China, the Tiananmen tragedy and the ‘Tank Man’ – 25 years on

tank man

The anonymous ‘Tank Man’ bringing an armed column to a halt on 5 June 1989

On 5 June 25 years ago, a lone man stood on Beijing’s Chang’an Avenue and brought a column of tanks to a halt. It has become an enduring symbol of individual bravery to the world and possibly the most censored image in the People’s Republic of China.

This famous stand, which can be viewed here, came after the bloody crackdown on protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on 3 and 4 June, in which hundreds, if not thousands, of demonstrators died after the military used lethal force to disperse the crowds. The “Tank Man” is believed to have not been a student protester or intellectual activist but merely a working citizen of Beijing horrified by the massacre (which had occurred throughout the city) and betrayed that the ‘People’s Army’ could have committed such atrocities against its own countrymen.

The Chinese Spring

The Tiananmen Square Massacre and the protests preceding it shook the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) to its core and redefined China for over a quarter century. The resulting existential fear has continued to permeate the CPC, which remains terrified of dissent and, despite claims to the contrary, still opts for a policy of suppression. Unfortunately this fear has blinded party officials to addressing the issues which underpinned the protests in 1989 and which continue to plague the middle kingdom to this day.

The ’89 protests began following the death of Hu Yaobang on 15 April, a former CPC General Secretary who was ousted by party hardliners. Protests initially began as commemorative demonstrations by students among which Hu was a deeply popular figure associated with political and economic reform. These demonstrations quickly began to change into protests over corruption within China’s ruling elite and subsequently became a pro-democracy campaign calling for reform. Although the protests rapidly spread to over 400 cities around China, the heart and centre of those heady days was to be found in Tiananmen Square in central Beijing, where at the peak of the protests over 1 million demonstrators were gathered, thousands of which occupied the square on a permanent basis. The square lies in the centre of the capital, flanked by both the former imperial headquarters, the Forbidden City and the Hall of the People, headquarters of the CPC, making the square the geographical centre of China’s soul and a powerful symbol in its own right.


Tiananmen Square during the 1989 protests

As the protests grew and attracted support from liberal academics, workers and eventually party members, the CPC central committee grew impatient and jittery. In May of that year, USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev travelled to Beijing for an official state visit; however, the mass occupation of Tiananmen Square forced China’s leadership to relocate the official reception at the last minute from the Hall of the People to the airport. This greatly embarrassed CPC leadership, causing a loss of face in front of a world power during an important time in geopolitics, namely the détente between the USA and the USSR in the final days of the Cold War.

Massacre of ‘89

By June of 1989, China’s ruler, Deng Xiaoping, and the rest of the CPC leadership decided that the protests needed to end and ordered the army to clear the square. However, when army leaders were summoned before China’s leadership and given their order, one refused. Maj. General Xu Qinxian, leader of the powerful 38th Group Army based in the Beijing Military Region, refused, claiming that the demonstrations were a political problem and not the military’s responsibility. This instilled a new fear in the CPC: that the military might not support the party and could even revolt if the protests grew in strength. Gen. Xu was soon arrested and the order to end the protests by any means necessary was enforced.

On the evening of 3 June, tanks rolled into Beijing. At approximately 22:00, soldiers began firing on protesters as the army marched towards Tiananmen Square. By the time the sun rose on Beijing on 4 June, thousands were left dead (although the government claims the figure is in the low hundreds) and hundreds imprisoned. Tiananmen Square had been cleared.

25 years on – Everything’s changed, nothing is different

Fast forward 25 years and the scars of the Tiananmen Massacre remain. The CPC has attempted to scrub the 1989 protests from China’s history; they are not taught in schools and are censored from all media, including internet searches. Yet shades of the massacre still permeate modern-day China. Tiananmen Square is now one of the most heavily protected, if not the most strictly guarded place in the world, with a 24/7 armed police presence and the highest concentration of security cameras on the planet. In the first week of June every year, China embarks on an unrivalled censorship campaign; this year, the majority of online Google services were rendered inaccessible from the mainland.  The square has become a symbol of dissidence in the People’s Republic, which to the ruling caste remains unconscionable.

The ’89 protests were the closest that the CPC has come to losing power in China, and the memory of that time still haunts the leadership. While China has had a spectacular economic rise since then, dissent is not tolerated. The vast majority of China’s defense budget is spent on internal security apparatus; the country employs over 2 million internet censors and the People’s Armed Police (a separate paramilitary branch of the armed forces, not to be confused with the conventional police service) is believed to number almost 1.5 million

Yet despite this expenditure, China still experiences well over 100,000 protests every year, focusing on everything from environmental issues to labour disputes, and most notably the continued corruption within the political elite. There has also been a marked increase in separatist activities stemming from the country’s restive Xinjiang and Tibetan provinces.

Furthermore, in the special administrative region of Hong Kong, 3 /4 June 2014 saw the largest Tiananmen Massacre memorial demonstration thus far, with over 180,000 people attending the candle-lit vigil.


Annual candlelight vigil in Hong Kong remembering those killed in the Tiananmen Massacre

Tiananmen of Tomorrow

With the rise of the internet and China’s increased economic clout resulting in Chinese nationals travelling, studying and working abroad, the CPC is facing ever-increasing challenges in maintaining the status quo, as increasing numbers citizens are able to circumvent the party’s control of the flow of information. While it is currently believed that fewer citizens of China are aware of the 1989 massacre than ever before, the government is under increasing pressure to reform, root out corruption, adapt to the contemporary age and provide China’s rising middle class with the trappings of the West. Furthermore, as the nation’s economy slows, the excessive expenditure on internal security apparatus becomes increasingly difficult to justify. With these issues, which mirror the grievances of ‘89, creating cracks in the CPC’s facade of social harmony, whether the People’s Republic will be able to maintain the status quo without being doomed to repeat the mistakes of history remains to be seen.

Analysis by Brendan von Essen, follow him @AsiaPacRisk

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