How the Tiananmen Square Protests Shaped Modern China
A cyclist rides past a banner depicting Chinese President Xi Jinping in Shanghai, China. (Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)

How the Tiananmen Square Protests Shaped Modern China

(Bloomberg) -- The images are seared into popular memory, at least outside China, as a symbol of courage and defiance: Tanks leaving Beijing’s historic Tiananmen Square approach a lone man who holds his ground, blocking their withdrawal following a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters. Thirty-one years later the man’s identity and fate remain a mystery and the massacre has been all but scrubbed from history books and the internet inside the country. But the reverberations from those events helped to shape today’s China into a security state in which staging such a demonstration would be nearly impossible.

1. How did it start?

How the Tiananmen Square Protests Shaped Modern China

In 1989, more than a million Chinese civilians, many of them students, staged the biggest challenge to the Communist Party’s legitimacy since it came to power in 1949. The pro-democracy demonstrations were sparked by the April 15 death of a former party chief, Hu Yaobang, who had a reputation as a liberalizer. Mourners poured into Tiananmen Square and stayed. Initially fueled by anger at the slow place of democratic reforms by a government many viewed as a dictatorship, the protests extended to such issues as rising living costs. The movement spread quickly across China, including college campuses. In May, hundreds of students in the square began a hunger strike, embarrassing the party during a visit by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Attempts at compromise failed. After about two months, martial law was declared in parts of Beijing.

2. How did it turn bloody?

On June 2, top officials including Deng Xiaoping decided they’d had enough of what they deemed “counter-revolutionary protests,” and gave the army orders to use force to clear the square. On June 3-4, the People’s Liberation Army opened fire point-blank on unarmed civilians around the square.

3. How many people died?

How the Tiananmen Square Protests Shaped Modern China

Hundreds or maybe thousands; there’s never been an independent investigation. United Press International reported on June 14, 1989 that the Chinese government first said there were 300 deaths, including 100 soldiers, then lowered the total to 200. Others including the Wall Street Journal at the time reported a Chinese Red Cross estimate of 2,600 people killed, a figure that was then retracted. In a diplomatic cable dated June 5, 1989 -- and declassified in 2017 -- the then-British ambassador to China estimated at least 10,000 were killed.

4. Who was ‘Tank Man’?

The most famous of the images beamed around the world from Tiananmen was that of “Tank Man,” an unidentified man who stood alone in front of a column of tanks rolling out of the square early on June 5, then walked back into their path after they tried to go around him. The iconic image of the man, who wore a white shirt and black pants, was taken by photographer Jeff Widener and transmitted by the Associated Press. The troops didn’t fire on the man, who was shown on video climbing onto one of the tanks and was eventually removed from the scene by Chinese authorities. Though his name and fate remain unknown, he has become a global symbol of resistance to oppressive governments.

How the Tiananmen Square Protests Shaped Modern China

5. How did the crackdown change China?

It spurred the Communist Party to modernize its security state over the years and extend it to cover what people do online and how they behave at home and in public, all aimed at eradicating any chance of another mass movement. State media promotes the party’s legitimacy with a steady diet of nationalist rhetoric. China has led the way globally in asserting cybersovereignty over the digital realm within its borders, largely restricting foreign search engines, social media platforms and news sites. Home-grown chat apps and blogs are monitored and disallowed posts removed. It’s instituted a system of mass surveillance that uses high-tech advancements like facial recognition to keep an eye on civilians. The government is also experimenting with a “social credit” system that assigns scores to civilians based on their behavior and can affect their ability to buy a plane ticket or borrow money. Speaking at a security forum in Singapore in June 2019, Chinese defense minister Wei Fenghe defended the 1989 army crackdown, saying “decisive measures” were taken to “calm the turmoil,” leading to decades of stability.

6. Does China mark Tiananmen today?

Commemorating the anniversary or publicly mourning those who died is forbidden in mainland China. Security tightens in the square each June and human-rights activists are taken from Beijing. President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan, the democratically run island that China considers a wayward province, has said Tiananmen underscores the need to stand up to China’s Communist Party. She has also met with survivors from the 1989 protests. A Taiwanese artist created an inflatable installation of the “Tank Man” scene ahead of last year’s 30th anniversary, prominently displaying it in central Taipei. In semi-autonomous Hong Kong, where China has been exerting growing influence, an annual June 4 vigil to commemorate the massacre was banned for first time in 2020. Authorities cited the health risk from the coronavirus. Last year’s 30th-anniversary commemorations attracted what organizers said was a record turnout of more than 180,000 people.

7. What about survivors?

Survivors who live outside the mainland continue to speak out about their experiences -- and criticize President Xi Jinping’s government. The Tiananmen Mothers, a group founded by families of the victims, is outspoken about preserving the memory. They have written an open letter to Xi urging “truth, compensation and accountability” from the government. Remembrance of the events has also fed tensions with the U.S. China said in 2018 that it was “dissatisfied” by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s call that it reveal details about how many were killed, detained or missing in Tiananmen. Shortly before the 30th anniversary, a PLA lieutenant who witnessed the massacre even called for a public reckoning in a New York Times interview -- leaving China the week it published.

The Reference Shelf

  • A look inside Hong Kong’s reopened Tiananmen Museum and at China’s model of central control.
  • TicToc by Bloomberg’s video explainer on the events of June 4, 1989.
  • The BBC’s detailed timeline of events leading to the massacre.
  • The Guardian’s takeout on “Tank Man.”
  • Council on Foreign Relations experts on China’s trajectory since the crackdown.
  • How China rewrote the history of Tiananmen Square, from the CBC.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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