11. Tiananmen Square
For our penultimate protest, we are staying in East Asia, but moving to the North. What to call our next protest is debated and depends on where you are and what your pre-existing opinion is. Known in the West as either the Tiananmen Square Massacre and in China as the June Fourth Incident, the events of June 4, 1989, have become one of the defining political moments of recent years, a watershed (or bloodshed) for nascent political dissent in China and something of a forebearer of things to follow.
The end of the 1980s represented the biggest sea change in world politics since the great uprisings of 1968 and a landmark moment in which the world balance of power shifted. The so-called “second world” communist societies had begun market-orientated reforms throughout the Eighties and from Gdansk to East Berlin to Moscow and Beijing, people were taking advantage of liberalized freedom of speech laws and the political weakness of the state to challenge the long-held orthodoxies.
While the protests in Eastern Europe would ultimately see the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain, in the Far East, the government dealt with dissent in a far more decisive manner. In China, there was growing anger, particularly among the young, about the way that the country was headed. Market liberalization had benefitted some, but plenty of others, especially students and recent graduates, could not see where they fitted into the new China. In Tiananmen Square, Beijing’s central plaza, hundreds of thousands had gathered to demand more democracy and accountability in government.
Initially, the authorities let it run, but as the summer continued, it became clear that the protestors were not giving up. Students began a hunger strike and were joined by counterparts in 400 other cities. The regime declared martial law and began plans to send the troops in to clear out Tiananmen. On the evening of June 4, the action started. Soldiers were met by opposition sympathizers, who ignored TV messages telling them to stay home for their own safety, and opened fire. By midnight, troops were in the square and by the end of the night, anywhere between hundreds and thousands lay dead.
The image that endures from Tiananmen Square is that of the lone man standing before the line of tanks comes from June 5, by which point the army was in total control. In the coming months, mass arrests were carried out and many more executed. China still suppresses talk of Tiananmen Square and June Fourth and resisted the regime changes that would be seen in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and elsewhere.