The 30th Anniversary of Tiananmen Square Marked by Repression, Nationalism

June 5, 2019
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by Marcia Robiou Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowship

Pro-democracy demonstrators sit in front of soldiers who are lined up, standing guard outside the Chinese Communist Party's headquarters on Chiangan Avenue just days before the bloody crackdown on students and protestors in and around Tiananmen Square. (Photo by Peter Charlesworth/LightRocket via Getty Images)

In May 1989, Yang Jianli, a 25-year-old Chinese mathematics student at the University of California, Berkeley, was eating dinner while watching a CBS broadcast. He was appalled by what he saw: police officers in Beijing beating unarmed student protestors until blood ran down their faces.

“I thought I could no longer stay in the U.S. just watching,” he told FRONTLINE. “I have to be a part of the movement and a part of the future.”

Yang, who was a rising star in China’s Communist Party until he became disenchanted with its politics, immediately decided to return to Beijing, where he had attended university. He was among the nearly one million people who took to the streets in spring 1989 to call for democratic reforms in China.

Shortly after midnight on June 3, as he rode his bicycle to meet the protestors, Yang heard the first round of gunshots and saw troops moving toward Tiananmen Square. “Whenever they felt there was any resistance, they opened fire. Basically, they were killing their way to Tiananmen Square,” he said. “I felt that this wasn’t real.” He recalls citizens, pierced by bullet holes, sprawled on the street.

In response, the crowd began to sing songs to the troops, including the Communist Party anthem. “In that song, we like the content because it says we will no longer be slaves, there’s no savior other than ourselves and we stand united. It fits in the movement, but it’s also a communist song,” Yang said. “We tried to touch their hearts.”

But the song fell on deaf ears. Early the next morning, on June 4, the Chinese government deployed an estimated 300,000 soldiers, armed with machine guns and tanks, to quell the peaceful protests. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people are believed to have died between June 3 and 4.

Yang, fearing arrest, escaped to the countryside and eventually returned to the United States. He is one of the lucky ones: immediately after the military crackdown, the Chinese government enacted nationwide purges of party officials who supported the protests and carried out mass arrests of the student leaders and intellectuals who were considered agitators.

Thirty years later, China continues to actively censor the horrors that Yang witnessed. “The regime has made every effort possible to plant the seed of collective amnesia,” he said.

That suppression is particularly stringent around significant anniversaries, which could potentially remind the public of what happens when that power runs amok.

“The moment you order your army to fire on unarmed civilians, peacefully demonstrating, you lose your legitimacy,” said Rowena He, author of Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China.

In a practice that loosely translates to being “vacationed,” people who the Chinese government perceives as troublemakers are rounded up and forced to leave Beijing around the anniversaries of Tiananmen Square. On May 20, police ordered Ding Zilin, an octogenarian, to leave her home in Beijing and travel hundreds of miles to the Jiangsu Province, according to Amnesty International. Zilin, whose teenage son was shot and killed during the June 4, 1989, crackdown, is a founding member of the Tiananmen Mothers, a group that is pressing for a full, public investigation into Tiananmen and the right to mourn in public.

This year, the environment seems even more intense.

“The Chinese government’s attitude seems to be more strict and more aware of this 30th anniversary,” said Hao Jian, a film critic and intellectual in exile who was detained in 2014 for privately commemorating Tiananmen in his Beijing apartment. He says that he heard from police immediately after conducting interviews with foreign media outlets this year.

Experts believe that tensions are heightened in part because of the U.S.–China trade war. “There is increased tension between China and the United States, and the fact that this is going on at the same time adds a kind of intensity to the anniversary,” said Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a historian with a focus on Chinese student protests and co-author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs To Know.

According to Wasserstrom, the Communist Party has consistently staked its validity post-Tiananmen in the idea that it has overseen a period of dramatic economic growth. China’s economy has increased by an astronomical 10 percent per year, according to the World Bank, but the trade war has slowed that down considerably. On June 5, the International Monetary Fund, citing the trade wars, forecasted a 6.2 percent annual growth for China.

However, the current tension between the U.S. and China is also a driving force behind a recent wave of nationalism in China.

“It is a very useful spin of the message to say, ‘if you say things that we disagree with, you are actually conspiring with our enemies,” said Michael Szonyi, director of the Fairbank Center of Chinese Studies at Harvard. “That’s a very powerful rhetorical tool, which I think does actually resonate with lots of Chinese people, but not with everyone.”

So as the rest of the world remembers Tiananmen Square, China has tried to reframe the conversation on its victories.

“If you’re following news about China in the West, you’re seeing things about 1989. If you turn on the television in China right now, what you’re seeing are films about the Korean War,” said Wasserstrom. “There’s a celebration of the fact that the Chinese military held the powerful American military to a standstill in Korea. It’s a real disconnect.”

China remains far from the democratic ideals championed by the 1989 spring protests. For people like Yang, who witnessed the violent squashing of dissent in 1989, that makes commemorating Tiananmen all the more urgent. “The value of the 1989 democracy movement is still very, very relevant, even more relevant than before in China,” he said. “We have to remember what happened as a nation. We must come to terms with our past, even if it is a really painful past, we must do it. Otherwise, we cannot move forward.”

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