Saturday, June 4, 2011

June 4, 1989 – Soldiers Join Tiananmen Square Protest

The site at Tiananmen Square has been crucial to political change in China since its establishment as the foundation for the Tiananmen Gate by the Ming Dynasty. The gate was rebuilt with an added square after damage during the violent shift from Ming to Qing, and it served as the landmark near where European troops camped in the invasion of 1860 that forced the opening of China. When the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 besieged many of the compounds in Beijing, the square was again used to organize European troops who had fought putting down the uprising.

Just as it had been representative of changes in China for hundreds of years, the shift to Communism also showed its impact. Leader Mao Zedong demolished the gate in 1950 and pushed the expansion of the square in 1958, which in ten months of construction become the largest place of public gathering in the world, capable of holding up to 500,000 people. Around the square, the Ten Great Buildings were built, creating a center for museums, hotels, the hall for the National People’s Congress, a rail station, and the Workers’ Stadium. In 1976, shortly after the Mao’s death, his body was embalmed to be placed in a mausoleum, which was built over where the Gate had stood decades before.

Once again, the square would be crucial to the alteration of China as young people gathered there in 1989 and protested government control. Through the past twenty years of communism, liberalizing agents had suggested methods of loosening government and encouraging democracy and free enterprise. While there had been some successful policies, many had been suppressed forcefully. The greatest had been in 1987, when Hu Yaobang, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China for five years and member of the NPC since 1954, was ousted for encouraging too much liberalization. He died two years later, and a group gathered in Tiananmen Square in his memory. The commemoration became a demand for recognition for his ideals in freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and some 50,000 students marched to the square to attend the funeral while delivering a petition to the premier, Li Peng.

Li was not moved by the display, and the protestors decided to stay until the call for reform was understood. Their numbers swelled over 100,000, and the government worked toward dispelling the protestors with editorials and leaflets. Riots broke out in various places, but the protest at the square remained peaceful. Rather than fight back overtly, the protestors began hunger strikes and directed their voice against policies and never the Party. On May 20, with the crowd still unmoved, Li declared martial law. Rather than quelling the protest, the declaration seemed to solidify it, and much of the city joined in with the protest. It seemed as if the students were emulating the successes of revolutions past such as the Young Turks and China’s own May Fourth Movement of 1919.

Finally, as the philosophy of the protestors went further from free media toward democracy, the CPC leaders agreed to clear the square. Soldiers from the 27th and 38th Armies were brought to Beijing. Word spread about the movement of troops, and Beijing became a city on edge. On June 3, the commander of the 27th (a relative of the Chinese President Yang Shangkun) fell ill, and the 38th was brought up into the lead. In the early hours of June 4, the troops moved into Beijing, which was bristling with barricades and rioters. When they reached the outskirts, however, an unknown figure nicknamed “Tank Man” for hopping on top of one of the tanks while in motion waved a banner and proclaimed, “The military has come to join us!”

The unfounded rumor spread quickly through the city, and local elements of the People’s Liberation Army who supported the protest hurried to join in. Overwhelmed by support, the 38th was escorted to the square as if on parade. There, the troops disbanded and did in fact join the protest. The 27th followed behind shortly thereafter, and soldiers began to refuse orders for live fire to clear the streets.

With the army divided and protests increasing throughout China, the CPC broke into factionalism. Hard communists demanded display of force while others wanted to see the liberalization through. Inevitably, the chaos broke into violence, but the Tiananmen Revolution would see victory with its numbers, passion for the cause, and military allies. It would be many more months before the renewed Chinese government assembled for a nation of mixed socialism and widespread free enterprise. China would grow to become the fourth largest world economy over the next decades, and attempts to track billions of dollars worth of money that disappeared during the uprising would ultimately be given up as the price of change.


In reality, the 27th Army entered Beijing first, and tear gas and live fire was used to clear rioters, who fought with Molotov cocktails and improvised weapons. The protestors in the square left voluntarily but were still pursued by violent soldiers. Though the protest would be put down, the demand for freedom continued, as seen by the famous stand of the Tank Man halting at column of tanks from leaving the square on June 5.

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