04
Jun
09

It’s Tiananmen Square’s China Anniversary

Yup, the 20th anniversary is the china anniversary. How appropriate.

For you kids out there, this is the perfect opportunity to inform you that our overlords and loan-holders over yonder in China do not, to put it kindly, have the best record on human rights.
The Guardian and PBS have both put out a handy dandy summation of the events we’re remembering today, which I’ll sum up in the following timeline:


15 April
Former Communist party chief and reformist Hu Yaobang dies. Mourners gather in Tiananmen Square to grieve and call for reform.

17 April Tens of thousands of university students begin gathering spontaneously in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, the nation’s symbolic central space. They come to mourn the death of Hu Yoabang, former General Secretary of the Communist Party. Hu had been a symbol to them of anti-corruption and political reform. In his name, the students call for press freedom and other reforms.

18-21 April Demonstrations escalate in Beijing and spread to other cities and universities. Workers and officials join in with complaints about inflation, salaries and housing. Party leaders fear the demonstrations might lead to chaos and rebellion. One group, lead by Premier Li Peng, second-ranking in the Party hierarchy, suspects “black hands” of “bourgeois liberal elements” are working behind the scenes to undermine the government. A minority faction, led by Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, believes that “the student mainstream is good” and that their patriotism should be affirmed, “although any inappropriate methods of action should be pointed out to them.”

Li argues that the protests should be “nipped in the bud;” however, Zhao convinces them to wait, stating, “Our main task right now is to be sure the memorial service for Comrade Yaobang goes off smoothly.”

22 April More than 100,000 university students assemble outside the Great Hall of the People, where Hu’s memorial service is being held. Three students carry a petition of demands up the steps of the Great Hall and insist on meeting Li Peng; he does not respond. Over the next days, the students boycott classes and organize into unofficial student unions — an illegal act in China.

25 April With Zhao Ziyang on a state visit to North Korea, Li Peng calls a meeting of the Politburo, a meeting dominated by Party members antagonistic to the students. They convince Party elder Deng Xiaoping, the de facto head of state, that the students aim to overthrow him and the Communist Party. Deng decides the Party has thus far been “tolerant and restrained,” but the time has come for action. “We must explain to the whole Party and nation that we are facing a most serious political struggle. … We’ve got to be explicit and clear in opposing this turmoil.”

26 April The state-run People’s Daily accuses protesters of rejecting the Communist party, sparking further demonstrations. “The Necessity for a Clear Stand Against Turmoil” is the title of the editorial, and it closely follows the opinions expressed by Deng at the meeting the day before. “This is a well-planned plot … to confuse the people and throw the country into turmoil,” it reads. “… Its real aim is to reject the Chinese Communist Party and the socialist system at the most fundamental level.”

27 April The editorial sets off more demonstrations in other cities. In Tiananmen Square the ranks of protestors now include a cross-section of society. “In Beijing one in 10 of the population was joining in … all of the old people, all the little children, so it was massive,” explains Jan Wong, a foreign journalist in Beijing at the time. “You had doctors and nurses and scientists and army people demonstrating. The Chinese navy was demonstrating, and I thought, ‘This is extraordinary because who’s left? It’s just the top leaders who aren’t out there.'”

4 May Tens of thousands of students march into Tiananmen Square to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the 1919 “May Fourth Movement,” which also took place in the square. They pledge to return to classes the next day but intend to keep pressing for reforms.

Zhao Ziyang, in a speech to foreign bankers, expresses support for the students’ “patriotism” and essentially contradicts the government’s April 26 editorial. This angers senior Party members.

5 May – 12 May Many students return to classes, and the movement is in flux and lacks clear leadership. Certain factions plan more demonstrations and a hunger strike. Meanwhile, tensions escalate within the Party as they prepare for Soviet Party Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev’s historic visit to Beijing.

Deng Xiaoping wants to settle things peacefully, but insists the students must be out of the square before Gorbachev arrives. Zhao, unable to convince the students to call off the demonstrations, begins to lose favor with the senior Party members.

13 May 160 students begin a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square.

15 May Mikhail Gorbachev arrives. Protests force the cancellation of plans to welcome him in the square.

16 May More than 3,000 people are now participating in the hunger strike. The embarrassing protests during Gorbachev’s visit further polarizes the Politburo. During an emergency meeting, Zhao maintains that the way to end the strike is for the government to retract its April 26 editorial, accept the students’ demand for dialogue and begin reforms.

17 May When the case is put to Deng Xiaoping, he decides against Zhao’s recommendations and proposes instituting martial law to end the hunger strike. “The aim … will be to suppress the turmoil once and for all and to return things quickly to normal,” he is reported to have said. “This is the unshirkable duty of the Party and the government.” Zhao expresses his problems with this position but concedes: “I will submit to Party discipline; the minority does yield to the majority.”

18 May Zhao Ziyang visits hospitalized hunger strikers and tries to convince them to call off their fast. Afterward, he is reported to have drafted a letter of resignation to the Politburo, but it is never sent. Li Peng holds a televised meeting with student leaders in the Great Hall of the People. It ends without any progress.

That evening a meeting of Party elders and Politburo members, including Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng, approves the declaration of martial law. Zhao Ziyang does not attend.

19 May Student leaders learn of the plan to declare martial law and call off their hunger strike. Instead, they stage a mass sit-in in Tiananmen Square that draws about 1.2 million supporters, including members of the police and military and industrial workers. Zhao Ziyang appears in Tiananmen Square in a final, unsuccessful effort to appeal for compromise. It is his last public appearance. He is soon removed from office and replaced by Jiang Zemin.

That evening, Li Peng appears on state television to declare martial law. “We must adopt firm and resolute measures to end the turmoil swiftly, to maintain the leadership of the party as well as the socialist system.”

20 May Martial law is declared in parts of Beijing. For the first time in 40 years of Communist rule, the PLA troops attempt to occupy the city. A huge number of civilian protestors block their convoys on the streets. Beijingers begin a dialogue with the soldiers, trying to explain to them why they shouldn’t be there. “You had these … touching moments of the people appealing to the army to join them, and feeding them, and giving them water, and saying, you know, ‘Could be your son. Could be your daughter,'” says Orville Schell, who was in Beijing at the time. “And [you have] these sort of doe-eyed, puzzled soldiers, who were mostly country people, weren’t experienced with big city life, just wondering what was going on here. And not wanting to hurt anybody.”

The soldiers have been ordered not to fire on civilians, even if provoked. They are stuck — unable to reach the protestors in Tiananmen Square and unable to withdraw from the city — for almost three days.

24 May Troops leave. For the next week demonstrations continue. “The party leaders feared that the whole edifice of communism was going to collapse,” says journalist John Pomfret. “They needed to make a stand, and a bloody stand, to show their population, and in effect, to cow their population, back into submission.”

2 June Party elders approve decision to put down protest by force.

3 June Thousands of soldiers move towards the centre of Beijing. As word spreads that hundreds of thousands of troops are approaching from all four corners of the city, Beijingers flood the streets to block them, as they had done two weeks earlier. People set up barricades at every major interstion. At about 10:30 p.m., near the Muxidi apartment buildings — home to high-level Party officials and their families — the citizens become aggressive as the army tries to break through their barricades. They yell at the soldiers and some throw rocks; someone sets a bus on fire. The soldiers start firing on the unarmed civilians with AK-47s loaded with battlefield ammunition.

4 June At about 1:00 a.m., the People’s Liberation Army finally reaches Tiananmen Square and waits for orders from the government. The soldiers have been told not to open fire, but they have also been told that they must clear the square by 6:00 a.m. — with no exceptions or delays. They make a final offer of amnesty if the few thousand remaining students will leave. About 4:00 a.m., student leaders put the matter to a vote: Leave the square, or stay and face the consequences. “It was clear to me that they stay votes were much, much, much stronger,” recalls eyewitness John Pomfret, who was near the students. “But Feng Congde, who was a student leader at the time, said, ‘The go’s have it.'” The students vacate the square under the gaze of thousands of soldiers.

Later that morning, some people — believed to be the parents of the student protestors — try to re-enter Tiananmen Square via Chang’an Boulevard. The soldiers order them to leave, and when they don’t, open fire, taking down dozens of people at a time. According to eyewitness accounts, the citizens seem not to believe the army is firing on them with real ammunition.

No one knows for certain how many people died over the two days. The Chinese Red Cross initially reported 2,600, then quickly retracted that figure under intense pressure from the government. The official Chinese government figure is 241 dead, including soldiers, and 7,000 wounded.

5 June The army has complete control. About midday, as a column of tanks slowly moves along Chang’an Boulevard toward Tiananmen Square, an unarmed young man carrying shopping bags suddenly steps out in front of the tanks. Instead of running over him, the first tank tries to go around, but the young man steps in front of it again. They repeat this maneuver several more times before the tank stops and turns off its motor. The young man climbs on top of the tank and speaks to the driver before jumping back down again. Soon, the young man is whisked to the side of the road by an unidentified group of people and disappears into the crowd.

Let’s repeat that last part again, this time with feeling: A young man repeatedly blocks a column of tanks.

No one knows who he was, what he went on to do, or how in the hell to contact him to give him his new dinner set.

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