The long shadow of Tiananmen Square

The long shadow of Tiananmen Square

14-minute read


Today marks the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. On this day in 1989 martial law troops fired on student protesters and random bystanders outside the Square at the heart of Beijing, killing an as-yet-unconfirmed number – perhaps as high as ten thousand.i The number of the dead counts as one kind of tragedy, but there is another. For two months prior to the Massacre the Chinese people had been standing at a great crossroads. A group of articulate and highly-organised university students had been calling for democratic reform, and they genuinely seemed to have won the support of the public. The Communist Party had wavered throughout these months. Before it lay two potential paths, two possible futures. One of these paths led to the establishment of a liberal democracy ruled by law; a China that would uphold human rights, respect freedom of speech, and ultimately trust its own citizens. Unfortunately we live in the second of the two possible futures. In our world the Party took the path of darkness, gunning down the students and crushing them under tanks. Ours is the world in which the Party halted its tentative steps toward political reform and began moving backward. Today the government has rewound the clock almost to the age of Mao Zedong, with the nation’s leader, Xi Jinping, revealing himself to be an old-fashioned tyrant in the Maoist mould. He monitors the Chinese people like Orwell’s Big Brother, watching their every move and punishing unorthodoxy.ii

It might be hard to imagine it now, but throughout the 1980s public protests were actually a common sight in China. Crowds of (mostly) young people would regularly gather to call for democratisation and the rule of law, and these demonstrations grew in size year after year. In 1988 nationwide surveys showed that 9.75% of China’s youth were dismissive of Marxist-Leninist ideology, regarding it as “ill-suited” to the country’s development. (In the twenty-first century such a figure would be unthinkable – no one would dare to express such sentiments.) Among university students alone the percentage was much higher: 39.7% thought that the concept of a communist society was a utopian ideal that could never be achieved. Meanwhile 59.2% of young people believed in the legitimacy of student protests.iii The public mood was already moving in a very clear direction, but in April 1989 everything shifted up a gear when reformist politician Hu Yaobang died suddenly of a heart attack. Hu had been seen as a symbol of liberal reform and progress, and because of this he had been blamed for the rise in protests and forced out of his leadership position. The Chinese people had called him the “soul of democracy,”iv and he was hugely popular. His death “set a spark to a pile of tinder that had grown very deep,” as the political scientist Andrew J. Nathan puts it.v

Students congregated to publicly mourn Hu, honouring him as a man of the people unfairly treated by the Central Party Committee. Rather than simply encouraging further reform and liberalisation as before, they began making urgent demands for change. They requested to meet government officials at the Great Hall of the People, and when their requests were refused, they arranged a sit-in outside Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party’s central headquarters. The mourning and protests soon solidified into one major movement, which decamped to Tiananmen Square and drafted a list – the ‘Seven Demands’ – for the government. The students called for an end to press censorship; a move towards transparency concerning the earnings of state leaders; an end to the ban on large-scale demonstrations; increased funding for education; the introduction of democratic elections; official recognition that the recent campaigns against ‘bourgeois liberalisation’ and so-called ‘spiritual pollution’ (meaning Western cultural influences) had been wrong; and the full official reinstatement of Hu Yaobang’s reputation, along with a statement of recognition that his ‘controversial’ views concerning democracy and freedom had actually been a good thing.

Tensions ran high as the protests continued through the days and weeks, and when student Wang Zhiyong left the Square one evening a group of police officers pursued him, cornered him, and beat him unconscious with leather belts. The following day enraged students called for a strike. The demands they issued give us some impression of the prevailing mood of righteous confidence: “The government must punish the perpetrators severely, the police must publish an apology in the open press and report the details of the incident accurately, and a response to these demands must be received by 5pm on 23 April or further action will be taken.”vi Such a response seems completely surreal when we look back on it today. In the years since 1989 the Communist Party has tightened its control on the population like a vice. Now the police routinely beat people to death (I personally know people in China who have lost their parents to police beatings), and citizens would never dream of demanding an apology from the authorities. To do so would be to risk death themselves. When we read about 1989 today from our distance of 30 years, the reports seem infused with a strange sweet agony: they are windows into a golden age of freedom, hope, and confidence that has been totally lost.

The heart of the movement may have been in Beijing, but by late April huge ten-thousand-strong demonstrations were taking place in every major Chinese city.vii By May the number of protesters in the capital had reached 1.2 million, and they appointed as their ‘commander-in-chief’ the beautiful 23-year-old psychology student Chai Ling.viii Under her leadership they began a mass hunger strike. Certain students mentioned in a press conference that if the government continued to ignore them, they would immolate themselves. The seriousness of the mood varied widely: 700 fasting students were rushed to hospital after collapsing, while at the same time a group from the Beijing College of Fashion marched around with banners suggesting that officials should wear bikinis to increase the transparency of government. ix But Chai Ling has also recalled a sense of euphoria in the Square. “People just came out from their shell of distrust and betrayal and hatred towards each other,” she remembers. “There was an amazing sense of unity and solidarity.”x The success of the movement was made abundantly clear when 100,000 non-students gathered at government buildings in Beijing to show solidarity with the protesters. They issued a stark warning: “If Party Central continues to refuse dialogue, we workers will rise up!” Back in the Square the exultant students raised a huge plaster statue – the Goddess of Democracy, deliberately modelled on the American Statue of Liberty.xi

Leaked minutes from government meetings of the time reveal an excessive paranoia among Party leaders. “This turmoil is the result of long-term preparation by a tiny minority of bourgeois liberal elements hooked up with anti-China forces outside the country,” said Premier Li Peng. First Vice Premier Yao Yilin agreed with him: “Some people are saying that students join this movement voluntarily, out of a sense of historic mission, with nobody prompting them from behind the scenes. That’s utter nonsense.” The authorities simply could not accept that the protests had risen up spontaneously as a result of widespread dissatisfaction with the Communist Party. It was easier to blame it all on ‘foreign devils’. Beijing party boss Li Ximing made some telling comments regarding Wu’erkaixi, one of the more prominent student leaders: “This illegal organisation leader is only twenty years old and is a Uyghur. Reports say he gets the worst grades in his class at Beijing Normal University. How can somebody like this understand strategy? There must be people behind him telling him what to do.” The picture that emerges is one of a paranoid cluster of politicians, hopelessly out of touch in their offices at Zhongnanhai, muttering and scheming and imagining devils behind every tree.xii

This is not to say that liberalising elements had completely disappeared from the Party after the death of Hu Yaobang. The minutes show, for instance, that Bo Yibo, Vice Chairman of the Central Advisory Commission, advised “grab(bing) the initiative by launching democratisation now.” Meanwhile General Secretary Zhao Ziyang emphasised “the need to accelerate the reform of our political system, especially the building of a system of socialist democracy based on law.” He drew the line at “play(ing) around with any Western multiparty systems,” but he certainly seems to have been more open-minded than most of his peers. He was also rather less given to paranoia: in private remarks to Li Peng, Zhao mused that “it’s hard to explain, and also hard to believe, how hundreds of thousands of people all over the country could be manipulated by a tiny minority.”xiii Unfortunately these liberal and reasonable factions within the Party appear to have been a minority themselves, and it was the paranoid authoritarians who would win the day.

Li Peng, for instance, deliberately misrepresented the students in his discussions with Deng Xiaoping. The aged and detached Deng was Chairman of the Central Military Commission, and although he had retired from all other posts he remained the de facto leader of the Communist Party. He was the man with the final say on all major decisions. Li told Deng that the students were plotting to overthrow the regime, knowing full well that they had no such plans. Li insisted that it was a personal attack on Deng himself, telling him “The spear is now directly pointed at you and the others of the elder generation of proletarian revolutionaries.” Deng swallowed the lies and publicly dubbed the movement a ‘riot’ – a highly significant choice of words because it meant that the protesters would be subject to criminal prosecution when the movement was over. Now they couldn’t end the demonstrations until they could be sure that the narrative had changed and ‘rioters’ had been renamed ‘patriotic protesters’. They had no choice but to stay in the Square. Li Peng had inadvertently prolonged the problem – or then again, it may be that he knew exactly what he was doing, and bloody massacre was part of his plan.xiv

On 17 May Deng Xiaoping declared martial law. Zhao Ziyang wrote to him begging him to placate the students and reverse the official position about ‘turmoil’ and ‘rioters’. He also asked Secretary-General Yang Shangkun to help explain his position to Deng, but Yang’s response was “I cannot say that to him… Changing the judgement would be a slap in the face.”xv The phrases are “Comrade Xiaoping’s original words,” said Li Peng, the man who had put the words into Deng Xiaoping’s mouth in the first place. “They cannot be changed.”xvi This inflexible conservatism was certainly one of the primary reasons for the Massacre. The idea of contradicting Deng was unthinkable for most of the Party leaders, and this meant that they would never be able to satisfy the students’ demands. Indeed, on the same day that martial law was declared, the Tiananmen protesters had issued a proclamation: the last Chinese dynasty may have ended long ago, they said, but as far as they were concerned the country was still ruled by an uncrowned emperor.xvii The private comments of Party leaders vindicate this belief. In principle Deng Xiaoping may have been just another ‘Comrade’, but in practice he was clearly the Son of Heaven (the traditional imperial title). We might envisage Li Peng as a machiavellian vizier whispering in the emperor’s ear, poisoning his thoughts: “Don’t trust any of them, your Excellency! They’re all conspiring against you! Let me deal with them!” The truth is that in 1989 the people of China were ready for change. The protesters had been peaceful, articulate, and well-organised, for the most part. They had shown that they possessed all the maturity and restraint necessary for forming a successful liberal democracy. It was the Party leadership that remained incapable of moving forward.

Nevertheless Li Peng and a handful of other politicians were persuaded to meet with the student leaders in the Great Hall of the People. The television cameras were rolling, and Wu’erkaixi provided one of the defining images of the time as he confidently addressed the heads of state in his pyjamas (he had just left hospital after treatment for heart complications related to fasting).xviii Li began by remarking that he was late due to the traffic congestion, and then he started explaining that the purpose of the meeting was to find a way to end the fast, but Wu’erkaixi quickly interrupted him. “The time is pressing. We can sit down and have a drink here, but the (other) students are sitting on the cold ground and starving on the square.” Li continued: “It does not matter if…” but Wu’erkaixi interrupted him again. “It certainly does matter. You have just said that this meeting is a little late. The fact is that we asked for a meeting with you as early as April 22 at Tiananmen Square. Therefore this meeting is not only a little late, but too late.”xix As for the purpose of the meeting, Wu’erkaixi calmly explained that the students had invited the politicians to talk, not the other way round, and so they would be the ones to set the agenda.xx It would be difficult to over-estimate the impact this scene must have had on the millions watching at home. They saw a 20-year-old sitting in his pyjamas, repeatedly interrupting and contradicting one of the nation’s leaders, showing himself at every turn to be the more intelligent and confident of the two. Li Peng smiled for the cameras while plotting revenge in his black heart. Wu’erkaixi was now a marked man.

The minutes from government meetings indicate that by June the authorities had completely lost their cool. Deng Xiaoping spat angry comments about the “scum of our nation.” Vice President Wang Zhen went further: “Those goddamn bastards… (deserve) death and no burial!” The Goddess of Democracy had not gone down well, at least not with Chairman Li Xiannian: “Just look at that thing – like neither human nor demon – that they’ve erected there in our beautiful Square!” It was agreed that the Square must be cleared of protesters, and as Wang Zhen said, “If it causes deaths, that’s their own fault.”xxi

On June 3 martial law troops began descending on Tiananmen, but protesters overturned their vehicles and beat many of the soldiers. Tear gas and rubber bullets were fired into the crowds outside the Square, and when troops were blocked by tens of thousands of protesters at Muxidi Bridge, they began firing live ammunition. In the early hours of the 4th soldiers entered the Square. The Goddess of Democracy was toppled and the remaining students were driven out at gunpoint. When everyone was outside the Square, the troops opened fire again. They appeared to be shooting indiscriminately – even children as young as nine were killed.xxii Female students were bayoneted as they begged for their lives, and burnt human remains were hosed down the drains.xxiii In response rioters beat some soldiers to death, and burned others alive inside their trucks.

Most reporters at the People’s Daily, China Central Television, and China Radio International took the side of the students as they covered the crackdown, and the Party investigated and fired many of them as a result.xxiv Thousands of protesters were arrested, and some of them were quickly sentenced to death. Meanwhile the student leaders met with a variety of fates. Some were captured and imprisoned; others managed to get out of the country in time. Chai Ling escaped concealed in a cargo box on board a boat to Hong Kong. Wu’erkaixi was in more danger than most: he had offended Li Peng with his tone when they met in the Great Hall of the People, and now the Premier was out for blood. Luckily Wu’erkaixi had his informants. “I was told the People’s Liberation Army had been given a secret order not to capture Wu’erkaixi alive,” he recalls. He enlisted the help of gangsters and was eventually smuggled out of China.xxv

After Tiananmen Square the Communist Party continued down the path of economic reform, but halted its fledgling steps toward political reform.xxvi Indeed, these steps may never have been serious in the first place: student leader Yi Danxuan says “the gunshots actually stripped away the lies and the veils that the government had been wearing.”xxvii There had been official talk of democratisation and political reform in the years leading up to 1989, but the moment this talk threatened to become a reality, the Party showed its true face. With the exception of isolated figures like Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, the Party had always been of one mind. Its own power was the real priority. “The object of power is power,” as O’Brien said in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.xxviii Today that power is being used to erase the Tiananmen Square Massacre from the history pages, and also from the minds of the Chinese public. Many young people in China have grown up knowing nothing of the momentous events of 1989. It is not even possible to search for details online.

With incredible sadism, the Communist Party now refuses to grant passports to the elderly parents of student leaders who escaped. They cannot leave China to see their sons and daughters, and their sons and daughters cannot get into China to see them. Wu’erkaixi has not seen his parents for three decades, although in recent years he has made several desperate attempts. He has handed himself over to the Hong Kong authorities, the Macau authorities, the Chinese embassy in Washington, and the Chinese embassy in Tokyo, without success. “I miss my parents and my family, and I hope to be able to be reunited with them while they are still alive, even if the reunion would have to take place behind a glass wall,” he says. “I am willing to turn myself in to the Chinese authorities. I urge the [Hong Kong Special Administrative Region] SAR government, based on Chinese law, and by my own agreement, to exercise its judicial power and extradite me to the Chinese authorities.”xxix The Communist Party could certainly make this happen if it wanted to, but Party leaders apparently gain more satisfaction from dragging out Wu’erkaixi’s emotional torture, in addition to prolonging his parents’ pain. Meanwhile Chai Ling’s overseas activism has led to threats being issued against her father from high

This abuse of the frail and elderly appears to be a theme with the Communist Party. Certain citizens who lost children in the massacre have organised themselves into a group called the Tiananmen Mothers,xxxi and every year when the anniversary comes around, these octogenarian ladies are placed under house arrest. Police thugs crowd their doorways and stop all visitors. The Tiananmen Mothers are also followed and surveilled on almost every significant date: Chinese Spring Festival, Tomb Sweeping Day, the Two Congresses, and seemingly whenever there is any major national event.xxxii There is no reason for this surveillance other than intimidation – the state is deliberately and systematically terrorising the families of the deceased. In a joint statement released three years ago, the Tiananmen Mothers described how they have lived through three decades of “white terror and suffocation.”xxxiii Naturally they are also dying off, more and more of them every year now, and the Party clearly hopes that the memory of the tragedy will die with them. But as the surviving members stated in their emotional press release three years ago, “A government that forgets, conceals, and covers up the truth of historical suffering has no future… (We) declare publicly to future generations: do not succumb to brute force, confront all evil forces with courage, and justice will prevail. The June Fourth Massacre will forever be etched into the history of the world – no amount of power can rub this out!”xxxiv One day there will be a reckoning for the Communist Party, and until that day comes, we need to preserve the memory of Tiananmen Square.


i Adam Lusher – “At least 10,000 people died in Tiananmen Square Massacre, secret British cable from the time alleged,” The Independent, 23 December 2017

iii Andrew J. Nathan & Perry Link (eds), Zhang Liang (compiler) – The Tiananmen Papers: The Chinese Leadership’s Decision To Use Force Against Their Own People – In Their Own Words (Abacus, London, 2002 edition, orig. 2001), pp. 14-5, 22. Nathan, Link, & Zhang cite “Excerpt from Joint Committee on Women and Youth of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and the Central Office of the Communist Youth League: report on a survey of the current state of ideology among youth,” chapter 3, section 1, 28 March 1989; “Excerpt from State Education Commission: report to Party Central and the State Council on student protests in the 1980s and the current ideological state of college students,” 19 July 1988

iv Ibid., p34

v Ibid.xlii

vi Ibid., pp. 52-3. Nathan, Link, & Zhang cite excerpt from State Security Ministry: “April 21 student trends at the Chinese University of Political Science and Law,” Yaoqing kuaixun no. 173, 21 April 1989

vii Ibid., pp. 107, 151

ix Nathan, Link, & Zhang, op. cit., pp. 226, 255-8

x “From Tiananmen to Boston, Chai Ling confronts China,” Radio Boston, 19 October 2011

xi Nathan, Link, & Zhang, op. cit., pp. 60, 421

xii Ibid., pp. 113-7. Nathan, Link, & Zhang cite excerpt from Party Central Office Secretariat: “Minutes of Politburo Standing Committee enlarged meeting,” 28 April 1989

xiii Ibid., pp. 141-2, 155. Nathan, Link, & Zhang cite excerpts from Party Central Office Secretariat: “Minutes of Politburo Standing Committee meeting,” 1 May 2019; Materials for the Fourth Plenum of the Thirteenth Central Committee – “Remarks of Comrade Zhao Ziyang,” Secretariat of the Fourth Plenum of the CCP Thirteenth Central Committee, 23-24 June 1989

xiv Ibid., pp. 94, xliii-xliv, 100. Nathan, Link, & Zhang cite excerpt from Party Central Office Secretariat, 25 April 1989; “The necessity for a clear stand against turmoil,” The People’s Daily, 26 April 1989, p1

xv Ibid., pp. 265-6. Nathan, Link, & Zhang cite Materials for the Fourth Plenum of the Thirteenth Central Committee – “Remarks of Comrade Yang Shangkun,” Secretariat of the Fourth Plenum of the CCP Thirteenth Central Committee, 23-4 June 1989

xvi Ibid., p239. Nathan, Link, & Zhang cite excerpts from Party Central Office Secretariat, “Minutes from the May 16 Politburo Standing Committee meeting,” 16 May 1989

xvii Ibid., p258

xviii “Witnessing Tiananmen: student talks fail,” BBC News, 28 May 2004

xix “30 years ago: Li Peng meets student representatives,” China Digital Times, 18 May 2019

xx Nathan, Link, & Zhang, op. cit., p266

xxi Ibid., pp. 470-1, 475, 477

xxii Ibid., pp. 482-3, 491, 503-5, 575, 506. Nathan, Link, & Zhang cite Martial Law Command – “Situation of the martial law troops’ advance and losses,” Kuaibao, 4 June 1989

xxiii Lusher, op. cit.

xxiv Nathan, Link, & Zhang, op. cit., pp. 511-3

xxv Jamil Anderlini – “Tiananmen Square: the long shadow,” The Financial Times, 1 June 2014

xxvi Nathan, Link, & Zhang, op. cit., xlvii

xxvii Quoted by Perry Link in Rowena Xiaoqing He – Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China (Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2014), xii

xxviii George Orwell – Nineteen Eighty-Four (Penguin, London, 1989 edition, orig. 1949), p276

xxix Clifford Coonan – “Wu’er Kaixi: the Chinese dissident who can’t get himself arrested – not even to go home and see his sick parents,” The Independent, 25 November 2013 

xxx Chai Ling – A Heart for Freedom: The Remarkable Journey of a Young Dissident, Her Daring Escape, and Her Quest to Free China’s Daughters (Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Illinois, 2011), xii

xxxii Didi Kirsten Tatlow – “Ding Zilin, founder of Tiananmen Mothers, is silenced by Chinese police,” The New York Times, 1 June 2016

xxxiii “Tiananmen Mothers: no amount of power can rub out June Fourth,” Human Rights in China press release, 1 June 2016

xxxiv Ibid.

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