Dying for democracy: Tiananmen Square, remembered

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Twenty years ago, a peaceful student protest in China's capital sparked a massacre that was broadcast across the globe. But did it really change anything? Eyewitness Mary Dejevsky looks back

The Western world had been on "death watch" for weeks, preparing for the demise of Ayatollah Khomeini, inspiration of Iran's Islamic revolution. But history has a way of frustrating even the best laid plans. And when Iran's supreme leader eventually breathed his last, the news was utterly, and brutally, eclipsed: the Chinese army had mounted an all-out assault on the ceremonial heart of Beijing, ruthlessly evicting student protesters from Tiananmen Square, and reimposing communist rule in a ferocious exercise of force.

It was the night of 3 June, 1989. It was only an hour after night descended that the first tanks rolled down Chang'an avenue, the first bullets began to fly and the first bloodied casualties were delivered on wooden carts to the city's hospitals.

I should have been there. As it was, I switched on the television in the comfort of a Hong Kong hotel room to see footage of burning military hardware, forlorn heaps of crushed bicycles and panicked witnesses describing dodged bullets, looming tank tracks and indiscriminate human carnage. Improbably, so it seemed, the dateline read "Beijing". Outside my window what seemed like all Hong Kong was coming on to the streets for a "white march" of mourning, in which extreme fear and anger prevailed. With Beijing now in thrall to the military, emotion ran nowhere higher than in this British colony, which faced transfer to Chinese sovereignty in eight years' time.

Two days later, in a classic example of cowed officialdom sticking to old rules until new ones are received, I was back in Beijing on a new visa, obtained – as in the past - via the services of the hotel concierge. At Beijing airport, the young military officers seemed almost relieved to see the tiny band of passengers from our nigh-empty jumbo. And you could see why. The departures area and the precincts were a seething mass of Western humanity, like something out of a Second World War film, except wealthier and more summery.

The Beijing I had landed in could not have been more different from the one I had left only a couple of days before. Saturday afternoon had been sunny, cheerful and joyously anarchic. The vast expanse of Tiananmen Square thronged with activity, as it had done for a good month. Here was an alternative city, of tent-houses, tent-cafes, tent-streets. At one time there had been informal first-aid stations where hunger-strikers, with their white head-bands, were ministered to by concerned fellow-students. There was spontaneous music-making and earnest philosophising. Tannoys relayed the fierce oratory of youthful idealism; rival quotations from Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping were parsed for hidden meaning.

On my return, the weather was dismal; and the closer to the city outskirts we came, the more agitated my taxi driver grew. The whole of the centre was out of bounds, barricaded by troops; tanks and armoured personnel carriers guarded bridges and intersections. Elsewhere all was emptiness and quiet, where bustle, noise and life had been before.

In the foreign community that evening there was near-panic. Those relatively unfazed by the military assault had their resolve shattered when troops fired, apparently in error, and glanced one of their residential compounds. The mass exodus to the airport I had seen was the response. And the sense of menace was reinforced by ghosts crowding in from the past. Westerners and their "decadence" had been targeted during Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. But it was knowledge of the violent Boxer uprising of 1898-1901 against foreign ownership and influence that cast the longer shadow. The market reforms instituted by Deng Xiaoping, were still at an early stage; they had brought not only higher living standards, but resentment, too - resentment that a paranoid regime could be tempted to divert on to foreigners.

The authorities had no need to extend their crackdown. The regime had planned its assault, applied massive force, and annihilated this challenge to its rule in a matter of hours. In so doing, it effectively eradicated open dissent for at least a generation.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to conclude that the student protests of 20 years ago were doomed; easy, too, to chart how the movement progressively sowed the seeds of its own downfall. Its young leaders were arrogant, increasingly demagogic, and poorly organised. Their calls for democracy in China were not only unrealistic, but in many ways derivative and naïve. It is remarkable that the protest grew to the point where it was seen as a serious threat to Communist Party rule.

That it did so reflects an extraordinary, and completely unforeseeable convergence of circumstances: historical precedents that spooked the authorities; weak leadership at the top of the Chinese Communist Party and government, and a series of unrelated events that no contingency planners could ever have foreseen.

The protests began with the death in April that year of Hu Yaobang, a former head of the Chinese Communist Party who had been purged from the leadership as too reform-minded – the very trait which earned him a following among students and intellectuals. After his death, more than 50,000 mainly young people marched to Tiananmen Square in his memory, to protest at what they saw as the disgracefully low-key funeral organised by the state.

Demonstrations continued into May, when they merged with ceremonies to mark the 70th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement – an expression of intellectual discontent that swept China as students returned from Europe at the end of the First World War. From that anniversary, it was a mere matter of days before the Soviet President, Mikhail Gorbachev, was due for a full state visit to China.

This was no routine visit. For Gorbachev and his reformist allies in the Soviet leadership, it was intended to consolidate his uncertain authority at home, while also marking the reconciliation of international communism after the Sino-Soviet split of the early 1970s. That was the significance of the visit at state and party level.

But China's rebellious students sensed that there was an opportunity for them, too. Gorbachev was presiding over an unprecedented thaw in political, intellectual and economic life in the Soviet Union. Non-communists were being encouraged to participate in state bodies, and censorship was in retreat. Many of the students who had flocked to Hu Yaobang's funeral and then celebrated the May Fourth Movement declared a hunger strike and vowed to stay in Tiananmen Square until the Communist Party granted political reforms. They hailed Gorbachev as their ally.

The Soviet President received an ecstatic reception; on the second day of Gorbachev's visit, 1 million people massed in Tiananmen Square. The Chinese authorities understood that the enthusiasm on the streets for Gorbachev was simultaneously a protest against them and whole cities were paralysed. But they could do nothing about it without risking even greater disorder, even bloodshed, in the presence of a foreign leader. They held back. And in so doing, they exposed a truth common to every revolution. At some undefined point, fear had changed sides.

Ridiculing all official appeals to leave the streets, student activists were dispatching envoys across the country, fomenting protests in universities and trying to muster support for their cause in factories and farms. Their efforts to recruit workers and peasants to their revolution were not especially successful, but as police left their posts in Beijing to join the marchers, red signals were routinely ignored, and groups of euphoric students on flat-bed trucks took over the capital's streets by night, the spectre was raised of a breakdown of all law and order.

Such fears were not irrational. Beijing with no police or public transport and as many as 2 million people milling, unmarshalled, on the streets was a frightening and at times intimidating place to be. But, as contradictory editorials appeared in official newspapers, it was apparent that the regime was as paralysed as the country's major cities.

With Gorbachev gone, Prime Minister Li Peng acted. After failing to agree any compromise with the student leaders, Li declared martial law. It was the evening of 19 May. The protesters on Tiananmen Square had been alerted by loudspeaker to stand by for a special announcement. Li's declaration was relayed across the silent encampment.

The tension was palpable, and followed by confusion among the students about what to do; but the confusion was not only theirs. Around midnight, the Communist Party leader, Zhao Ziyang, came into the square in person with the offer of a last-minute compromise. His intervention failed; the protest continued. He did not appear in public again; three weeks later he was removed.

It might have been expected that the imposition of martial law in a country with a monopoly party in power would be instantaneous and definite. At the outset, though, it seemed half-hearted; the dawn to dusk curfew was enforced patchily. Few troops were initially to be seen, though reports of night-time advances into the city outskirts multiplied. Residents constructed elaborate barricades to impede the advance.

The Tiananmen Square camp thinned out, but remained stubbornly, squalidly, in place. As the days passed, it was noticeable how much more khaki there was about town; khaki jeeps, khaki uniforms, groups of khaki clad officers in restaurants. But nothing actually happened.

Then early one morning, I opened the curtains of my room to see scores of pitifully young soldiers encamped on the grass verge of the dual carriageway below. They had backpacks, but appeared unarmed. Half an hour later they were picked up in fleets of buses and gone. As late as the afternoon before the night-time assault, martial law had an unreal, ephemeral character. The thundering tank assault on Tiananmen Square shattered that consoling illusion.

To this day there is still no accepted death toll. The Chinese authorities insist that fewer than 250 people died; others cite figures into several thousand. Certainly, some – perhaps many – escaped, including the two charismatic student leaders, Wang Dan and Chai Ling, who were smuggled out of the country. An unknown number may also have fled into the protection of friends and family, picking up their pre-rebel lives where they left off. Tiananmen Square was written out of China's official history as soon as it happened, the numbers are in such doubt not only because the dead cannot speak, but because the living are still reluctant to admit they were there.

Twenty years on, a whole generation of Chinese has watched the country be changed - and changed radically - from the top down, while still waiting for the chance to influence politics from the bottom up. Nor were the international consequences of Tiananmen Square long-lasting. The Western world's cold shoulder and the upsurge of resistance in Hong Kong to being reincorporated into China had little effect. Like it or not, China's potential economic might handed its rulers a free moral pass, and still does.

It's not uncommon now to hear Tiananmen Square described as an "incident". Perhaps that is how this military assault by a frightened one-party regime on its rising intellectual elite is slipping into history. But this is a travesty. To belittle what happened at Tiananmen Square is to ignore something everyone needs to know about China.


Taking a stand - Student protest through the years

Peking, 4 May 1919

During the First World War, China supported the Allies on condition that Germany's control of the Shandong peninsula would be returned to China; it had been ceded to Germany by an earlier government, in return for financial support. At the Paris peace conference in April 1919, however, the drafted Treaty of Versailles gave Japan the rights to Shandong instead. Chinese protests were brushed aside.

On 4 May, students from 13 universities met to plan how to raise awareness of the government's spinelessness. Later, 3000 Peking University students demonstrated in Tianenmen Square: they protested that the Allies had betrayed China and that the government did nothing to promote Chinese interests. They called for a boycott of Japanese goods and the resignation of three officials at the Paris talks. Many students were assaulted and arrested. The next day, students across the country took to the streets, joined by workers and businessmen. As strikes spread, the economy broke down. The government had to release the arrested students and sack the three officials. In Paris, the Chinese delegate refused to sign the treaty.

The "May Fourth Movement" became a rallying-cry for Chinese nationalism, a triumph for popular feeling. And why were the Chinese so keen to win back the Shandong peninsula? Because it was the birthplace of Confucius.

Budapest, 1956

After Stalin died in 1953, most European Communist parties began shyly considering political reform. Imre Nagy encouraged his countrymen to imagine Hungary becoming a neutral country, rather than a Soviet satellite. In July 1956, students began holding forums to discuss Hungary's future. On 23 October 1956, 20,000 demonstrators gathered to in solidarity with Polish reformers. The banned national anthem was sung, the Communist insignia cut from the Hungarian flag and by the time the crowd reached the Parliament building, it numbered 200,000. Some students went into the Radio Budapest building to broadcast their manifesto, but were stopped by the AVH police; when the crowd demanded their release, the police fired on them, killing several.

Mayhem ensued. Police vans were torched, symbols of the Communist regime vandalised and violence spread across the city. Students attacked police and Soviet troops. A new government pledged to set up free elections. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive. The Soviet Union pledged to withdraw its forces...

But the dream couldn't last. On 4 November, Soviet tanks moved into Budapest. 2,500 Hungarians were killed, and 200,000 fled. By 10 November, a Soviet-run government had crushed all opposition.

Paris, 1968

The greatest national strike ever to paralyse a Western economy started when students at the University of Paris at Nanterre complained that the authorities banned mixed-sex sleeping quarters. But students and educators were already at serious loggerheads: in March, 150 students, poets, musicians and left-wing groups had occupied an admin building at Nanterre, the police had been summoned, but there was no trouble. Now, a disciplinary committee shut down the university. When students at the Sorbonne protested about the closure, police invaded. On 6 May, more than 20,000 students and teachers walked to the Sorbonne to remonstrate. When they arrived, baton-wielding riot police were waiting. The students retreated behind barricades and pulled up cobblestones to fling at the police, who responded with tear gas. Over the next two weeks, as street riots, burning cars and Molotov cocktails filled the world's TV screens, support grew like a tidal wave. A million people marched through Paris on 13 May. Thousands went on strike. By the end of May, 10 million workers had downed tools. Fearing the worst, De Gaulle called an election in June – and, amazingly, his party won: it seemed that ordinary voters had by then had enough of 'les evenements'.

Kent State University, Ohio, 1970

Incensed by Nixon's planned invasion of Cambodia – an expansion of the Vietnam War – 500 students protested on Kent State campus on 1 May. Smashed cars and local store windows brought the police, and a state of emergency was declared. The National Guard arrived the next day to find the Reserve Officers Training Building ablaze. Ohio Governor Rhodes called the students "the worst type of people...the strongest well-trained, militant, revolutionary group that has ever assembled in America."

By 4 May, things were at flashpoint. Seventy-seven National Guard troops with fixed bayonets tried to disperse the 2,000 students gathered on the campus. The students retreated and the Guardsmen, stranded on a sports field, were unsure how to proceed. Then at 12.22pm, they turned and fired their rifles at unarmed protesters more than 300 feet away: 67 bullets in 13 seconds. Four students died, nine were injured, one paralysed for life. Nobody knows why they fired, or if an order was given. The outcry was colossal. 450 campuses closed due to student action – the only nationwide student strike in US history. At NYU, a banner hung from a student building. It read: "They Can't Kill Us All."

Tehran, 1999 & 2006

It started when a newspaper called Salam (supporting the President, Mohammed Khatami) was closed by the Iranian judiciary. Students at Tehran University demonstrated peacefully against press censorship and in favour of Khatami. That evening, 400 "plainclothed paramilitaries" stormed the dormitory, kicked down doors, pulled women students' hair and set fire to rooms.

Retaliation came next day, as unemployed youths joined students in Tehran to riot in the streets. They continued for five days, leaving the capital jammed with burnt-out buses and 17 students dead. Violent demonstrations broke out in Tabriz, Shiraz and Isfahan, where police entered the universities and attacked students. Outraged, some youths tried to storm the Ministry of the Interior. Their fury subsided when Khatami disowned them.

Quite a contrast with the day, in 2006, when students at the Amirkabir University of Technology interrupted a speech by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, torched his photograph, threw firecrackers and shouted "Death to the dictator!". Rather than have them arrested or beheaded, the president said he had "a feeling of joy" because it showed what freedom his people enjoyed. Spin doctoring, Iran-style.

- JOHN WALSH

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