“Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others they send forth a ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples built a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” ~ Robert Kennedy
The Tank Man of Tiananmen Square
“Be isolated, be ignored, be attacked, be in doubt, be frightened, but do not be silenced.” ~ Bertrand Russell
Today, June 4, 2009, marks the 20th anniversary of the student uprising in Tiananmen Square in China. Students from various universities led a series of mass demonstrations in Beijing, calling for greater freedoms and economic reforms that challenged the supremacy of the Chinese Communist Party. The key event that sparked the protest was the death of former Secretary General Hu Yaobang, a well-liked figure who was forced to resign because he supported economic and political reform.
On April 17, small groups of people gathered at the Great Hall of the People, part of Tiananmen Square, to mourn Hu Yaobang. By midnight, the group had grown to include students from Peking and Tsinghua Universities. The initial reason for the gathering changed as students began drafting a list of pleas and suggestions (list of seven demands) that they wanted the government to listen to and carry through. The night before Hu’s funeral, April 21, 100,000 students gathered in Tiananmen Square. The students called for a strike on the universities.
The demonstrations began in earnest on April 27, 1989 when students from Peking University, People’s University, Tsinghua University, University of Political Science and Law, and Beijing Normal University met up in a march through the city towards Tiananmen Square. As the students walked, more and more came out and joined in the march. Even some non-students participated in the march. As described in an excerpt from Eddie Cheng’s book, Standoff at Tiananmen Square:
There were also occasional non-students in the march. At the front of the TsinghuaUniversity block, several old professors marched witha particular display of dignity. Their silver hair danced in the sunshine as they proudly held up a sign: “[We have been] kneeling for too long, [now we] stand up and walk a little.” The sign was referring both to the students’ kneeling petition and the sufferings these professors had endured under the decades of communist rule.
By the time the student procession reached Tiananmen Square, it was estimated that over 200,000 people had marched, with over one million citizens cheering them on along the route.
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” ~ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
On May 4, approximately 100,000 students and workers marched in Beijing to make demands for free media and to call for a formal dialogue between the authorities and student-elected representatives. A declaration demanded the government to accelerate political reform. The government refused the proposed dialogue, but agreed to speak with selected student organization representatives.
The students held repeated meetings on what their next actions should be. The idea of a hunger strike was brought to the table as a possible means of forcing the government to hold talks with the student representatives. In China, the government, by law, must intervene in a hunger strike after 72 hours, so the students who were considering the strike never really thought that such a strike would go on for very long. It was decided that the hunger strike would begin on May 14, while the Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev was visiting China.
One of the protestors, Chai Ling, announced her intentions to strike and made a very moving speech to the crowd:
Why should we go on a hunger strike? Because we want to use this method, the only freedom we have left, to see the true face of our country and the true face of our people. I want to see if this country is worth our sacrifice and contribution . . . The government has time and again lied to us, ignored us. We only want the government to talk with us and to say that we are not traitors. We, the children, are ready to die. We, the children, are ready to use our lives to pursue the truth. We, the children, are ready to sacrifice ourselves.
We want to fight to live. We want to fight to live withthe resolve of death.
Chai Ling’s heartfelt speech moved many in the crowd to tears, and her extemporaneous speech was shaped into a Hunger Strike manifesto. In the beginning, over 100 students participated in the strike. By May 17, day 5 of the hunger strike, a reportedly two to three thousand people were participating in the strike. On May 19, the students called off the strike and turned their protest into a sit-in at Tiananmen Square. They had been informed that the government was going to impose martial law on May 20.
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will.” ~ Frederick Douglass
On May 20, troops approached the site of the protest, but thousands of regular citizens barred their way. May 24 marked the 5th day of martial law. Sunday, May 28, was designated as a day for global demonstration for democracy in China. All over the world people of Chinese heritage and descendancy, as well as those sympathetic to the protestors’ cause showed their solidarity with the protesters in Tiananmen Square.
May 30, the students were supposed to end their protest and leave the square to return to their universities and their studies. Funds were running low, and many of the participants were losing hope of obtaining any lasting changes. However, a decision was made to stay in the square for three more weeks.
On the night of May 30, students erected their Goddess of Democracy and Freedom. Constructed of foam and papier mache, the statue stood at about 33 feet tall. The students who built the statue transported it to Tiananmen Square on four carts, and used two other carts to carry the tools necessary to assemble it. Ironically, the statue faced the huge portrait of Chairman Mao.
However, by June 2, it was becoming clear to the protesters and the rest of the world that the government was sending in more troops to encircle Tiananmen Square. Tensions were running high. The student protesters were tired; many were dispirited, and some wanted to end the protest. On the morning of June 3, protesters awoke to find military troops wearing white shirts and army pants surrounding Tiananmen Square. That night, the shooting began.
The assault began when APC’s (Armored Personnel Carriers) and troops with bayonets descended on the crowd. The government had also sent infantry troops bearing assault rifles to the site to deal with the protesters once and for all. Tents that had been erected during the time of the protest were crushed indiscriminately, whether or not individuals were inside. A tent gives little protection against an oncoming tank.
At first many in the crowd believed the soldiers to be firing rubber bullets and were not afraid, but as soon as the blood began to appear on shirts and skin, the horror of what was really happening became real. Students were shouting, “Why are you killing us?”
Reporter Charlie Cole was on scene and reported that at about 4 or 5 in the morning of June 4, tanks began smashing into the square, crushing vehicles and people. By 5:40 a.m. June 4, the Square had been cleared.
In all, the movement lasted seven weeks. Accounts of the number of people killed vary considerably. China reported that only 241 people died. The media said it was as many as 800, but Amnesty International estimated that 1,000 people were killed in the Tiananmen Square massacre, including people who were just onlookers. Reactions from around the world were predominantly negative. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher expressed “utter revulsion and outrage,” and was “appalled by the indiscriminate shooting of unarmed people.”
“It is in the inherent nature of human beings to yearn for freedom, equality and dignity. Brute force, no matter how strongly applied, can never subdue the basic desire for freedom and dignity. ~ The Dalai Lama
In China, the massacre is known as the June 4th incident—such an innocuous name for a barbaric act. Chinese censors have managed to erase all mention of that tragedy from the country’s textbooks and state-run media. Chinese youth born after the event are never taught anything about what happened during those seven weeks. If they know anything about the Tiananmen Square massacre, it is because they have learned about it from family members. The tradition of oral history ensures that June 4, 1989 is never forgotten.
If you are too young to remember the detailed events of what happened in the People’s Republic of China during those seven weeks, I hope that you will take a chance to learn more. So much can be gained in examining these events. For one thing, students and others from all over joined in this protest because they believed that it was time for a change in the Chinese government. The protesters viewed themselves as Chinese patriots, carrying on the May 4th Movement for “science and democracy” in 1919.
The students’ activity gradually developed from protests against corruption into demands for freedom of the press and an end to, or the reform of, the rule of the PRC by the Communist Party of China and leader Deng Xiaoping. Some bore signs and carried banners that read, “Give me liberty or give me death.”
Granted, the protest suffered from a lack of unified leadership, with different people making decisions for all involved at different times. There was infighting, as is usually the case in a massive protest. Most of the students were privileged and looking for more freedom in the media and in speech; while the workers who supported the protest were alarmed by the government’s new economic reforms, growing inflation, and government corruption.
The protesters themselves urged people not involved in the protest not to harm the soldiers, not to throw bottle rockets. In spite of this, those involved in the protest never dreamed that it would all come to such a violent, bloody end.
A few other points:
- The world once again stood by and watched as an atrocity unfolded before their eyes.
- A tyrannical government under military rule chose to use force even though many of those in power preferred to keep things peaceful.
- The PRC leaders who were in favor of a soft approach to the demonstrations, including General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, were overruled.
- Because journalists from the West had been invited to cover the Gorbachev visit, many were on-hand to document what happened on June 3rd and 4th in Tiananmen Square.
- If we are to believe the PRC, none of the above ever happened.
I will never forget for as long as I have memory, the image of that single man who had the courage to face down a column of tanks. He had no weapons, only grocery bags. He was no one famous. In fact, he has never been named. His act was completely spontaneous, but that act reflects exactly the difference that one individual can make in the history of the world. Show anyone who is old enough to remember that picture, and I can almost guarantee you that they will pause for a moment in what they are doing because that image is seared into our collective conscious.
The PRC would not have us remember this anniversary. They have wished it all away. But it is our job, as everyday people, to remember history-changing events like Tiananmen Square—if for no other reason than to be able to recount what happened orally, that we pass down this knowledge to those who come after us, that we make sure that however many people who died during those hours, that they did not die in vain.
I have always been a big Abraham Lincoln fan, ever since I had to memorize The Gettysburg Address in fourth grade. But Lincoln was wrong: The world did note, and everyone remembered Gettysburg. I find it wholly applicable that these same words be used to describe those students who sought in 1989 what we too often shamelessly take for granted:
The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.
I leave you with these indelible images. Peace be with you.