The Students of 1989: the Tiananmen Square Massacre

Man and Tank
Photo provided by Sean Russell

If you were asked what came to mind when you hear Beijing, what would you answer?

If you were asked if you recognized the name of Tiananmen Square, or of the events that transpired there and across China in the first half of 1989, could you provide an answer?

Only 20 years ago, had you been asked the same question, you might have been hard pressed to find someone who hadn’t heard of the thousands of student protestors that were murdered in Beijing, cut down by the rifles and tanks of the national army under the direct order of the Chinese Communist Party.

If one is to know anything of this event today, it is likely that they have seen the iconic Tank Man image of a lone protestor facing down a column of tanks as they patrolled the streets the day following the massacre.

The Decade of Reform

To understand these events, one must look to the political and economic context of rising tensions during the ‘80s in China.

The decade began optimistically, with an opening up of foreign diplomatic and economic relations with the rest of the world, and China saw a period of drastic economic growth.

Coinciding with this economic opening came the flow of foreign ideologies from the West to the educated students and scholars, in the form of the desire for greater individual human rights and a more democratic leadership.

This call for reform included the criticizing of the corruption of power that the CCP leaders exercised, noting the influence that they held in the monopolization of the developing industries by members of the party.

These pro-democracy protests were famously publicized while they unfolded in Beijing between April and June, but this was actually simply the heart of a movement that spanned several cities across the country.

It could be said that this was all sparked by the death of the former General Secretary of the CCP Hu Yoabang in the same year, who had put forward the ideal that the intellectuals of China needed to become more politically involved earlier that decade.

Yoabang was forced to resign in 1987, as this call for political involvement resulted in political deviation, and in death he became a martyr for the students and the movement.

The students across China, gradually joined by the others of society, used their voice and peaceful protest to try and help mould their country and its leadership to reflect their changing values, beginning with tens of thousands attending the funeral of Yoabang on April 22, 1989, in Tiananmen Square.

From here the protests would spread to others cities such as Shanghai, and by the middle of May the CCP had declared martial law in Beijing.

It is estimated that by June, as many as one million citizens would gather in the Tiananmen Square in front of the Forbidden City, some singing songs of protest, others using more harsh words to condemn the actions of their government or engaging in hunger strikes.

At this time it so happened that a large number of Western journalists were already in Beijing to report on the upcoming visit of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, allowing them to capture the protests that might not have otherwise been known to the rest of the world.

The Massacre

The night of June 3, 1989 would prove to decide the future of China for the decades that followed.

By the tens of thousands, soldiers of the national people’s army marched through the streets of Beijing, firing into the crowds of protestors as they found them along the route to Tiananmen Square.

The protestors would say that they never expected the army to have been capable of doing this, as the students, their families, their children and anyone who opposed the CCP were ruthlessly suppressed by report of machine gun fire and relentless march of tanks through the once peaceful protest.

The massacre continued into the morning and the next two days across the country, which is where the image of the tank man originates, resolutely facing the oncoming tanks as they searched for and killed any remaining protestors. By the end of June 5, the nation was again firmly under the control of the CCP.

China and the Global Stage

It is believed that in less than three days, thousands were killed, and thousands more wounded, though the official tally will never be known as the CCP systematically destroyed any evidence of the massacre.

Despite the determined efforts of the party to downplay and cover up the events, our media had already sent back to us live footage of the horror, and across the Western world China was sanctioned economically and diplomatically.

To this day it is impossible to search online for Tiananmen, or Tank Man in China, any public commemoration of the massacre is officially banned, and the square is perpetually under armed guard and constant surveillance.

Given the atrocity of their actions, it is not surprising that there is continued policy of suppression, but what I do find surprising is the actions of our own governments in response.

Following the protests and economic sanctions they were given, China adopted a more globalized market and began fervent liberal economic reform after 1989, despite their opposing trend of increased political restriction.

Before the end of the decade, despite this growing trend, whatever the West had found so deplorable about the massacre didn’t seem to matter as much anymore, and China would be known as the global factory, receiving foreign investment and manufacturing development, and the country has now built itself to be a dominant economic power.

At this point, the economic trends of the period and the Marxian concept of historical materialism can aid us in an interpretation of this slacking of sanctions.

This theory states that our social relations are the product of our material relations, or essentially the way that we produce and use goods and essentials, will be the lens that you view the world through, and thus shape your relationships around.

For our purposes, we will be taking this to the most general sense; with our economic relations we experience determining our political relations.

Beginning in the 1970’s there was a move towards the offshoring of labour and manufacturing out of North America in response to the growing political power of labour unions.

With China hosting a large amount of this offshoring, this growth of economic co-dependence is likely the reason that nothing ever came of the Tiananmen Square massacre, despite the shock and criticism the populations of the world had to offer.

Without such an interpretation, how else does one explain why sanctions would be lifted against a country if it were so clearly violating the citizen’s wishes for democracy, when this is held as our most fundamental value?

Why did we trade and thus invest so readily in a country that showed it was willing to use fascist force to cull those who speak out, when we have criticized the lack of humanity in such actions for over a hundred years?

For Americans, one would think they would recall their own outrage when the same tactics were used on their own population in the shootings at Kent State University in 1970.

Think also of the case of Cuba, perhaps if it offered its citizens for cheap offshored labour and foreign investment, the American sanctions against it would not have lasted for the decades that it did.

Regardless of the nature of social and material relations, there is at least a group of facts that remain absolute without the need of any theory:

Between June 3 and 5, peaceful and democratic students tried to make their country reflect its people, and were killed for it.

Their government did and still tries to hide this fact; we have known about it for over 25 years, and somewhere we decided that we didn’t care, and we offshored labour that employed children for little to no pay.

We have legitimized the perpetrators of a massacre, because we wanted the victims to continue to make our cheap shoes.

As time passed the memory of the massacre slipped out of common knowledge, both in China and here in North America, but I ask, what is our excuse?

We have not been denied access to the knowledge of the massacre, and yet, other than the anniversary news reports that rehash the same information, our only exposure to this may be viewing a Tank Man image on a graphic t-shirt.

In the end this may not be that surprising, after all our country has already demonstrated an amazing ability to forget about what we ourselves inflicted upon the First Nations since before our founding, and forget so quickly the women who continue to disappear.

Think of any deplorable event of the last 10 years, and ask yourself, will you simply forget? June is now only three months away and I challenge you to remember the students of 1989 by continuing their spirit.

Make an active effort to be informed and try to get involved in your community or here at Trent, and try not to let the day-to-day keep you from looking forward.