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When A Nation Crushed Its Own People…

A horrific incident in global history unfolded on June 4, 1989, when Deng Xiaoping, leader of Communist Party of China, declared martial law to trample upon students led protests in capital city, Beijing. The 27th and 38th divisions of People’s Liberation Army slaughtered hundreds of innocent citizens, student and youth, brutally carrying out diktats of Communist Oligarchs run party leadership.

Rohan Giri

June 3, 1989 was the day when Beijing engulfed with fear as Chinese dictatorship turned its weapons and tanks on its own people. Tiananmen Square Massacre is vivid reminder to which the Chinese regime led by Communist Party of China (CPC) went to reinforce its authority. This was more than just a crackdown; it was ruthless invasion of the Chinese people by their own leadership, sending shockwaves globally and haunting generations.

The protest was outcome of rising socio-political inequality in China. Economic changes under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership lead to elevated corruption and socio-political inequality. On the other hand, reformist leader Hu Yaobang’s demise led to students’ rallies calling for political reform, government accountability and an end to corruption. As the protests spread, Chinese dictatorship declared martial law, fearing a loss of power and eventually chose to deploy soldiers of People’s Liberation Army to crush the peaceful protesters.

The merciless crackdown killed hundreds of people and marked a dark episode in the Communist Party of China’s purported revolutionary efforts, symbolizing the extent to which CPC went to secure its rule and suppress dissent. The massacre had far-reaching consequences, emphasizing constant struggle for human rights and political liberty.

How Brutality Began

The protests that ended in the massacre began in April 1989, following death of Hu Yaobang, a former Communist Party leader who had been a symbol of reform. Students, intellectuals and labour activists gathered at Tiananmen Square (a city square in Beijing) to mourn Hu and request political and economic reforms including freedom and an end to corruption.

Today also, CPC leadership under President Xi Jingping exhibits massive purge in political dissent and challenge to his leadership in the name of campaign against corruption. Same was the case then in1989 when the People’s Liberation Army tanks run over its own people seeking political and economic reforms.

In 1989, when number of protestors increased, the authorities became more anxious. On May 20, martial law was imposed, and thousands of troops were sent out in Beijing. By end of May, the administration was set to crush demonstrators. On the evening of June 3, a directive was issued to eradicate demonstrators from the square using all violent and dictatorial means.

The bloodshed that occurred was profound. People’s Liberation Army equipped with rifles, bayonets and tanks paraded into the city. The armed forces were instructed to shoot to kill and they did so extensively. The streets surrounding Tiananmen Square became slaughter houses when the army opened fire on defenseless civilians including women, children, and the elderly. Eyewitness stories depict scenes of chaos and slaughter, with victims scattered all over the streets and makeshift blockades flattened by tank treads.

Victims’ Account

One of the most distressing accounts is that of Wang Nan, 19-year-old student and aspiring journalist. Wang was among the first to be killed, shot in the head by PLA soldiers as he tried to photograph the events unfolding. His father, Wang Fandi, later detailed the suffering of detecting his son’s body amid many others in a hospital mortuary. Wang Nan’s execution represents silence of a generation’s voice and the shattering aspirations for an inclusive society.

Another tragic account is of Liu Xiaobo, who was not killed in the massacre but became one of its recognizable victims. Liu, a literary critic and activist, was present at Tiananmen Square during the crackdown. On June 2, he began a four-man, three-day hunger strike. Later known as “Tiananmen Four Gentlemen Hunger Strike,” that gained students faith. Another three gentlemen with Liu were Hou Dejian (well-known songwriter and vocalist), Zhou Tou (Lecturer in sociology at Peking University), and Gao Xin (former editor of the Beijing Normal University Gazette).

Liu was taken into custody at Qincheng Prison on June 5 for his involvement in students protest. The Chinese state-backed media published numerous reports calling him a “mad dog” and a “black hand” for allegedly inciting and manipulating student movement to topple the government and socialism. His writings were banned including his fourth book ‘Going Naked Toward God’.

He survived and continued to struggle for human rights and democracy in China that led to several imprisonments. Liu received Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. Liu Xiaobo’s struggle and death in prison in 2017 validate the massacre’s lasting consequences for those who dared to speak out.

Butchers of Beijing

Tiananmen Square Massacre has had a lasting effect on generations. In light of the CPC’s rigorous control over information, younger generations in China may be oblivious to the massacre because the story is banned from textbooks, media and all other public contexts. Control of traditional forms of media such as newspapers, books, television, and radio has always been the norm for CCP from the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) to Tiananmen massacre. Immediately after massacre of the students, it was renamed as ‘counter-revolutionary rebellion,’ gradually downgraded the massacre to an event and finally skirmish. However, individuals who learn about it, whether through family stories or international media, frequently experience a complicated range of emotions, including anger, despair and a sense of unfairness.

Memory of the massacre has played an important part in formation of the post-1989 understanding between rulers and ruled in China.

The legacy of Tiananmen Square Massacre highlights importance of historical reminiscence. Efforts to preserve remembrance of the massacre, such as annual vigils in Hong Kong and formation of monuments around the world, serve as a reminder of those who made ultimate sacrifice for their convictions. These measures are critical to confirming that the lessons of Tiananmen are not overlooked.

Concluding Observation

Tiananmen Square Massacre was a moment when a nation turned against its own people causing unspeakable suffering and leaving a legacy of fear and repression. Many Chinese citizens learned to self-censor, avoiding subjects that could result in punishment. The “Great Firewall of China” and widespread surveillance have reinforced this culture of silence and compliance.

CPC’s massacre became a global emblem of fight for human rights and the valour of human spirit. It sparked global movements for democracy and freedom. The iconic image of “Tank Man,” an unknown man standing in front of a line of tanks, has become a effective symbol of nonviolent resistance. This image resonated with people all over the world, reminding them of the significance of speaking out against oppression.

(Author: Rohan Giri is a journalism graduate from Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC) New Delhi, and Manager Operations at CIHS.)

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