked them to join their cause. They brought them food and water. Four days later, the army was told to retreat. The government was humiliated. They stayed away for ten days. On the night of June third, a monstrous force entered Beijing under the orders, “The Square must be cleared by dawn. ” Protestors attempted to barricade the main roads and intersections with anything they could find, buses and trucks, anything they could find.
Protesters stood in lines, using their bodies as shields for the city. This did not stop the soldiers. They marched in with live ammunition and weapons ordinarily used for war. Angry citizens were everywhere; they couldn’t believe that the government would do this to its people. The streets were in confusion; people where being shot down or crushed by tanks. Doctors were running around and trying to help. Dead bodies lay about everywhere. Hospitals were overflowing. One doctor stated, “As doctors, we often see deaths. But we’ve never seen such a tragedy like this.
Every room in the hospital is covered with blood. ” The army reached Tiananmen Square at about one thirty in the morning. There were at least one hundred soldiers. They started to fire at the people in the square, and some still could not believe the government would be doing this to their people. At four fifteen, the lights in the Square went out. There was ten minutes of darkness; all that could be heard was the sound of people screaming and the sound of tanks rolling over the ground. The lights came back on; but not the ordinary ights, but the display lights used to light up the Great Hall of People. There was a river of troops flowing from the building. The soldiers offered the remaining protestors amnesty. The remaining left the square holding hands and singing the national anthem. On the fifth of June, remaining protestors, parents of the dead, and infuriated citizens tried to re-enter the Square. They were denied entrance and an officer told them, “I’m going to count to five, and then we’re going to fire. ” The people ran, but some still got shot in the back, and at least thirty to fifty people died.
Those who were not killed came back and tried to re-enter, producing the same results. The soldiers were unforgiving. The estimated death toll varies greatly. The Chinese Red Cross initially reported about two thousand and six hundred people dead, but under enormous government pressure, this number was retracted. The official figure is two hundred and forty-one dead, including twenty-three soldiers, and seven hundred wounded. Since the massacre, the government has arrested several thousand suspected rebels, many of them either receiving long prison sentences being executed.
This massacre was a terrible act committed against a group of protestors, most of which had only just become classified as adults. By the fifth of June, the government was in complete control of its citizens once more. The Tiananmen Square Massacre has become a taboo subject in China. Public commemoration of the massacre has been banned. The horrifying way the Chinese government ended the protests has frightened those who wish to speak out into submission. They used many soldiers to shock and terrify, and it worked.