In the mid-1980s, China was in a deplorable economic and political situation. The country’s poverty levels and underdevelopment were increasingly notorious, but the wealth of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership continued to grow thanks to blatant levels of corruption.
This situation exponentially increased the dissatisfaction of the general population, especially among academic circles, where the idea became widespread that the country’s dire economic situation, along with the disasters following the utter failure of the Cultural Revolution, were a direct result of the repressive political and economic system.
In universities across the country, concepts such as freedom, human rights, democracy, separation of powers, free speech and other issues associated with capitalist and Western government systems began to be introduced and take hold among students behind the back of the communist regime.
Students and teachers began to press for urgent reforms that would lead China to an opening to the Western world and policies aimed at developing individual freedoms that were almost non-existent under the communist regime.
Protests grew considerably throughout the country, especially in the large urban conglomerates with a higher concentration of young students.
Thus, the leader of the CCP at that time, Deng Xiaoping, was cornered by public pressure and launched the “anti-bourgeois liberalization campaign,” targeting students and academics and employing all kinds of methods to restrict their political activity.
The results were contrary to expectations, and the student movements and protests notoriously increased in strength and became more and more massive.
By 1989, alarmed by the growth of poverty, rising inflation, and lavish corruption, urban workers joined the students in their cause, enabling the development of a much larger movement that shook the Chinese regime.
After a series of clashes and police repression in different parts of China, there followed the Tiananmen Massacre of June 4, which involved the army breaking into Beijing Square, where more than a million students and ordinary citizens were peacefully protesting against the Chinese communist regime. An uncertain number of people met their deaths after being beaten and shot by the security forces.
This provoked widespread condemnation from almost the entire Western world except for those communist governments that defended the aberrant actions of the Chinese regime.
As the generalized discontent of the Chinese population and the notable oppression of its government became evident, the regime was forced to undertake a great and successful campaign to change its image at a global level during the following years. However, the logic of control and repression remained unchanged.
June 3-4, 1989
More than a million students and ordinary citizens occupied the famous Tiananmen Square at the beginning of June 1989. The same happened in the central squares of all major Chinese cities, becoming the largest demonstration against the communist regime.
The movement was part of the wave of demands and openings in Eastern Europe at the time, which later led to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The demonstrators generally appealed to non-violent methods to express their discontent with the regime and to demand the advance of open and democratic policies.
Meanwhile, the communist leadership was fragmented between those who thought that the government should give in to some demands and others who did not hesitate to propose repression in the face of the threat posed by libertarian ideas.
In the end, the hard line of the government won, led by Deng Xiaoping, who, during the night of June 3 and 4, 1989, sent the People’s Liberation Army and the police to clear the crowded square, opening fire on anyone who got in the way. Better a massacre than disorder…
The Chinese government never said how many protesters were killed, and there are no official figures, although it is known to be in the hundreds and thousands.
Witnesses say that gunfire rocked the entire city, while explosions from trucks and buses lit up the sky and deafened everyone with the thunderous booms.
In an interview with Bitter Winter, Rose Tang, a pro-democracy activist who participated in the 1989 student protest and survived the bloody repression by the Chinese communist regime, recalled the heart-pounding details of what happened on that day.
After months of failing to address the demands of the protests, the Chinese government decreed martial law on May 20, 1989, which was a ‘tipping point’ recalls Rose, as hundreds of military vehicles began to arrive on the outskirts of Beijing, including tanks and soldiers.
During the day of the massacre, the Communist regime used the People’s Liberation Army to crush the protests. According to the activist, they were very young Chinese who were afraid and avoided looking people in the face.
“Burning buses and trucks scattered around, people were reorganizing barricades preparing to stop more troops. But, to my surprise, the inside of the square was very quiet; many locals were strolling around, just like any other summer evening,” Rose recounted.
On the night of June 4, thousands of soldiers emerged out of nowhere, bayonets blazing into the crowd of protesters, killing women, men and even children on the scene. A ruthless and chilling scene.
The troops were firing indiscriminately, but the rioters refused to leave the place, which aroused more violence and viciousness in the police personnel.
Rose escaped among the bodies of the dead people lying on the ground. She was beaten by a soldier but managed to climb onto a war tank, and pass to the other side to escape from the square.
“The square was cordoned off by tanks. We heard gunshots in the distance as we walked slowly through narrow alleys between traditional courtyards. Locals came out and gave us shoes,” Rose detailed.
“A crying student joined us, holding a small pair of blood-stained glasses with two bullet holes in them. She described how troops had shot a 12-year-old girl near Mao’s mausoleum. She was taking a walk with her five-year-old sister,” the Chinese activist painfully recalled.
The Tank Man
At the very heart of the massacre is an unforgettable episode. Eternal. The paradigm of rebellion: one against all. On the morning of June 5, when the shooting and explosions ceased, a group of five tanks was leaving the square in a row along one of the surrounding avenues, when the unexpected happened.
A man, with nothing but a small bag in his left hand, stood in the middle of the road, defiantly blocking the way of the giant iron rolling armor.
The tanks were forced to stop their march and the shouts of the soldiers did not frighten him at all. He kept it up for several minutes, with dignity, with grandeur, until they managed to drive him out of the way. Who is he? Although there are many theories about it, it was never known.
A photographer managed to immortalize the moment. His image will remain in history as a symbol of the peaceful resistance of those thousands of students and workers who one day dared to confront the enormous CCP, who decided to eliminate them instead of attending to their demands for freedom.
What the regime is currently saying about the massacre
The Chinese communist regime, since the events of 1989 and up to the present, has tried using all kinds of tricks to hide what happened and deny the massacre.
Today, although thousands of mothers still mourn their children who died or disappeared in those years, the Chinese communist regime forbids any commemoration and has blocked any information on the matter on the Internet.
Whenever international human rights groups and some local activists try to remind people of the events, the regime intensifies censorship on Chinese social networks, which is noticeable in various ways, including some ridiculous ones such as the removal of certain emojis associated with peaceful claims (candles, leaves, mourning ribbons) on the Weibo chat application.
Those who attempt to circumvent the controls may face jail time. Just sending an image related to the events on social networks can create problems.
The regime does not accept that society even talks and discusses what happened during those days. History books do not even mention those turbulent years, and CCP leaders have repeatedly downplayed the events, saying that it was a simple conflict between sectors that endangered social stability and the government, which simply took care of calming the riots.
For their part, the international community and the rulers of the leading Western countries have repudiated and taken concrete actions during the first years after the massacre, but then, once China’s economy began to grow and the interest in developing business and commercial exchanges with the regime increased, the official claims were limited, in the best of cases, to simple protocol messages.