Today in 1989, elements of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army entered Tiananmen Square with the intention of ending the massive protests occurring there. This marked the beginning of the end of the unrest both in Beijing and in other cities across the country.
Tiananmen Square is located near the center of the city of Beijing and is named after the Tiananmen, or Gate of Heavenly Peace, located at the northern end of the Square. With a total area of over 526,000 square yards, it is the largest publicly accessible square on Earth. The Square was created in the early years of the 20th century, but was not enlarged to its present size until the 1950’s.
During the decade of the 80’s, a series of reforms were put into effect in China in hopes of creating a market economy and creating a more open and pliable political system. Overall, these reforms were successful, but they were not without their critics. Foremost were students, teachers and others who were considered intellectuals by the government. They believed that the economic reforms had only improved the financial standing of a small percentage of the population (namely, factory workers and farmers) and that the government reforms still left the Communist Party of China in complete control of the nation.
Another group was also against the reforms, but only because they believed they had gone too far. This group was made up of workers who had fallen victim to the inflation and unemployment that is a byproduct of a capitalist, market-driven economy. Before the implementation of the new economy, these workers had held secure jobs, safe in the hope that the central government would always be there to provide a job.
Both groups were aware of the radical changes sweeping the Soviet Union in the last days of the 1980's. Collectively, these changes were known as glasnost, or openness. Mikhail Gorbachev intended this program to end corruption in government, allow some freedom of the press and freedom of dissent. The critics of the Chinese reforms, or at least the intellectuals, believed that such sweeping changes were also needed in China.
One of the triggers for the Tiananmen Square protests was the death of former Secretary General Hu Yaobang, who had resigned from his position in January, 1989. Hu had called for rapid reforms perhaps one too many times and had openly expressed contempt for the abuses inherent in the Communist system. His letter of resignation contained a great deal of self-criticism, leading critics of the government to assume that his resignation had been forced. He died suddenly on April 15, 1989 from a reported heart attack. It didn't take long for students in the country to gather in defense of the memory of the man and to re-raise the issues that had been left in the dust after previous pro-democracy protests in the 70's and 80's. Little did they know that their small, disparate groups would trigger a landslide.
On the day of Hu's funeral, several thousand students gathered in Tiananmen Square and requested a meeting with premier Li Peng. When their request was denied, the gathered group called for a strike at all the Beijing universities, a virtual call to arms that was met with approval by both students and most of their teachers. Soon, more than 50,000 college-aged men and women were on the streets of Beijing making their voices heard. Local authorities threatened a crackdown, but the threat was ignored.
The protests soon grew so large that the students organized themselves into groups. In order to attract the largest number of supporters, they focused on government corruption, an issue that brought the support of not just intellectuals, but common citizens as well. By May 4th, there were more than 100,000 students and workers on the streets of Beijing and in Tiananmen Square. Protests were also held in other cities in China, with support marches held in many cities around the world. The focus for both the Chinese government and the world's media outlets was Tiananmen Square, where a large group of students began a hunger strike on May 13th, two days before a state visit by Mikhail Gorbachev, the man behind so many of the reforms in the Soviet Union.
By the middle of May, the crowd in the Square was so large that the exact number is unknown, but is believed to have been made up of more than half a million people. More than 1,000 people were now participating in the hunger strike, an act that drew support from many of the Beijing residents not directly involved in the protests. The government, already worried about the long-term effects of what they saw as civil unrest, saw the potential for mass insurrection across the country. On May 19th, General Secretary Zhao Ziyang went to the Square and addressed the students directly. He told them of the dangers of continuing the hunger strike and assured them that the door was always open for discussion with the central government. He said that change had to come slowly to China as it always had. During his speech, he said, "You are not like us, we are already old, it doesn't matter any more." The last part of the phrase, we are already old, it doesn't matter any more became a popular phrase among the protesters.
Despite Zhao's visit, the crowds in Tiananmen Square remained. The Chinese Politburo and the Communist Party upper echelons were at odds as to what should be done. Some argued that small reforms and investigations of corruption would end the protests, while others called for a crackdown before the problem became too big to control. In the end, it was the old leaders of the Communist Party, those who remembered the establishment of China as a communist state in 1949, who gained the upper hand. They believed that the abandonment of a one-party political system would bring chaos to the land and threaten national stability.
By the end of May, the eyes of the world were on Beijing and particularly the Square. Any move towards dispersing the crowd there would have to be done in full view of millions of people, including some of China's largest trading partners and allies. But to the communists, ending the protests was the only way to maintain control and keep their power over the country. The government had declared martial law on May 20th, but to little effect in Beijing. There were rumors of dissent in the ranks of the People's Liberation Army and stories of soldiers who took off their uniforms and joined the protests. In response, the 38th Army, which was stationed near Beijing, had all its ammunition taken away.
In the end, the government sent the 27th and 28th Armies of the People's Liberation Army to take control of the city. Both armies were from other regions of the country, so it was concluded they would be less likely to be sympathetic to the protesters' cause. Many citizens of Beijing openly opposed the army's entry into the city, setting up roadblocks and burning public transportation. The soldiers first used tear gas, then rifles and tanks to clear the streets. By 10:30PM on June 3rd, the soldiers were at the edges of the Square with fixed bayonets, armored personnel carriers and tanks. All this against mostly unarmed civilians.
The protesters on the square had tried to erect barricades behind which to hide, but nothing would stand up to the onrushing armor. BBC reporter Kate Adie, who was in the Square when the army attacked, described the fire as "indiscriminate" as armored personnel carriers fired into the crowd. Everyone who attempted the leave the Square was beaten by surrounding soldiers; everyone who stayed risked being run over, shot or stabbed by a bayonet.
By 5:40AM on June 4th, Tiananmen Square was cleared. Protests continued in other cities in China, but none ended in an extensive loss of life as in Beijing. After the smoke cleared, the government arrested anyone suspected of involvement with the protests; thousands of people were jailed. In terms of punishment, the workers who participated in the protests had it worse than the students--many of them were tried and summarily shot. The exact number of killed and injured will never be known, although a People's Liberation Army defector later produced a memo circulated among senior officers which stated more than 3,700 were killed, not including those who were denied medical treatment or those who were simply made to disappear during the purge that followed. The Chinese Red Cross estimated more than 5,000 people were killed and more than 30,000 were injured.
Zhao Ziyang, the former General Secretary who had spoken directly to the students during the standoff, was removed from his official positions and was placed under house arrest until his death. Other members of the Communist Party who had shown any sympathy or support for the protesters were removed from their posts. Those in the Chinese media who tried to report the actual events of the massacre were fired and replaced by more "loyal" employees.
As a result of the events which took place in Tiananmen Square, a US-EU arms embargo against China still remains in place.