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Protesters and Party: Inside the massacre of 1989

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Special report. ‘This is not an ordinary student movement. It is turmoil.’ The events of Tiananmen Square in 1989 have been effectively erased from the Chinese record, and the understanding of those events has been drastically simplified in the West. Here we unpack the real history of the Beijing massacre, in the decades before and since.

written by Simone Pieranni

Topic China

May 15, 2019

We all think we know something about the events that took place in China, in Beijing, 30 years ago. We usually talk about “the facts” of what happened in Tiananmen Square in terms of a simple narrative: protests and demands for democratic reforms by university students, met with harsh repression by the Communist Party, leading to the “Tiananmen massacre.”

We also know that Beijing has effectively erased those days from the official history: no one talks about them, no one is allowed to talk about them, and no information about them can be found on the “curated” Chinese Internet. Furthermore, it won’t be easy nowadays to find a young Chinese person who knows something about this topic. None of these facts are in doubt. However, the story of what happened during those days in May and June 1989 actually involves a more complex mix of elements than is usually acknowledged.

There were many people protesting in the streets during those days, both university students and other social categories. Of course, the stories coming from the “leaders” of the protests in Beijing have been given the most extensive media coverage, even years after the facts. Some of them escaped the repression thanks to the solidarity of many others; some reached Hong Kong and then flew onward to the United States.

A number of them have recounted their experiences from those days. Some had their lives changed completely: a few became millionaires; others converted to Christianity. However, much less is known about the stories of the people who died (300, according to the figures of the Communist Party, but many more, numbering in the thousands, according to activists, the families of the victims and a number of humanitarian organizations), or about the thousands who were arrested (the last one to be released, who was a factory worker at the time, emerged from prison in 2016). One can find more information about many of the protagonists of the events in Louisa Lim’s book The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited.

In the media accounts, there has been very little mention of the inherent problems that the “student movement” also had (in this regard, Beijing Coma by Ma Jian is an excellent book for getting an understanding of the various errors and limitations that the student protesters were laboring under).

Even fewer people know about—or, if they do, few deem it worthy to highlight—the particular economic conditions and the “climate” reigning in the factories during those years, factors that are still crucial for China as it is today. Furthermore, the decision by the Communist Party to unleash the army against the people who were protesting in the streets and squares took place at a dramatic moment for the CCP, as it had to contend with the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, which had ended only a decade before.

The reforms implemented by Deng Xiaoping were changing the country at a rapid pace, leading, among other things, to new criteria for evaluating the “efficiency” of those in positions of power, different from those of the past.

The Party was changing from a model of “political management” of the country to an “economic management” model: this process caused a number of problems and a general spread of corruption, which was one of the many reasons for the protests during that period.

Due to this complex background, “the facts” about Tiananmen Square are still being studied by researchers, and sometimes new revelations are uncovered.

Amid the multitude of different interpretations, verdicts and common oversimplifications, the basic sequence of events remains the same: the massacre committed against students, workers and regular citizens of Beijing; the dramatic decision of the Communist Party to proceed with repressive measures, at the end of an internal struggle that would forever mark the course of the CCP; and, in the background of it all, the “Chinese Spring,” which had been the result of a period of intense and lively political and cultural activity during the ‘80s.

The year 1989 is a watershed for the recent history of China because this was the year in which the social contract between the Chinese people and the Communist Party was effectively changed, setting the country on the path of economic growth that has led to its status as a major global power today.

In June 1998, US President Bill Clinton traveled to China and attended a welcome ceremony organized in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The American media criticized the president, accusing Clinton of endorsing the attempt by the Communist Party to erase the events of 1989 from memory. In fact, the Clinton administration had been attempting to do just that, for the sake of Clinton’s own policy of rapprochement with China after the embargo that had been imposed because of the massacre.

In this regard, it is interesting to note that since 1949, Washington had always been very worried about China during its “Maoist” stage. Of course, this was an ideological apprehension, based on the fear that Communism was spreading further and further. Then, after the overtures made by Deng Xiaoping, the US—more than happy to seize the opportunity to break the international Communist front and isolate the Soviet Union—began a long process of rapprochement to China, ending with Beijing’s accession to the WTO, which took place in 2001: the year when mass anti-globalization protests were happening in Genoa, and also the year in which the history of the United States was about to change forever.

To support China’s integration into the world’s economic institutions, the US swept episodes such as those in 1989 under the rug (thus helping to puff up a country that would come to be seen nowadays as the “enemy”). The Americans were proved wrong many times in their assessment of the likelihood that economic reforms in China would........

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