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Explained: The Tiananmen Square Massacre, The Protests That Chinese Crushed, And 'Tank Man'

The Tiananmen Square produced one of the most iconic images of all time in which an unidentified man blocked the path of Chinese tanks.

The Tank Man, a Chinese man blocking the path of Chinese tanks after Tiananmen Square Massacre
The Tank Man, a Chinese man blocking the path of Chinese tanks after Tiananmen Square Massacre Twitter/Melissa Chen

The Chinese capital of Beijing witnessed unprecedented protests in April 1989 at the Tiananmen Square, with more than a million people gathering in the Square at its peak in May.

The millions of people who participated in the protest were calling for greater freedom of speech and less censorship. While the Chinese government did not do anything initially, the response to protests increased dramatically in the second half of May when Beijing was put under Martial Law.

Chinese troops moved into the capital from all sides on June 3 and attacked unarmed protesters with automatic fire, clubs, and bayonets. Estimates suggest that up to 2,00,000 Chinese soldiers and hundreds of tanks and military armoured vehicles were used to crush the protests on 3-4 June.

The Chinese government has since censored the massacre within its borders. It's not taught, discussed, and all its mentions on the internet are censored. 

Here we explain what the protests were about, how China crushed them, how many people were killed, and how Chinese remember (or do not remember) it. 

Tiananmen Square protests' background

The protests began after Hu Yaobang's death on 15 April 1989. Hu was a Communist Party (CCP) leader who worked towards liberalising Chinese politics. 

Hu was pushed out of a top position in the CCP by political opponents two years earlier, as per the BBC. It added that tens of thousands gathered on the day of his funeral in April and called for greater freedom of speech and less censorship.

The National Geographic says in an article, "In the wake of his death from a heart attack, mourning students poured into Tiananmen Square in late April. They began to demand democratic reforms, including an end to press censorship and restrictions on freedom of assembly.

Over the next few weeks, the square drew millions of protestors. In response to their ballooning numbers, China imposed martial law in late May and ousted Western reporters."

The socio-political context of 1980s' China is also central to the events of 1989. The BBC noted that it was a perioud when the country was going through changes and there were different lines of thoughts even within the CCP.

The BBC noted, "The ruling Communist Party began to allow some private companies and foreign investment [in '80s]. Leader Deng Xiaoping hoped to boost the economy and raise living standards. However, the move brought with it corruption, while at the same time raising hopes for greater political openness."

These divisions were also seen in the Chinese state's response to Tianenman Square protests. Ultimately, the hardliners won both the debates.

The BBC article said, "Party officials disagreed on how to respond [to protests], some backing concessions, others wanting to take a harder line. The hardliners won the debate, and in the last two weeks of May, martial law was declared in Beijing."

The Tianenman Square Massacre on 3-4 June

Around 2,00,000 soldiers, over 100 tanks, and hundreds of armoured personnel carriers entered Beijing from all sides on 3 June. The first attacks were reported around 10:30 pm, according to a timeline by PBS Frontline.

The military reached the Tianenman Square at 1 am on the intervening night of 3-4 June. The protesters there voted whether to vacate the site or stay and face consequences. 

Eyewitness John Pomfret said, "It was clear to me that they stay votes were much, much, much stronger, but Feng Congde, who was a student leader at the time, said, 'The go’s have it'."

The students vacated the site at the time but several people returned in the morning and the Chinese soldiers opened fire at them, killing dozens of people every time an attempt was made to enter the Square. 

Journalist Jan Wong, who watched the massacre from her hotel room overlooking the area, said Chinese soldiers shot people in the back who were crawling and screaming at them.

She added, "And this went on more than half a dozen times in the day."

By the morning of June 5, the Chinese capital that was hoping for the country's shift to democracy just weeks ago was firmly in control of the military that had crushed the protesters all across the city. 

It was on 5 June that the ultimate image of defiance emerged, becoming one of the most iconic photographs of all times. 

The Tank Man

An unidentified Chinese man carrying two shopping bags blocked a convoy of Chinese tanks leaving the Tiananmen Square on 5 June. 

The man first stood in front of the tank, blocking their path. He again blocked their path as tanks tried to go around him. After several such attempts, the tanks stopped and turned off their engines. Then the man climbed on top of the tank and spoke to the driver inside it. 

Then the man was whisked away by a group of unidentified people and he disappeared into the crowd of people at the roadside. 

The photograph, shot by The Associated Press's Jeff Widener, has become an international symbol of resistance. Despite worldwide fame of the photograph, nothing is known either about the man's identity or his fate. 

He has since been called The Tank Man for his act of standing up to a group of tanks with nothing but two shopping bags. 

The death toll of the Massacre

There are no widely accepted figures for the death in the Tiananmen Square Massacre, or the larger Chinese crackdown all across Beijing, on 3-4 June 1989. Estimates range from hundreds to several thousands. 

The Chinese government said 200 civilians died, whereas student leaders said around 3,400 people were killed. 

A telegram from the then-British ambassador to China Sir Alan Donald said 10,000 people were killed in the Chinese crackdown.

The cable, declassified in 2017, said the source for the 10,000-figure was someone who "was passing on information given him by a close friend who is currently a member of the [Chinese] State Council".

The Council is the Chinese-equivalent of a cabinet in the United Kingdom or India. 

Sir Donald said Chinese armoured vehicles ran over students, literally crushing the protests. Even corpses were run over by Chinese armoured vehicles.

He wrote, "Students linked arms but were mown down including soldiers. APCs [armoured personnel carriers] then ran over bodies time and time again to make 'pie' and remains collected by bulldozer. Remains incinerated and then hosed down drains. Four wounded girl students begged for their lives but were bayoneted."

Why Tiananmen Square Massacre matters

The Chinese state had two choices in 1989. It could have opened itself more, accepting aspiratiosn for freedom, or it could have taken a sharper turn towards authoriatarianism. It chose the latter.

"The pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square presented a brief window of hope that China might embrace a more democratic system," noted the National Geographic. 

The Time magazine noted, "Beijing has manufactured a cultural amnesia around the June 4th massacre; it’s not taught in schools or mentioned in newspapers, while high-tech censors detect and block any mention of it online. So thoroughly has the memory of June 4th been expunged that the generation born after the incident remains largely unaware of this historic watershed."

The CCP has erased the Tiananmen Square Massacre as its the biggest stain on its legitimacy as a state. 

Journalist and activist Melissa Chen said the Tank Man became so iconic because "in him, we see the power of an individual standing up to a militarized state" and called him "the spirit of punk rock, of rebellion."

She further said, "Carrying two plastic bags full of groceries, we see this man as a symbol of Plebeian radicalism, with nothing but the enormous courage to stop not just one tank but an army. In him, we see the human soul’s yearning to be free."

For these reasons, says Chen, the world cannot forget the Tank Man. 

She says, "Inside China, history may be rewritten. The carriers of Tiananmen’s memory in Hong Kong may have gone dark. But it’s up to the rest of us outside who still have our voice to ensure it remains true, and is never forgotten. All that is good about the human spirit was captured in this one picture."

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