In Hong Kong, pro-election protestors have been preparing for the 15th anniversary of the People's Liberation Army's massacre of people trying to liberate themselves in Beijing in 1989. In the rest of China, protest is somewhat more difficult.
The massacre is usually referred to as the Tiananmen Square massacre in the West and we have become familiar with the idea of PLA soldiers gunning down students in Beijing's famous plaza, but, as a report by Robert Marquand for the US news magazine, the Christian Science Monitor highlights, much of this imagery is incorrect. There is very little evidence of much killing in the Square itself - the slaughter actually took place in the back streets of Beijing.
US historian Jonathan Spence describes the movement emerging from students and reformist Communist Party cadres at the Party history department in Beijing university who were inspired both by the reformist Party Secretary Zhao Ziyang and Mikhail Gorbachev to campaign for liberal political reforms. In addition, their movement was swelled by popular support in Beijing itself and also by massive rural discontent.
The situation grew problematic for the regime as it struggled to contain the reform movement, and the dismissal of Ziyang, followed by a visit from Gorbachev in May 1989 prompted the occupation of Tiananmen Square by protestors.
The Square became a festival of free speech and millions of people passed through it at one point or another, representing all manner of different interests across China. When Gorbachev arrived, the square was so packed he couldn't walk through it. Most people in Beijing strongly identified with the student movement:
"The people loved the students because they could see the students loved China," one school teacher who lived near the square remembers now. "That was the thing. We didn't think of them as anticommunist. We could see they were patriots who were for democracy. But after[the massacre of] June 4, we could no longer say this."
As the students carried on their protest and held hunger strikes, they received support from the city's workers who provided water, assistance with sanitation, medical supplies and gestures of solidarity.
By this time, the regime, with Party Chairman Deng Xiaoping most especially adamant, was preparing to smash the movement through extreme violence. Troops were moved out of barracks and units were brought in to China's capital from outside - an acknowledgment that Beijing soldiers might be unprepared to kill their citizens as required.
By early June, the protestors occupying the square had become confused and divided. Many were already fatigued and wished to leave and their numbers were steadily dropping. Some wanted a confrontation with the regime, others were determined to avoid one and others still just did not believe that the PLA would kill them. Most foreign reporters had left by this point, many withdrawn to Hong Kong and Tokyo. Many of the original students had left and been replaced by students from outside Beijing.
During the night the confrontation began as students put up blockades around Beijing, setting fire to vehicles. Robert Marquand's investigation informs us that the massacre began on June 3rd as troops began killing protestors outside the square: "It took place at street intersections, in Hutong neighborhoods, in the alleyways around the square, and in the western part of the city, where resistance to the deployment of the Army was strongest." Citizens of Beijing were enraged at the deployment of troops against the students and courageously challenged the army in their tens of thousands.
In Tiananmen Square itself, at 4 o'clock in the morning, the army surrounded the protestors from three sides, from the Forbidden City of the emperors, the Great Hall of the People and the History Museum - and those in the square began to realise what was coming. Nonetheless, around 2,000 protestors gathered round the monument to democracy they had built and sang the socialist anthem, the 'Internationale'. Protestors wore headbands with the message 'Ready to Die'. Then the lights on the square went out.
According to Robin Munro of Human Rights Watch - who was there - the leader of the Peking Students Autonomous Federation declared, "We will now pay the highest price possible, for the sake of securing democracy for China. Our blood will be the consecration." But the student leader Hou Dejian dissented, calling out over a megaphone, "We have already won a great victory. But now we have to go."
The student leadership negotiated and arranged an orderly withdrawal and between 2,000 and 3,000 protestors filed off from the square in the early hours of the morning. They walked out peacefully and the protest came to an end.
This behaviour is quite typical of governments trying to destroy popular movements. They rarely wish to face thousands or millions of people on the march head on. So they create a standoff and negotiate a truce and let the movement walk away.
Then they start killing, without mercy. It's an old trick and it works (and people ask why politicians are mistrusted). Estimates of the death toll between June 3rd and June 6th range between 900 and 2,000+. June 1989 marked the beginning of a nationwide campaign of repression of popular movements that lasted right through the 1990s.
Gorbachev's visit in May helped to focus international media attention on Beijing ensuring that when the massacre took place, it did not pass unnoticed (unlike the Caracazo in Venezuela that year in which as many people died but is completely ignored).
And much international outrage followed, including loud public condemnations from the US government and media. Privately, however, the Bush Senior administration had a somewhat different response. Henry Kissinger, a foreign policy establishment stalwart with business interests in China stated bluntly his own view:
"China remains too important for America's national security to risk the relationship on the emotions of the moment. ...No government in the world would have tolerated having the main square of its capital occupied for eight weeks by tens of thousands of demonstrators."
Oh, the effrontery of it! Those students were occupying the government's capital city!
Bush Sr. then dispatched his National Security Adviser, Brent Scowcroft, to represent the US government in discussing US-China relations. Scowcroft is a business asscoiate of Kissinger's - it is unlikely that their views greatly diverged. What sanctions were implemented against the Chinese regime were swiftly removed in 1991 to obtain Beijing's support for the first Gulf War. The Bush family's own business ventures in China remain undisturbed.
Britain's own former PM and virtual ambassador to Britain from Beijing responded to a question from the BBC's Jeremy Paxman about the massacre by spluttering, "Well, of course this just like the British. It's the only thing you can bring up and we're the only country that still does bring it up." (Actually, we don't - Blair is notoriously supportive of the regime in Beijing).
On another occasion Heath said: "There was a crisis in Tiananmen Square after a month in which the civil authorities had been defied and they took action about it very well (pause) We can critise it in exactly the same way as people criticise Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland."
Indeed. Now which Prime Minister was behind the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry? Oh, Edward Heath.
The Chinese government has never admitted to any wrongdoing during this episode. Bring on the revolution...
Sunday, June 06, 2004
Alex Higgins has an excellent piece on his Bring on the Revolution blog about the massacre in Beijing on June 4th 1989. As he points out, it's not strictly correct to call what happened the Tiananmen Square massacre. I've reproduced the whole piece here because there's no way to link to individual items on his blog and it takes a while to find it - at least if you're on dial-up, because he posts lots of pictures. But go and read his blog anyway - as you can see, it's beautifully written and very well-informed.