by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
June 4, 2009
TIANANMEN, PLUS TWENTY YEARS
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Looking back over two decades, it still seem hard to believe that the events of 1989 actually happened.
Twenty years ago last week, the people of Poland were allowed to have a free election for their parliament and delivered a sweeping victory to Lech Walesa's pro-democracy Solidarity movement.
This was the first crack in the Iron Curtain, and began among the most tumultuous six months the world had ever seen - a series of mostly peaceful revolutions that toppled communist regimes from Warsaw to Bucharest and saw the most hated symbol of the Cold War - the Berlin Wall - pulled down.
That's why I consider 1989 to be one of the most pivotal of the 20th Century - the year when Eastern Europe threw off its chains and freedom came to nations that had suffered for decades under the domination of the Soviet Union.
But in this hymn to freedom sung during this tumultuous, miraculous year, there was one discordant note - the massacre in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, where so many Chinese pro-democracy protesters died on the night of June 3-4, 1989.
Twenty years later, the Chinese government would rather not talk about the brutal repression that ended six weeks of unprecedented protests directed at the ruling Communist Party. But the rest of the world, which saw the images and heard the stories of the young people who risked everything in the name of democracy, still remember.
The protests started in mid-April, after the death of former Communist Party chief Hu Yaobang. A reformer within the party, his death at age 73 inspired mourners to gather in Tiananmen Square. They were not only expressing their sadness, but also their dissatisfaction with the pace of reform.
Within days, tens of thousands massed in the square, and demonstrations spread across the nation to other cities and universities as protesters called for greater freedom and democracy. At first, party leaders did not know how to respond. Some, including Premier Li Peng, argued for an immediate crackdown, while Communist Party leader Zhao Ziyang argued the government should hold back and let the protests run their course.
On May 4, tens of thousands of Chinese students in at least five cities staged the biggest pro-democracy demonstrations of their kind since the communists came to power 40 years earlier. The protests coincided with the 70th anniversary of the May 4 movement, the intellectual revolution that gave birth to Chinese communism.
In mid-May, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev arrived in Beijing for the first Sino-Soviet summit in 30 years. His visit was intended to put a formal end to years of hostility between the two communist nations. But with Tiananmen Square still occupied by protesters, the Chinese government was forced to call off plans to have a welcoming ceremony for Gorbachev there.
The patience of the Chinese government was wearing thin. A day after failed talks with student leaders, Li Peng appeared on state television to declare martial law on May 19. In response, the students in Tiananmen Square called off a hunger strike and instead staged a mass sit-in of about 1.2 million supporters. Zhao Ziyang visited the students and made a final but unsuccessful appeal for a compromise. He would be ousted from power three weeks later and replaced by Jiang Zemin.
On May 20, the People's Liberation Army attempted to occupy Beijing, but huge numbers of civilians set up barricades to block their convoys. The soldiers remained trapped for three days - unable to reach protesters in Tiananmen Square and unable to withdraw. The soldiers eventually left peacefully and the demonstrations continued without government interference.
The protesters in the square were jubilant, but their joy would not last. The Chinese government planned a new offensive to end the demonstrations. It sent armed troops from every military district in the country to put down what it called the "counter-revolutionary riot" by force.
On the night of June 3, troops opened fire on protesters in Tiananmen Square. An estimated 150,000 PLA soldiers moved towards the center of Beijing, but this time, at a second series of civilian barricades, attempts to stop them were smashed by tanks and armored personnel carriers.
After a night of the worst bloodshed ever seen in Beijing under communist rule, the square was cleared of protesters. Afterwards, the authorities claimed that no one was shot dead in the square itself. Twenty years later, there is still debate about exactly how many people died that night. Some say a few hundred, others say a few thousand.
The iconic image of "Tank Man," the unidentified Beijing citizen who, on June 5, 1989, stood down a column of 17 army tanks near Tiananmen Square, remains a lasting symbol of defiance against tyranny and repression. It's an image that has been rarely seen in China.
To this day, the Chinese government continues to censor history, crush dissent, and harass survivors of Tiananmen. It has steadfastly refused to provide a list of those killed, "disappeared," or imprisoned, and has failed to publish verifiable casualty figures. It has rebuffed all international efforts to seek a re-examination of the events of 1989.
For all the impressive economic and social developments in China in recent years, two decades of denial and repression have only caused the wounds of Tiananmen to fester. Until the Chinese government fully acknowledges what happened and grants amnesty to the survivors, those wounds will never heal.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for nearly 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com. For extra added thrills, read his ongoing daily blog on The Harvard Classics at http://hclassics15.blogspot.com.