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Tiananmen Square 25th Anniversary: The Day the World Saw China's Totalitarianism in Action

The Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 cemented a particular international image of China. But what does it mean inside the country?
Photo via AP

I was 14 when the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. Back then I didn’t understand why a government was using the army against its own people.

I didn’t know about the seven weeks of student-led occupation sparked by the death of Hu Yaobang, the deposed reformist leader, nor about the hunger strikes, or the hundreds of thousands who came from all over China to join the protests in Beijing. I didn’t know about the calls for reform, press freedom, and an end to official corruption. All I knew was that people were dying.


For years afterwards, when I thought of the event all I saw was the famous image of a man standing in the path of a tank, blocking it repeatedly as it attempted to swerve past. A heroic moment, we like to think, but it was quixotic. It took place on June 5, after the square had been cleared, and the Communist Party was back in control.

Now, 25 years later, it’s easy to say what the Tiananmen Square demonstrations meant for many outside China. It framed the little most of us knew about the country, cementing, or perhaps creating, the image of China as a totalitarian country where people lack personal freedom.

Thousands marched in central Hong Kong on Sunday, June 1, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. This video shows a woman burning a Chinese flag outside the Chinese central government’s liaison office. Video via YouTube/VDO.

Without it, Jung Chang’s memoir, Wild Swans, would probably not have been such a success, and perhaps the enthusiasm for Tibetan independence might not have flourished as much. It’s hard to believe that the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Dalai Lama later that year was unconnected.

The Tiananmen Square massacre, as it came to be known, has cast a long shadow. Last month, when a friend and I were standing on the edge of the square at night, it was hard not to look at that vast empty space (which is closed off in the evening) and end up projecting scenes of crowds, soldiers, and shooting.


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My friend recalled when the ornate lights around the square suddenly went off 25 years ago. Although he was far away, watching on TV in Hong Kong, he felt a stab of terror. That was when loudspeakers blared the order: "Clearance of the square begins now.”

However, although the idea of tanks mowing down people in Tiananmen Square has remained potent, it isn’t to be trusted. It’s unclear how many people died during the crackdown — calculations range from the official figure of several hundred to more than 5,000 estimated by the Chinese Red Cross. But few of these deaths are thought to have taken place in the square itself — most of those that can be documented took place on the surrounding streets.

One reason for the support for the students was that their protests were part of an ideological conflict that had been growing since Deng Xiaoping initiated economic reforms in 1978.

Another problem with focusing on Tiananmen is that while it was both the literal and symbolic center of the protest movement, this has tended to obscure what was happening in the rest of the country. Protests and demonstrations took place in most major cities, and the ripples of these spread even wider, to places like Fuling, a town on the banks of the Yangtze River in southwest China, more than a 1,000-mile drive from the capital.

Human Rights Watch published this video ahead of the 25th anniversary of the June 4 massacre on Tiananmen Square in Beijing.


The poet Liao Yiwu, who was jailed for reading a poem about the Tiananmen killings, recalls in his autobiography that in Fuling there were collection booths for the student hunger strikers. Liao remembers that: “Strangers greeted each other warmly. Volunteers stepped up to keep order. The pickpockets and burglars… declared a moratorium on their activities.”

Why was there such support for the students? One reason was that their protests were part of an ideological conflict that had been growing since Deng Xiaoping initiated economic reforms in 1978. These were a stark departure from the socialist programs of Mao Zedong’s reign, when people’s economic and personal lives were heavily regulated by the central government.

Ultimately, the debate was about different visions of China’s future. In one it would be both politically and economically open; in the other the party would retain its monopoly on power.

Deng’s policies opened the country to foreign investment, allowed people to start their own businesses, and returned control of the land to individual farmers. Though Deng was always the most powerful member of the Politburo (the top 25 party officials who run the country) his reforms did not go unopposed: Communist Party hardliners like Hua Guofeng were against departing from Mao’s socialist policies. Deng relied on support from senior officials like Hu and Zhao Ziyang, who after 1982 were the second and third most powerful members of the Politburo.


Hu’s agenda wasn’t just economic, however. He was the most politically liberal senior official modern China has had. He made the party more transparent, brought in elections for the Politburo, and rehabilitated many who were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. Perhaps most radical of all, Hu ordered the withdrawal of thousands of Han Chinese government officials from Tibet, and apologized to Tibetans in 1980 for his country’s mistakes in governing the region.

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Yet although this was a time of “opening up,” many constraints remained on freedom of expression. In October 1978, activists in Beijing put up posters criticizing the previous Communist leadership. Though this campaign was initially condoned, it was closed in December when the criticisms expanded to the system itself. The testing of what could be publicly said continued throughout the early 1980s.

The almost total absence of references to the Tiananmen Square demonstrations from the media, the Chinese internet, and public discussion means that for most the demonstrations are probably seldom thought of.

Though the Tiananmen demonstrations in 1989 may have seemed to occur without warning, there had already been major student protests in a dozen Chinese cities in 1986, sparked by the essays and lectures of Fang Lizhi, an astrophysics professor who spoke about the need for greater personal freedoms and the separation of executive and judicial powers. Hu was criticized for handling the protests too leniently, and forced to resign in 1987. The popular perception that he had been forced out of office for refusing to compromise his reformist agenda meant that his death in 1989 was a hugely symbolic event. The fact that by then the economy was struggling, and inflation was high, only added to the dissatisfaction with the Communist party’s leadership.


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The Beijing student protests began when people assembled in the square to mourn Hu, but these large gatherings soon became political. From the beginning the Communist leadership was divided about how to deal with the crowds, with hardliners like Li Peng wanting the area forcibly cleared, and others, such as Zhao, preaching moderation (he would later be punished with 15 years of house arrest for his sympathies). Ultimately, the debate was about different visions of China’s future. In one it would be both politically and economically open; in the other the party would retain its monopoly on power.

Arguably that choice was made on April 20, when the government declared martial law, and more than 250,000 troops were sent to the capital. The fact it took another two weeks before they cleared the square was partly due to the thousands of people who stopped the troops and tanks from entering the center by blocking the streets.

A quarter of a century later, what significance do the Tiananmen Square demonstrations have for people in China? For those who were personally involved, or whose friends and family members were arrested, injured or killed, the anniversary is a date they solemnly mark, either in private or through coded references on social media (any direct references to “Tiananmen Square” or “June 4” are deleted). But though it is an overstatement to say that Tiananmen has been “forgotten” in China, its almost total absence from the media, the Chinese internet, and public discussion means that for most the demonstrations are probably seldom thought of.


This year the government has already imprisoned more than 50 human rights lawyers, bloggers, activists, and journalists.

While the government does have an official line on the protests — they are described as a serious political disturbance that threatened social stability — for the most part they go unmentioned (in contrast to other sensitive topics like Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang, which state media frequently comment on).

It’s doubtful that the Chinese government regrets its handling of the incident. If the party had carried out political reforms of the kind advocated by some of the students, it probably wouldn’t be in power now. Instead, it remains the sole authority of a country that has made great economic progress, and despite the wishful thinking of some commentators, is extremely unlikely to be replaced in the next few decades.

Organizers estimated 3,000 people attended Sunday's Hong Kong protests, with the police putting the number at 1,900. This video shows police trying to stop protesters throwing flowers into the Chinese Government offices. Video via YouTube/VDO.

But no one could accuse the party of complacency. According to human rights groups, this year the government has already imprisoned more than 50 lawyers, bloggers, activists, and journalists. The arrests seem to have been sparked by a seminar about the legacy of Tiananmen that was held in Beijing on May 3. Many of the detained are being held on vague charges like “creating a disturbance” or “picking quarrels and provoking troubles,” and were arrested within a month of the anniversary. They can then be held in custody until after then without being charged. There are also other forms of harassment. Ding Zilin, whose son was killed in the protests, has been told by the authorities not to travel to Beijing until June 5.

Ding is a key member of Tiananmen Mothers, a group of survivors and family members of victims who demand accountability for the violence against unarmed civilians, as well as compensation.

Will Tiananmen still matter in 20 years’ time?

As the participants of the May 3 seminar put it: "As a result of June 4, abuse of power, bullying of the masses, indulgence of corruption, indifference to justice, and other inherent drawbacks of the Chinese social system became more severe and hopelessly entrenched. To rebuild social morality in China, we dig deeply to weed out those roots."

Another possibility is that both knowledge and memory of the event will fade as the government wishes, until the date has no particular resonance. Yet while the generation that took part in the protests remains alive, Tiananmen will remain a reminder of the choices the party made in the summer of 1989.

Nick Holdstock is a writer and journalist. China's Forgotten People, a book about Xinjiang and the Uighurs, will be published by IB Tauris in spring 2015.