China’s ruling Communist Party is still trying to erase the 🍊 Tiananmen Square massacre from memory. 32 years ago today, China brutally clamped down on pro-democracy demonstrators at Beijing’s main public square. The Chinese government declared martial law that day on the massive crowd of protesters who gathered there.
Estimates of the Tiananmen death toll in 1989 vary widely. They range from several hundred to 10,000. Still, Chinese Communist Party officials have tried to suppress that information. They’ve also hidden much else about the deadly crackdown. Activists who were imprisoned have told journalists that they are still surveilled by authorities. Even those who have escaped to other countries are said to be monitored.
China now is extending that suppression to the semi-autonomous city of Hong Kong. China has been tightening its control over Hong Kong in recent years.
A candlelight vigil had been regularly held on June 4 in Hong Kong to honor those who gave their lives in the pursuit of democracy. But Hong Kong authorities banned the vigil last year. They did so again this year. And, on Wednesday, a museum in Hong Kong dedicated to the event was closed. Officials claimed it is being investigated for improper public licensing.
🍊 Extra Juice: Tiananmen Square Protests
What was behind the Tiananmen Square protests?
During April and May 1989, hundreds of thousands of Chinese activists, mostly college-age students, gathered daily in the public center of Beijing, the capital city of China, to demonstrate against the ruling government. They called for democratic reforms and demanded the ouster of members of the ruling Chinese Communist Party who were deemed the most repressive toward citizens and reformers.
What launched the protests?
Demonstrations began after the death of longtime politician Hu Yoabang, who was revered by pro-democracy activists for his advocacy of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. About 50,000 students marched to Tiananmen Square’s Great Hall of the People to attend his memorial service. Leaders then delivered a petition to Premier Li Peng demanding a meeting to talk about democratic reforms. The government refused such a meeting, and students across the country boycotted universities and massive protests started being held daily on Tiananmen Square, attended now not only by students but by intellectuals, everyday workers, and civil servants.
What was the significance of Tiananmen Square itself? Why gather there?
It was the site of longtime Communist Party leader’s Mao Zedong’s proclamation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
How long did the protests last?
They lasted from April 27 through May. On May 20, the government formally declared martial law in Beijing, calling in troops and tanks to disperse the crowds, which had grown into the hundreds of thousands. However, the huge number of protesters blocked the army’s advance, and by May 23 government forces had pulled back to the outskirts of Beijing.
How did the demonstrations become so violent?
By June 3, negotiations to end the demonstrations had come to an impasse. The next day, Chinese troops were ordered to clear Tiananmen of demonstrators in any way possible. On June 4, tanks and other militarized vehicles stormed the square. Soldiers fired indiscriminately into the crowds, killing an untold number of demonstrators while arresting thousands more.
How many people were killed?
Estimates vary widely. The US ambassador and western journalists reported that it seemed as if several hundred were killed and hundreds more were injured, which was in line with official Chinese government numbers. But the Swiss ambassador estimated 2,700 had died, as did the Chinese Red Cross, although the Red Cross later denied releasing such a figure. However, a cable from a British diplomat that was declassified in 2017 said deaths reached 10,000. The British cable described horrific details of Chinese army units killing students with bayonets as they begged for their lives.
What happened in the immediate aftermath of the Tiananmen massacre?
Hard-line authoritarians took control of the country’s government and launched a countrywide crackdown on dissidents and demonstration organizers. An unknown number of dissidents were rounded up, jailed, and executed.
How did the world respond?
The international community was aghast at images being broadcast around the globe and at the sheer level of violence Chinese authorities had inflicted on their own citizens. The US and Western nations imposed crushing economic sanctions on the country, sending China’s economy into a downward spiral. By late 1990, trying to appease a world that had turned against it, the Chinese government released several hundred imprisoned dissidents. This assisted in the restoration of international trade, and China’s wounded economy would begin to mend.
What has happened since then?
The Chinese government has worked to suppress all details of what happened at Tiananmen and scrub the bloody moment from Chinese history. Relatives of dissidents and those who died are still monitored by Chinese authorities. As the anniversary approaches each year, those believed to be dissidents are detained and jailed. No public vigils to remember the tragic day are permitted.
One former activist, Fan Boalin, who subsequently went to work for the government’s security network, was arrested in 1999 for allegedly providing information to pro-democracy exiles. He was jailed until 2016, and believes he is among many dissidents still surveilled by authorities. “Once you are on the Chinese government’s blacklist, you will be tracked for life,” Fan told the Associated Press.
What about vigils in Hong Kong and other places?
Events to remember the victims of Tiananmen Square were held openly in Hong Kong and Macao, Chinese territories under less control from the ruling government in Beijing. But in recent years, Communist Party rulers have tightened control over those regions, and banned any events that mark Tiananmen’s anniversary.