I was in the middle of studying for my Politics and Government degree at the time. I was at the end of my first year at City of London Polytechnic (it’s now London Guildhall University) and my second year was going to consist of studying the political systems of France, Russia, USA and China. Then this happened. I watched the events unfold with a combination of disbelief and horror. These were students, like myself, protesting peacefully but were eventually massacred at the hands of the army on the instructions of the Governement.
Background to the protests
In April 1989 the former Communist Party General Secretary, Hu Yaobang, died. He was a liberal reformer who lost power to hardliners (notably Deng Xiaoping) regarding political and economic reforms. He had voiced concerns about inflation, limited career prospects and corruption in the party elite.
Students marched to Tiananmen Square to mourn his death. They asked for government accountability, freedom of the press, freedom of speech and the restoration of workers’ control over industry. (It’s incredible isn’t it – things we consider basic rights in the West). They were led by a group of students one of whom was called Wu’erkaixi from Beijing Normal University.
At the height of the protests there were about 1 million people in Tiananmen Square, most of them students from Beijing. The protests led to demonstrations in 400 cities in China by mid May. There was wide support for the protesters, especially from the city residents.
There was a state visit by the Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev in mid May and journalistic reporting restrictions were loosened during his state visit. As a consequence the world’s media were able to report on the protests and the Chinese state media broadcast footage sympathetic to the protesters.
What was the reponse?
The Communist Party leader, Deng Xiaoping, and other party elders resolved to use force and imposed martial law on 20th May 1989. 300,000 troops were mobilised in Beijing. The People’s Liberation Army’s entry into the city was blocked at the suburbs by protesters initially but they returned later.
The tide had turned on the peaceful protests. The protestors were forcibly suppressed and on the night of 3rd June and the morning of 4th June troops with assault rifles (using expanding bullets to create larger wounds) and tanks killed unarmed civilians. Deaths have been estimated between 241-3000 as China actively suppress discussion and research no one has been able to verify the death toll.
The government carried out mass arrests and many workers were summarily tried and executed. Students received lighter sentences of 7 years due to being well connected and from wealthier backgrounds. Some students and university staff were permanently stigmatised and never worked again.
Some student leaders including Wu’erkaixi escaped to Taiwan, the USA (Wang Dan), UK and France (Chai Ling) under Operation Yellowbird organised from the British Territory of Hong Kong (at that time).
The Chinese government continues to suppress any public discussion of the protests and books, films etc have been confiscated and destroyed. Children born in the late 1980s in China have no knowledge other than the government one that military force was necessary to quell a political riot. To this day the censorship continues and justice for those that died has never been given.