Early Western explorers to China returned telling stories about a land of silk, jade and dragons. A whole artistic movement was birthed, Orientalism, that imagined the East – in particular China – as a semi-real land more out of story books than realism. The ruling Communist Party seems determined to do the same thing in modern China. However, unlike the past, the party wants to make its people believe the myth as well.
A modern visitor to China could be forgiven for thinking that 4th June is no different from any other day: the predictable rush hour roar of people heading to work or the shops belies the immense suppression of thought that is going on online.
In the past, suppressing ideas in a populace was difficult for a government. How, other than breaking down doors and confiscating dissident material, could you modify patterns of thought? With the advent of the internet, the Chinese government gained the ability to filter a large proportion of communication that goes on between its citizens. Crucially, however, this is not done through heavy handed laws preventing assembly. Instead, words, phrases and images can simply be plucked out of the information stream and prevented from ever reaching an audience. The difference is akin to that between a boulder lobotomy and modern neurosurgical techniques.
Nowadays information regarding the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, of which we are now commemorating the 30th anniversary, is almost impossible to come by in China. In previous years, censorship has been so fervent in erasing any suggestion of the event, they have prevented even the word ‘today’ being used. The effect of this on the population has been collective amnesia. Without any information available, children not alive at the time have no awareness of their history. Parents choose not to teach their children because it is too complicated a burden to place on them, and those who were there live under the Sword of Damocles – always at risk of being pulled off the street and being disappeared. Former student leaders, such as Chai Ling, often chose to flee the country rather than risk imprisonment.
The effect of this excising of history is similar to the effect of a stroke on a relative: suddenly their behaviour seems to make no sense. They are scared of things of no consequence, grow angry without provocation and refuse to believe that their view of the world is wrong. They are working off a different set of memories and experiences and processing them differently to us. In a situation like this, no one in their right mind would set aside everything that they knew, remembered and believed and join in the delusions of the sick.
Unfortunately, I believe this is what we are at risk of doing. Britain during the Cameron years courted China furiously, inviting Xi Jinping to come and dine with the Queen, inviting Chinese companies to purchase stakes in our nuclear power plants and, in our particular case, inviting ever more students to come to study in our universities. George Osborne, at the time, talked about the unique connection that Britain and China shared and about the exciting future projects we shall undertake together. All this was based on the assumption that engaging with China would encourage it to become more western in its outlook and more liberal in the treatment of its people. This has proven to be false.
President Xi has not moved to liberalise his country. Instead, he has doubled down, consolidating power and reaffirming the repressive messages of the past. Instead, we in the West have moved towards China in outlook. Our companies have bent over backwards to accommodate the desires and whims of the Communist Party. Google, the company whose informal motto used to be “Don’t be evil”, has quietly dropped that commitment and invested significant time and money into developing a search engine that conformed to Chinese censorship standards.
China is currently fighting an internal battle against the will of its own people. The events of 1989 prove that the desires for democracy and accountability exist and are powerful impulses present in China that are being supressed, rather than simply a quirk of Western life. The active suppression of the memory of Tiananmen Square reveals a country terrified of its own people and its bloody past. Whilst they have successfully supressed the memory of the last upspring of democratic will and pacified their people with economic bounty, the events of 4th June 1989 will be repeated until China acknowledges its sins.
This week, we remember the people that died at Tiananmen square in defiance of the government.
In 1976, Mao Zedong died, ending the Cultural Revolution that killed anywhere between 400,000 to 10 million people. Spearheaded by him as a way to rapidly modernise China, it resulted in widespread poverty and economic ruin.
Tentative efforts through the 80’s were only partially successful and were exploited by corrupt Party officials. While this harmed the cause of the reformists in 1988, complete market-pricing system was still implemented. This caused waves of cash withdrawals, hoarding and further economic woes.
At the time, the country was led by Hu Yaobang a prominent reformist. Hardliners, hating his modernising attitude, ousted him in January 1987.
When Hu Yaobang died suddenly on 15th April 1989, students came out onto the streets celebrating him and his legacy. They called for a return of the liberalism that his time as General Secretary had represented and for broader reform, including more democratic rights and investigations into the corruption of Party officials. Small gatherings of students around the Monument to the People’s Heroes in Tiananmen square spontaneously started to form and grew over the next couple of days.
Hu’s state funeral was held on 22nd April. Over 100,000 students came to Tiananmen square just next to the Great Hall where the funeral was being held, despite orders from the government not to. The funeral was broadcast to students outside and many felt it was rushed and disrespectful. Frustrated students started a class strike and rioting broke out round the country.
After this, Deng Xiaoping endorsed a firm response and, on 26th April, an editorial in the party’s official newspaper, entitled, “It is necessary to take a clear-cut stand against disturbances” was published. Rather than cowing the students, it enraged them and protests only grew larger. The next day 50,000 – 100,000 students marched through Beijing to Tiananmen Square and received widespread public support.
This march was hugely successful and the government’s tone turned conciliatory. In a speech, the government called the movement “patriotic”, negating the message of the 26th April editorial. This pacified many students who began to lose interest.
In order to regain momentum the student leaders organised a hunger strike. It was widely popular and, by 13th May, there were 300,000 people gathered in Tiananmen Square. By 17th May, over a million Beijing residents had demonstrated solidarity with the protesters and 400 protests of various sizes sprung up in other cities. Foreign journalists also began sending news of the protests to the rest of the world, causing the leadership to worry about how it looked abroad.
On 19th May Deng Xiaoping made the decision that martial law would be declared. By the next day, 250,000 soldiers were sent to the capital. When they tried to enter the suburbs they were surrounded by crowds that made any further advance impossible. Demonstrators climbed on the vehicles and soldiers were given food and shelter. On 24th May, the troops were withdrawn to the delight of the protesters. However, across the country, plans were being drawn up for an assault.
By 3rd June, plans were finalised. While they did not contain explicit orders to shoot-to-kill, troops were told to “use any means to clear impediments” which was interpreted as permission by many units.
At 10pm on 4th June, troops moved into Beijing. While they initially only fired into the air, when soldiers came up against barricades, they turned their guns on the demonstrators. Troops used expanding dum-dum bullets, so called because they expand upon hitting a body causing massive internal trauma.
At about 10:30pm, the army was halted at Muxidi where a bridge had been blocked with burning busses. 36 people are confirmed to have died here, though this number is thought to be low.
Troops advanced further into the city, firing indiscriminately, killing both demonstrators and onlookers. Doctors that went to treat the wounded were also shot and killed.
Demonstrators tried to form barricades, human chains, negotiate or fight back but, in each case, they were pushed back with armoured personnel carriers running over barricades and demonstrators and negotiators, such as Duan Changlong, were shot as they tried to reason with troops.
Between 10:30pm and midnight, news began to trickle back to the demonstrators in the square. At this point, there were between 70,000-80,000 in the square.
By 2:00am, the square was sealed off with soldiers blocking all entrances and firing on any reinforcements that were attempting to enter the square.
Despite the clear threat to their lives, the students didn’t renounce non-violence. The leaders of the movement even confiscated sticks, rocks and guns in an effort to prevent further escalation. At 04.30, after negotiation between student leaders and government forces, the troops marched up to within ten metres of the students and set up machine guns pointing at the students.
There are reports of troops firing into the crowd, though this is unconfirmed. What is known is that, at 5:00 am, students were allowed to move out of the square through a corridor opened by the soldiers. Again, though hotly disputed, some have alleged that these students, who thought they had been given a chance to live walked into prepared machine gun nests.
While this marked the end of the main incident, students walking near the square later in the day were shot at and killed and an ambulance was caught in the cross fire.
The next day, 5th June the famous photo of tanks leaving Tiananmen square being blocked by a man carrying a shopping bag was taken.
The death toll remains controversial. The Chinese Red Cross has estimated that 2700 people died but this number is contradicted by a British diplomatic cable, which has alleged that the number was at least 10,000.