Tiananmen Square Massacre: What really happened in 1989?
For some years now, the discussion of the 1989 clampdown when the Chinese government set tanks and troops on peaceful protestors is all but forbidden in mainland China. Until two years ago Hong Kong was the one exception, however, it too is all but stifled since 2019 after a national security law was imposed to snuff out pro-democracy protests.
Last year in a crackdown on Tiananmen Square's 32nd-anniversary thousands of police officers were deployed to enforce a ban on protests in semi-autonomous Hong Kong.
Now on the 33rd anniversary of the horrible massacre Hong Kong police have once again warned the people that gathering in Victoria park - the site of the annual candlelight vigil will be breaking of the law.
As per the senior superintendent, Liauw Ka-kei residents risk committing the 'crime' of "unlawful assembly" even if they go to the park alone.
China slid into economic chaos in 1988, with panic buying triggered by rising inflation peaking at more than 30 per cent in cities. Public discontent, coupled with the death of purged reform-minded Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang on April 15, 1989, set the stage for the demonstrations.
More than one million people flooded into central Beijing, keen to vent their anger against corruption, economic mismanagement, nepotism and poor career prospects for students. Gathering in Tiananmen Square, the students erected their own 'Goddess of Democracy' statue opposite the official portrait of the Communist revolutionary leader Chairman Mao Zedong.
After weeks of protests in the square, troops backed by tanks crushed the demonstrations, prompting global condemnation. The footage of a lone protester standing in front of a line of tanks has become one of the most powerful symbols of the 20th century.
Chinese leaders denounced the demonstrations as a counter-revolutionary movement and the ensuing flurry of arrests, executions and exiles frightened many demonstrators into silence.
Who participated in the demonstrations?
The 1989 Tiananmen Square protests were primarily student-led demonstrations calling for democracy, free speech and a free press in China.
Following the death of Hu Yaobang, a former communist party leader, who had been a vocal advocate of democracy, and had worked to introduce democratic reform in China, students marched through Beijing to Tiananmen Square. They had one demand, a more open, democratic government. Thousands of people joined them eventually, echoing their call for democratic reform. The final number of protestors was around a million.
What pushed so many people to participate in the demonstrations?
At the centre of the protests was a frustration, with imposed limits on political freedom owing to the country's one-party form of government with the Communist Party at the helm.
On top of this, all ongoing economic troubles had rattled the people. In spite of the then Chinese government's economical reforms in the 1980s, establishing a limited form of capitalism in the country, the poor and working-class of the country continued to face a number of significant challenges, primary among which were increased poverty and a lack of jobs.
The students also contended that the Chinese educational system did little to prepare them for an economic system with elements of free-market capitalism.
After weeks of protests, what was the catalyst that led to the government crackdown?
The movement reached its peak when on May 13, a few student protesters initiated a hunger strike, an action that inspired other similar strikes and protests across China.
The movements rapid growth soon became a reason for the unease of the government. The apprehension increased manifold when the May 15, welcome ceremony for the then Soviet Union (since disintegrated) PM Mikhail Gorbachev's which was to be held at Tiananmen Square had to be shifted to the Airport.
Even though no violence was witnessed during Gorbachev's visit, feeling that the demonstrators needed to be curtailed, the Chinese government declared martial law on May 20.
Following the martial law enactment, 250,000 troops entered Beijing. The presence of the military did nothing to quell the protests, which pushed the authorities to amp up the aggression.
On June 4th, at 1 am, Chinese soldiers and police stormed Tiananmen Square, firing live rounds into the crowd.
What was the death toll?
The government has never released a death toll of the June 4, 1989 crackdown, but estimates from human rights groups and witnesses range from several hundred to several thousand.
What were the implications of this massacre?
Leaders worldwide condemned military action. Even Soviet Union leader Mikhael Gorbachev deplored the Chinese government’s actions.
Less than a month later, the US Congress citing human rights violations, also voted towards imposing economic sanctions against the country.
Images from the massacre in 1989, shook the world and led to China's isolation.
Today’s 33rd Anniversary of the infamous Tiananmen Square massacre
33 years later, China is still a one-party state, with a deeply authoritarian government. It is still stifling dissent and still muzzling the voices of its citizens.
While the Tiananmen anniversary crackdown is not officially commemorated in mainland China, the topic is taboo and any discussion heavily censored.
This year marks the third year in a row when the Hong Kong police have imposed a ban on the vigil marking the massacre.
Last year, Albert Ho, former lawmaker and one of the vigil organisers, suggested Hong Kongers could light candles or shine mobile phone lights in their local neighbourhoods.
"We can regard the whole of Hong Kong as Victoria Park," he told the South China Morning Post before he was sentenced for attending previous democracy protests.
Social media presents another avenue.
Artist Pak Sheung-chuen called on residents to write the numbers six and four, representing June 4, on light switches as a way to memorise Tiananmen every time they turn them on.
"Guard the truth and refuse to forget," Pak had said on Facebook.
Designer Chan Ka-hing posted another idea on social media. He printed a black rectangle with a 6:4 ratio on a white t-shirt and said others were welcome to copy the design.
Commemorating June 4 has for more than three decades been part of Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement and according to one of the mourners' District councillor, Debby Chan, "This is one of the most signature events of our movement. If we give up now, the red lines will only come closer in the future."