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On This Day in History: Tiananmen Square Protests

On this day in 1989, 100,000 Chinese citizens gathered in Tiananmen Square. I wanted to learn more about the event so I turned to Oxford Reference Online which led me to The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics edited by Iain McLean and Allistair McMillan. Below the entry on Tiananmen Square is excerpted.

Tiananmen Square
Tiananmen, the Gate of Heaven’s Peace, the main square of Beijing, where in the early hours of 4 June 1989 a huge pro‐democracy demonstration was repressed by armed force.

The democracy movement began during the Cultural Revolution when many Red Guards, while accepting Mao ‘s instructions to attack the Party establishment, realized that rebellion would be fruitful only if it aimed at the achievement of democracy. The first expression of this was the Li Yi Zhe Poster of 1974 which while supporting the aims of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution argued for democratic institutions. The second was Chen Erjin’s book, Crossroads Socialism, written just before the death of Mao and published during the Democracy Wall demonstrations of late 1978 . This sought to extend Marxism by arguing that violent socialist revolution inevitably produces yet another exploitative social formation, the rule of the authoritarian revolutionary elite. A second revolution is always necessary to put real power in the hands of the people, through the establishment of democracy.

Mao’s successors, themselves victims of the Cultural Revolution, had an interest in strengthening the rule of law, and an interest in relaxing political control enough to prevent another outbreak. Deng Xiaoping had a personal interest in mobilizing democratic sentiment against the left. He supported the Democracy Wall protest of late 1978 until the young radical factory worker Wei Jingsheng demanded democracy ‘as a right’ and poured contempt on Deng’s half‐measures. Wei was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment, fifty other participants were arrested, and the right to use ‘big character’ posters (which Mao had approved) was abolished. Thereafter, however, Deng sought to maintain a balance between the democratic elements within the Party and the conservative veterans. At the same time he supported his protégé Hu Yaobang (Secretary‐General of the CCP from 1980 ), who had gone so far as to affirm (as Chen Erjin had done) that the forms of democracy have universal validity, whatever the content may be in terms of class.

However, when Hu refused to suppress the next great democratic demonstration in 1986 at Kei Da University where the radical democrat Fang Lizhi was Professor of Physics, Deng forced Hu’s dismissal. In early 1989 Hu died. By this time he was the hero of the democratic movement. When the leadership arranged a demeaning low‐key funeral, students marched to Tiananmen Square to protest. Thus the demonstration began.

There were at this point three groups involved in democratic dissent. The first was among intellectuals who hoped for democratization from the top. The second was led by former Red Guards who encouraged democratic revolution from below and were engaged in mobilizing workers and peasants. The third called themselves ‘Neo‐Authoritarians’; they argued that continued authoritarianism was required to carry through economic changes which would create a pluralist society capable of sustaining democracy. In spite of their views, they nevertheless supported the demonstrators.

In 2000 , tapes and transcriptions of the debates within the Secretariat of the Politburo on how to handle the demonstration, drawn from materials to which only the five members of the Secretariat normally had access, were smuggled out to the USA (translated and published in A. J. Nathan and P. Link , The Tiananmen Papers, 2001 ).

It is obvious from the debate that most of the top leadership of the CCP had a good deal of sympathy with demands to abolish corruption, privilege, and the abuse of power, and some were also prepared to take further steps towards democracy to bring these evils under control. However, there was one step at which the majority baulked. Some of the demonstrators were demanding the right to form new political parties. Former Red Guard groups were encouraging the creation of autonomous groups of students, workers, intellectuals, and citizens; such associations could easily develop into political parties. The Politburo therefore refused to enter into dialogue with the newly formed nationwide Autonomous Federation of Students. Thus negotiation became impossible.

After an indecisive debate in the Secretariat, Deng Xiaoping demanded the publication of an editorial in the People’s Daily to condemn the demonstration as ‘turmoil’, and asserted that it was controlled by a ‘tiny handful’ of people intent on destroying socialism and the CCP. Public support for the demonstrators soared. The students responded with a hunger strike, which further inflamed opinion throughout China until about four million people were involved in protest. The Secretariat met to consider the imposition of martial law. Two members voted in favour, two against. The fifth member abstained. Deng Xiaoping, the accepted arbitrator, used his casting vote for martial law. There was a national outcry, in which virtually every one of the Party’s own institutions joined, and many army commanders showed great reluctance to become involved.

The Secretariat held firm, but insisted emphatically that there must be no bloodshed. This order was also repeatedly issued to the army. However, as the troops moved through the suburbs, a million or more Beijing citizens rose to beat them off. Harassed and humiliated and suffering casualties, by the time the army units reached the Square their mood was angry. They spared the students, who were allowed to evacuate the Square without molestation; but they took their revenge on the civilian crowds in the adjoining streets. The number of casualties is not known; it was probably in the hundreds.

The Secretary‐General Zhao Ziyang , successor to Hu Yaobang , was dismissed for having opposed martial law. A new Secretariat was appointed. Surprisingly, it consisted mainly of moderates, led by Jiang Zemin ; but these were for the moment powerless in the face of the enraged conservative veterans. Democratic leaders were rounded up and imprisoned, and the democratic debate suppressed. Attempts were also made to reverse economic reform. However, at the end of 1992 in a series of speeches Deng Xiaoping condemned this reaction. The precarious tolerance of debate was restored and economic reform speeded up. When Jiang Zemin, visiting the USA, was challenged to justify the Tiananmen suppression, he could only mumble that ‘mistakes are sometimes made’.

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