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The Tiananmen Square Massacre History Essay

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With thousands left wounded, a seemingly countless number of citizens reported dead, and a country left with a damaged reputation. All of these were the results of a truly unforgettable and shocking event which happened on the 4th of June 1989, the Tiananmen Square massacre.

In order to grasp a better understanding of this historical event, I have put together some sub headings and questions to break it down into a more understandable manner.

What is Tiananmen Square?

Tiananmen Square, situated in China's capital, Beijing, is the largest public space in the world. Being one of the largest tourist attractions in the world, it is surrounded by monumental public buildings that line its edges and vast spaces in between that echoes this scary event. It is named after the Tiananmen Gate (Gate of Heavenly Peace) located to its North. This gate separates it from the Forbidden City. Tiananmen Square is the Third largest city square in the world at 440,000m². Today it has great cultural significance as it was the hosted site of several important events in Chinese history, including this famous 1989 protest, which ultimately lead to military suppression and the deaths of multiple protestors.

What was the cause of the protest?

After the war between the communists and the Kuomingtang (KMT) party in China, the leader of the KMT, Chiang Kai-shek, fled to Taiwan with his party. As this happened Mao Zedong, leader of the communist party, was given the advantage and then took control and launched multiple communist reforms such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The transition was slow, but the people of the Peoples Republic of China began to accept the change to communism. This was followed by the next chairman, Deng Xiaoping, attempting to calm the system that Mao Zedong had set up. Xiaoping would then try to convert China in his own way. He would begin by slowly easing China into a market economy, but by the year 1989, these economic and political changes had already given birth to two groups, groups in which were completely unsatisfied.

The first group was essentially a group of students and intellectuals who, in their minds, felt that the reforms had not gone far enough. The second group was a group of industrial workers who believed, quite simply, the opposite. The workers believed that the reforms had gone too far and thought that they were also beginning to put their way of living in jeopardy. These two groups on April 15 1989 came together to begin their protests.

This protest at Tiananmen Square was different than protests prior to this one. For example, the 1987 protest consisted of just students and intellectuals, and the 1989 protest included students, intellectuals and workers. Over a million supporters took part in the pro-democracy protest of 1989. The demonstrators at Tiananmen Square performed daily marches, and chanted "The Internationale" in their native language. This would be accommodated shortly after by a hunger strike, another tactic that the protestors engaged in. This tactic was very popular among the Chinese.

At the beginning of these protests, some but not all attempts were successful, and actually made a negotiation with the government. These negotiations were soon overlooked by the government because of the visiting of Mikhail Gorbachev (chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet). This lead to a lot of press being present. The press found the protests fascinating and began to cover the scenes with extreme curiosity. Around the time of May 30 1989, the protesters erected the Goddess of Democracy, a symbol in which the people watching this on the television from home could associate the protests with. This statue was also known as the Goddess of Liberty. It was 10 meters tall and was constructed in only four days out of foam and papier-mâché over a metal armature. It was built so big so it would be hard to dismantle by the government. This meant that they would either have to destroy the statue (an action which would fuel further criticism of its policies) or leave it standing.

After what seemed like endless negotiation and the Chinese government asking the students to return to their institutions, there was no co-operation between the two sides. This meant that the party elders of the government had to stop this protest by force.

Martial Law

On May 20th, 1989 Deng Xiaoping declared martial law. This is when military forces (in this case the People's Liberation Army) are called upon to bring a particular region or an event to a halt by any means necessary. On this day four convoys of military vehicles proceeded towards Tiananmen Square but were no longer able to advance any further upon reaching the thousands of demonstrators. These protesters were lecturing soldiers and appealed to them to join their cause and they also provided the soldiers with food, water and a roof over their heads. All government forces were forced to retaliate and withdraw their army on the 24th of May as they were highly outnumbered by the mounds of protesters. The authorities, at this point, saw no way forward.

While this retreat by the government initially being seen as the 'turning of the tide' in favour of the protestors went on, in reality every military region was sending units by rail and even by air. Regular airline flights were even cancelled due to the mass amount of military personnel travelling.

Fall of the protest

By the time late May had arrived, the protestors were getting very much disorganised and had no real leadership amongst them anymore. It dragged on so long that the face of Tiananmen Square was filled with serious hygienic problems and had overcrowding issues that weren't taken care of. By June the leadership agreed that it was necessary to end the "turmoil," and that the students occupying the Square should return to their campuses. However, this had many problems and they ended up struggling with the idea of using force. Through this, the members of Politburo had to agree that using martial law to restore order was the only option and on June the 1st Li Peng issued a report titled "On the True Nature of the Turmoil", which was passed on to every member of the Politburo. This report basically persuaded the members of Politburo that these protestors were in fact terrorists and counterrevolutionaries. The report stated that the students were growing in numbers and their support was gaining strength.

As the frustration grew higher and higher the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) decided that it would be best to clear Tiananmen Square as quickly and as peacefully as possible, but if the protestors would not comply, then the troops were authorized to use force to complete the job. On the evening of the 2nd of June, it was heard that a police jeep ran into four civilians, killing three, and injuring the other. This was the moment that sparked fear in the protestors that the police were trying to advance into Tiananmen Square. Roadblocks were made by the students at major intersections to prevent any further advancing from the troops, but this didn't stop them. In the early hours of June the 3rd, the first reports of violence on both sides were reported.

Military advances to Tiananmen Square

Soldiers and tanks from the 27th and 38th Armies of the People's Liberation Army were sent to take control of Beijing and clear Tiananmen Square. The 27th army was controlled and commanded by Yang Shangkun. Reports from the incident show that this army was responsible for most of the civilian deaths. Major General Xu Qinxian was the commander of the 38th army. He shocked the leadership when he refused orders from General Li Laizhu telling him to clear the square, he instead insisted on a written order. Xu was instantly removed from command and was later jailed for five years and following this, was expelled from the Party.

As the word spread and more and more people found out that hundreds of thousands of troops were advancing from all four directions, panic broke out. The protestors began to flood the streets in attempt to block the oncoming troops. It was on this night that the army began to fire live bullets at the protestors, killing many of them. This took place near the Muxidi apartment buildings, home to high-level Party officials and their families. This sparked off riots in Tiananmen Square. The protestors would now throw rocks and Molotov cocktails at vehicles and on the streets and this, in turn, infuriated the officials. There were also reports of people burning soldiers alive in their armoured personnel carriers while others were beaten to death. Therefore, soldiers responded by firing at will on protestors.

Many of the protestors were seriously injured or killed by the soldier's automatic weaponry, but fortunately rickshaw drivers who ventured out into no-mans-land rescued all they could and brought them to safety. Getting desperate and unable to move forward, the army therefore had to open fire on the civilians blocking their way. This shocked the crowd at first as they did not think that the army would use live ammunition. But this did not drive the people from the streets. The army tried everything in their power to evacuate the square but the protestors continued to fight back. Gas, smoke and randomly fired bullets were used against the demonstrators. Some of soldiers were even pulled from their tanks and beaten to death by the civilians.

Some of the protestors left, in fear of risking their lives, but there were still hundreds of students left in Tiananmen Square by the time the army had reached it. Those who sought refuge in buses were ripped out from them by the soldiers and beaten to death with heavy sticks. In the early hours of June the 4th the tanks had smashed their way into the square, crushing vehicles and people with their way and by 5:40am the square had been cleared.

Aftermath of the Massacre

On the morning of June the 5th, people who were related to those who were injured or killed tried to enter the blockaded square but were shot at by the soldiers. Even when they tried to run away, the soldiers persisted in shooting them in the back. These actions were repeated several times.

Finally order had been restored in Tiananmen Square but protests were still going on in other parts of mainland China. There were large protests in Hong Kong, where people wore black in conjunction with the demonstrators in Beijing. Other large protests were held in Guangzhou and in Shanghai. Many other countries had protests as well, all representing the people of Beijing with black bands worn around their arms.

There is little to no evidence of how many people were killed during the massacre. Sources range from 1200 to 10,000 (including soldiers). To this day nobody has an official death count number.

The Tank Man

While a convoy of about a dozen tanks headed eastward into Tiananmen Square a day after the military crackdown, a skinny man dressed in a white shirt and black pants holding two grocery bags, stepped in front of the leading tank. This step was a step into history for him. As soon as the tanks reached the man they came to a standstill. They were face to face with this man. He swung his shopping bags beckoning them to turn around and leave, but the tanks didn't move from where they were.

When the leading tank tried to turn to the right to go around him, the 'Tank Man' would jump to the left in front of it and when it would try to go the other way; he would jump in front of it again, stopping the tanks in their path. After a brief standoff, the 'Tank Man' climbed onto the machine and appeared to be trying to talk to the men inside. Shortly after, two men came up and dragged him away.

The famous picture of the Unknown Rebel smuggled out of China under the noses of officials and soon appeared on the front pages of newspapers all around the world. This man became a hero, and a legend to some.

The fate of Tank Man who carried out his famous act of civil disobedience on June the 5th is unknown, some say he went into hiding and others say he was executed.

I felt inspired after I had watched the footage of the man standing in front of the tanks. It took a lot of courage to do such a thing, putting his life at risk for the sake of "his people". It's sad to think that he is not very well known in China and is more recognised in other parts of the world. This is due to China's censorship that ensures that most Chinese don't know what happened in June 1989.

Why did the government kill their own people?

This is probably one of the most outstanding queries of the entire protest and in the end it's down to personal opinion as to why they opened fire on their own people. This is mainly because the Chinese government has been really secretive about the whole incident and never really let out any information. In my opinion, I think the government had no other choice even though they knew they were doing wrong. The protestors were even putting themselves in danger already before the army even came, people were getting crushed and people were passing out with hunger. I'm not saying that the government was right to decide to do what they did, because a lot of innocent citizens were killed and this is never right in any case.

Reactions from around the world

The type of footage shown on Western television was definitely the first of its type and truly shocked the public. The Chinese government's response was denounced, particularly by Western governments and media. Criticism came all over the world from places such as Eastern Europe, North America, Australia and some Asian and Latin American countries also. Asian countries were found to keep silent throughout the protests; the government of India responded to the massacre by ordering the state television to pare down the coverage to the barest minimum, so as not to put their relation with China in danger. North Korea, Cuba, Czechoslovakia and East Germany among others supported the Chinese government and denounced the protests.

Underlying Causes.

I have done some online research on this topic and it seems as though a few people think that the protests were not as the seemed to be. People ask "what would get a group of people to create a historic even like this in the first place?" were they trying to appear in the media? Or were they just standing up for what they truly believe? Some people even go far enough as to say that it was the Illuminati U.S government that contacted a few hundred students in Beijing and were contracted to cause chaos and confusion in China's capital and that it's all part of New World Order. It may seem impossible or crazy, but their opinion is as good as anybody's and they're entitled to it.

Impact on China and the rest of the world.

In Hong Kong, the Tiananmen Square protests led to fears that the PRC would follow up on its commitments under one country, two systems following the impending handover in 1997. In response the Governor of PRC, Chris Patten, attempted to expand the franchise for the Legislative Council of Hong Kong, which led to friction with Beijing. There have been large candlelight vigils attended by tens of thousands in Hong Kong every year since 1989 and these vigils have continued following the transfer of power to the PRC in 1997.

There was also a giant impact on the Chinese economy after the massacre. Foreign loans to China were suspended for obvious reasons and tourism revenue decreased from US$2.2 billion to just US$1.8 billion. On top of this the foreign direct investment commitments were cancelled and there was a rise in defence spending from 8.6% to 15.5% in the following four years. This was just after a 10 year decline.

China's international image was, needless to say, damaged greatly. Western media displayed real footage of the happenings while protestors in Beijing took this opportunity to create banners to display to the cameras in their best English.

All international television networks were soon ordered to stop broadcasting their footage during military action, with the government shutting down satellite transmissions. Apparently, the only network that was able to record the scenes of the massacre without hassle during the 4th of June was Televisión Española of Spain. Some foreign journalists were also faced with harassment during the military action. It is said that a cameraman was taken into custody while filing a report from Tiananmen Square via mobile phone. The Police at this time were very strict with cameras and would tell anybody they saw recording to stop immediately.

The images that managed to break out of China had strongly shaped the views of Westerners and policy toward China in the next two decades. As for overseas Chinese students, the Tiananmen Square protests triggered the formation of Internet news services such as the China News Digest and the NGO China Support Network. Before this, there was little on the web. Organisations such as the China Alliance for Democracy and the Independent Federation of Chinese Students and Scholars were formed, although these organisations would have limited political impact in later years.

The Tiananmen Massacre today

The Massacre still lives with us today in different forms. Tourists are able to visit Tiananmen Square itself where the actual incident happened. Also there are various documentaries made and references to this famous event throughout the world. There's even a 90 minute movie about the famous Tank Man. Songs have been written about the massacre and even paintings and drawings have been inspired by it.

No matter how much the Chinese government try to hide this incident it will never be forgotten. April 15th 1989 to June 4th, 1989 marks an event forever in history that the Chinese and people worldwide will never forget.


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