Thursday, June 4, 2009

Tiananmen Square Massacre

It just hit me in the past hour that today is the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989 (known in China as the June Fourth Incident or more colloquially as Six-four to eliminate confusion about two other massacres that occurred at Tiananmen Square). It was a protest that began in April of that year, after the death of Hu Yaobang, who was the "pro-democracy, pro-market, and anti-corruption" (Wikipedia) former Secretary General. The thousands of people that gathered at Tiananmen were originally only there to mourn Hu's death, but soon students and workers alike started impromptu speeches that requested government changes based on the reforms Hu had attempted to make before resigning from office. Because it was so impromptu, there was really no unified cause or leader to the protests, but by April 21, a sit-in had been staged and students were calling for official meetings with government representatives. On May 4, students in Beijing marched and demanded free press and open dialogue between the government and student-elected representatives. Demonstrations at Tiananmen continued to be well-organized and the students initiated a hunger strike by May of '89 that was supported even by people not involved in the protest. Mikhael Gorbachev (USSR) would be visiting China soon and the reform-minded protestors considered his policy of glastnost to be something that China could follow in order to be more democratic. In fact, at the beginning of the movement the central and local governments didn't have a lot of control over the media and reporting was free to say as it pleased for a rare moment in history.

On May 20, the government declared martial law, but entrance into the square was blocked by protestors and the demonstrations were able to continue. Citizens of Beijing (whether protesting or not) actively tried to stop the People's Liberation Army from entering the square, constructing roadblocks out of buses they burned as the PLA attempted to stop them using tear gas and rifles. Rickshaw drivers dared to cross the boundary between the PLA and the protestors and carried hundreds of wounded off to hospitals for treatment.

The final assault began a little after ten pm on June 3. Chinese soldiers shot into the crowds with rifles, and troops approached with bayonets. Protestors that attempted to take refuge in the buses were dragged out and beaten and even people that attempted to leave peacefully were assaulted by the soldiers. Leaders of the protest encouraged students to remain peaceful even in the face of the abuse and by early the next morning the square was cleared of all protestors.

The number of deaths at Tiananmen is highly debated and ranges from the "official" figure as 241 dead/7,000 wounded (including soldiers) to thousands as reported early by various groups (including the Soviet Union, NATO, and Amnesty International). Close to thousands seems more likely since at one point during these protests close to 1,000,000 people were gathered in Tiananmen square, and it seems strange that only a few hundred would have died in such a violent and unorganized suppression.

The Tank Man in the photo was immortalized by his defiant stand in front of the tanks as they left Tiananmen Square on June 5. He was hauled away by police after momentarily talking with one of the soldiers in the tanks and never seen again. The theory that he was executed for his stand led Time Magazine to declare him one of the 100 Most Influential People of the Twentieth Century, a list that also included FDR, Oprah Winfrey, Mohandas Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela.

The other photo is of the Goddess of Democracy, which was carved and erected by protestors toward the end of May when they realized how much international media coverage they were receiving. She stood as a symbol of the protest for viewers around the world as they watched the protestors stand up for freedom and democracy.

(Thanks Wikipedia and my World History professor for the knowledge. It's appreciated.)

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