The iconic photograph has been etched into 20th Century historical files as a symbol of the persistant desire of humans for democracy. A single young student blocking a column of tanks heading for Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China. We read or hear that the Chinese 27th Army Division opened fire on unarmed pro-democracy protesters on June 4, 1989. Street battles raged on for several days and thousands died. Very little else is recounted when the incident is noted by the mainstream media or classroom history courses.
The ’89 Democracy Movement was a series of events in Beijing that took place among the civilian population. Student-led protests received broad support among the city’s residents. Ideological rifts in the Chinese regime were brought to light during the handling of those demonstrations.
Three years earlier, professor of astrophysics Fang Lizhi returned from his tenure at Princeton University in New Jersey. He made a personal tour to Chinese universities. During his speeches and lectures, he spoke out about human rights, liberty, and political power. The professor became quite popular and his speeches were tape recorded and passed around by students. Meantime, Premier Deng Xiaoping denounced Fang claiming that the professor was undermining traditional values and party leadership.
Given impetus by global “people power” movements and inspired by professor Fang, students began staging protests in December of 1986. Party leaders became concerned about the spread of the demonstrations. General Secretary Hu Yaobang was in charge of calming the students and turning back the turmoil. Conservatives denounced Hu. They believed that the official had mishandled the situation and was too soft on the protesters. Hu was forced to resign in January of 1987.
Two years later, on April 15th, Hu died of a heart attack. Small gatherings of students spontaneously appeared shortly afterwards. University students erected shrines and joined the groups who were coming together at Tiananmen Square. A large memorial wreath had been constructed by students to honor Hu. On the 17th of April about 500 mourning students arrived at Tiananmen and the Great Hall of the People to lay the wreath and commemorate Hu. By nightfall, 1,000 more students arrived at The Great Hall.
The 1,500 group evolved into a demonstration. A leadership formed and soon drafted a list of demands. Other students listened to speeches and sang patriotic songs. Police guarded the Zhongnanhai building, the location of party leadership. The police disperesed most of the students by April 20th. While clearing the square of around 200 remaining students, police used nightsticks and clashed with the students at Xinhua Gate. The news of the incident sparked unrest among more students.
Party leadership was divided about how to handle the student movement. Some leaders wanted continued dialogue and reasoned approach to the concerns of students. The hardline conservatives thought otherwise that stability and enforcement outruled other concerns. A balanced approach was decided upon by those present at a party meeting.
At the same time, student leaders thought the official “dialogue” was yet another trick by officials to subvert students. Instead, students were organized for a hunger strike. Further complicating matters was the publicized state visit by Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union. The students understood that Gorbachev would be welcomed at Tiananmen Square, so they planned to hold their hunger strike at that location. They hoped that this action could be used to help bargain the government into implementing their demands. The peaceful nature of the protest earned widespread support and sympathy of the rank and file Chinese.
Similar protests and demonstrations were inspired and took place in other Chinese cities. Many of those students traveled to Beijing to participate in the Tiananmen Square actions.
By May 13, 1989, approximately 300,000 students and supporters had gathered in the government square. The students were orderly and well behaved. They participated in sign displays and singing of patriotic songs. Premier Deng Xiaoping feared the demonstration could become unruly so a negotiating meeting was called with student leaders and government officials. The government was willing to hold talks with student representatives, and that Gorbachev would not be welcomed at Tiananmen Square regardless of student withdrawal or not.
While students maintained their occupation of Tiananmen, Gorbachev was welcomed at the airport. Then, the Sino-Soviet Summit took place to normalize relations between the two countries. The summet took place at the Great Hall despite the demonstrations happening outside the building.
Foreign media remained in Beijing after the departure of the Soviet Leader in order to report on the protests. Also, other governments advised the Chinese regime to use restraint in controlling the protest. More students poured into Beijing and other demonstrations had sprung up in 400 other Chinese cities. The protests snowballed with representatives from other social organizations who wanted to present their own grievances.
The Chinese regime was confused and indecisive about how to cope with the situation and feared that its legitimacy and authority were at stake. Those fears and the fact that the hunger strikers had the moral high ground caused a great deal of pressure on Chinese leadership.
Central Committee General Secretary, Zhao Ziyang, addressed the students and pleaded with them to leave the square. The students ignored him. By the next week Zhao was placed under house arrest and the hardliners had seized control. On May 30th the pro-democracy protest crowd had swollen to more than a million people. On June 3rd, orders were given to have the army move in on the city.
That night, soldiers had reached Tiananmen Square and fired live ammunition at random into the crowds. Street battles erupted for several days in Beijing and several other major cities. The state operated television network warned citizens to remain indoors. However, even more crowds joined the demonstrations in order to block the incoming army.
The first civilian fatality happened around 10:00PM about 10 kilometers west of Tiananmen Square. Troops advanced closer and inflicted heavy casualties as soldiers straifed the area with gunfire. In the South, paratroopers used live ammunition against civilians with several deaths recorded. Confrontations between civilians and the military raged on throughout the day and night on June 4th.
The famous photo of the man standing in front of the tanks was snapped on June 5th. A tank driver attempted to drive past the lone protester. The man stood steadfast in front of the tanks for several minutes. He actually climbed onto the lead tank to talk to the tank crew. After he returned to his place in front of the tanks, the protester was pulled away by a group of bystanders.
After Tiananmen Square was cleared and order was restored. There was a government purge. Officials and citizens stopped talking about the events.
The Blue Jay of Happiness notes that Tiananmen translates into English as, “Gate of Heavenly Peace”.