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Revisiting Tiananmen Square

WebdeskJun 04, 2021, 11:41 AM IST

Revisiting Tiananmen Square

The China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) is a think tank affiliated to the Ministry of State Security, which happens to be China's top intelligence body. As per the assessment report of top leadership of Chinese Communist Party (CCP), including President Xi Jinping, generated by the Institute in April 2020, global anti-China sentiment is at its highest since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. Though there is no clarity from the Chinese side on this, the report indicates that the tensions are looming large within the Communist regime. Jayadev Ranade, former Additional Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India and currently President, Centre for China Analysis and Strategy said while talking to Organiser Weekly, "the discontent within the rank and file of CCP is obvious post-COVID19". He further elaborated, "There is discontent also among the millions of unemployed workers and demobilised soldiers and veterans who have not been rehabilitated or feel they have not got their due. The Corona virus, or Covid-19, pandemic, which has adversely impacted the economy and rendered millions jobless, has added to China's economic difficulties". The report, combined with Chinese actions, clearly shows the Chinese concern about a building backlash threatening its overseas strategic investments and overall security standing. Why is Tiananmen Square the reference point? To answer this, we have to go back in history, precisely thirty-one years ago when China ruthlessly cracked down on the protests and massacred thousands of innocent Chinese people. Tiananmen Square: Epicentre of Communist Killings Tiananmen Square is the world's largest urban space, measuring 400,000 square meters in the area, located in the heart of Beijing, the capital of China. Tiananmen literally means "gate of heavenly peace". But in reality, it is the centre of Beijing's and China's political space, and also the location which has seen a series of mass killings undertaken by the brutal Maoist Communist regime in China. Though (in)famous for the atrocious crushing of the 1989 uprising by students and ordinary citizens, which CCP prefers to describe as "counter-revolutionary riot", or "political storm" or in a more neutral term like "political turmoil between the Spring and Summer of 1989", the Square has been the centre of mass killings from the beginning of the so-called revolution. In 1966 itself, when the Cultural Revolution started in China with Red Guard Rallies giving a call for the destruction of the "Four Olds"; namely, old customs, culture, habits, and ideas, it was clear that the Asian Civilisation that has seen a revolt in the name of peasants and workers in 1949 is going to see a series of bloodshed yet again in the name of poor. Mao personally participated in the Red Guards mass rallies between August and November 1966, for which the so-called ‘Peoples' Government’ bore the expenses. As one of the authentic accounts titled Chronology of Mass Killings during the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) by Song Yongyi suggests, it was a story of displacement, destruction and destitute for the millions. "Spurred by the remarks of Mao Zedong and Lin Biao at the Mass Rally of August 18 on Tiananmen Square, in which the high-school militants were praised as "national models" and openly called on to "be valiant," another major outburst of violence occurred in Beijing. As a result, 114,000 homes were invaded and ransacked, and foreign currency, gold, and other valuables worth 44.8 million Chinese yuans were confiscated. The Red Guards burned 2.3 million books and 3.3 million paintings, art objects, and pieces of furniture. Furthermore, 4,922 of the 6,843 officially designated "places of cultural or historical interest" in Beijing were destroyed. With the help of the city's public security officers, the Red Guards expelled 77,000 people from their homes in urban district to remote countryside. The mass killing crested during the last week of August, when an average of more than 200 people perished every day. The official death toll in Beijing after August 18 was 1,772", Song Yongyi writes. All this was just betwee August 18 – September 30 of 1966. Again at the fag end of the Cultural Revolution, the Tiananmen Square was at the centre of political mobilisation and bloodshed. On January 8, 1976, Zhou Enlai, the Premier and a moderate, popular face of the CCP, died of bladder cancer. Deng Xiaoping was his close aid. After Zhou's death, Mao selected Hua Guofeng as the Party's leader who did not have support within the Party or the public. Within weeks of Zhou's death, the close coterie of Mao ensured public persecution of Deng Xiaoping and prohibition on public display of mourning for Zhao. This arbitrary step gave rise to widespread discontent against Mao and his associates. With a massive gathering in the Square to protest against the central authorities on April 5, people expressed their anger against the Gang of Four, who later ordered the Square to be cleared. Hundreds of indiscriminate executions and arrests followed. The mayhem did not stop there but continued till 1977, almost six months after Mao's death on September 9, 1976. The new Chairman, Hua Guofeng, arrested the infamous "Gang of Four," which included Mao's wife Jiang Qing and three other CCP Politburo members, namely, Wang Hongwen, Zhang Chunqiao and Yao Wenyuan. The Cultural Revolution ended after the New Party Central on February 22, 1977, issued an order to kill "any counterrevolutionaries who verbally attacked Chairman Mao and Chairman Hua (Guofeng)." This step paved the way for the remarkable comeback of Deng Xiaoping, who is considered as the ‘father of economic reforms’ in China, combined with the 'lying low' international strategy. Song Yongyi also states after evaluation of various studies that the average death toll based on the six investigators' figures is nearly 2.95 million. "Considering that the Cultural Revolution took place in China during a period when it was not invaded by other states, the number of victims estimated above is extremely high", she concludes while elaborating the five methods of mass killings during Cultural Revolution: Mass terror or mass dictatorship encouraged by the Government Direct killing of unarmed civilians by armed forces Pogroms against traditional "class enemies" by Government-led perpetrators such as local security officers, militias and mass Killings as part of political witch-hunts (a vast number of suspects were tortured to death during investigations) Summary execution of captives, that is, disarmed prisoners from factional armed conflicts. Protest and the Massacre What happened in 1989, after several weeks of demonstrations, was nothing but the resurrection of dissent after the beginning of new rivalry within the CCP. The declassified cables and many other research documents indicate the sequence of events in this period. Tiananmen Square, 1989: The Declassified History, the document released by the National Security Archive of George Washington University ( in 1999 gives a day to day account of the events. Based on these documents, it is clear that the inter-party rivalry within the CCP and the inherent nature of the Communist regime to curb any kind of 'dissent' in the name of 'people', led to this gruesome event. It was neither sudden nor usual. The project of the Communist Revolution based on Marxist-Maoist principles was not successful anywhere in the World, so also in China. Neither the Cultural Revolution nor the post-Mao structural reforms undertaken by Deng Xiaoping could realise the stated goal of real 'democracy' based on the peoples' aspirations. Deng, the then Supreme leader of the Party, had also declared 'the rule of law' and 'democracy' along with economic reforms. In practice, it was reduced to the one-party system and the constant negation of what was used in a derogatory sense the 'Western-style Constitutionalism'. All Communist dictators often show the mirage of continuous revolution for equal distribution of resources through violence. The widespread disenchantment was evident, and internal tussle within the CCP was growing. The opening up of the Market Economy based on the principles of 'State Controlled Capitalism' benefited few, generally close to the party elite, while ordinary citizens continued to face inflation, corruption, lack of educational opportunities and all that combined with restrictions on political freedom. A U.S. Embassy report from late December 1985, notes that two student demonstrations had occurred in Beijing in the last several days on issues ranging from students concerns, the presence of the PLA on campus, as well as nuclear testing in Xinjiang province. Accountability, constitutional process, democracy, freedom of speech and expression etc. were the buzz words and one person, who was considered as pro-reformist, Hu Yaobang, became a virtual face of these new forms of political expressions. There was a reason for this resurgence of Hu Yaobang. At the 13th National Congress of CPC, in October 1987, Zhao Ziyang a close confidant of Deng Xiaoping got appointed as the new General Secretary of the CCP with a forced resignation of Hu Yaobang from the coveted post. When the series of protests continued not just in Beijing but all over China, on April 15, 1989, Hu Yaobang suddenly died of a heart attack. The young students, who were looking at Hu as the hope for political reforms, reacted strongly to this death and believed that it was related to his forced resignation. If the first Tiananmen Square incident was in the background of the demise of Zhou Enlai, this protest was triggered with the mourning for Hu Yaobang. On April 17, three thousand Peking University students marched towards Tiananmen Square from their campus and were soon joined by a thousand students from Tsinghua University. The gathering gradually turned into a protest, with a seven-point demand mainly focusing on affirmation for Hu Yaobang's views on democracy and freedom as correct. The movement soured and started getting popular support across China. The authorities initially were not sure about the response to this sudden uprising but eventually adopted the blow hot blow cold policy. The deep divisions within the party leadership were again evident. General Secretary Zhao Ziyang pushed for dialogue with students and Premier Li Peng declared martial law and backed military action. Jayadeva Ranade, who was in China then, recounts that as popularly believed the protests were not limited to Beijing but did spread across eighty four cities of China. "There was a growing dissatisfaction among students, intellectuals and teachers about the security norms introduced and surveillance techniques used by the party machinery." When all these 'disturbances' were on, the then President of USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, went on a State visit to China on May 13. This historical event of international significance was taking place for rapprochement between the two pronounced big Communist countries, though with 'proclaimed' different models. The protests were a significant embarrassment for the dictatorial regime. The mourning procession started by a few thousand students initially was disorganised but got support from millions of other citizens, especially workers, who were facing the worst kind of hardship in the system that was created in their name. At the peak of the protests, about one million students gathered at the Square. After rounds of negotiations, Premier Li Peng convinced Deng Xiaoping that these protests could be a political threat, leading to the declaration of Martial Law on May 20. As many as 300,000 troops marched towards Beijing. On the evening of June 2, as per the accounts of the Tiananmen Papers, an army trencher ran into four civilians, killing three, which started the violence. Student leaders responded with the emergency orders of roadblocks at major intersections to prevent the entry of troops. The U.S. Embassy cable notes that troops, using automatic weapons, had advanced in tanks, armoured personnel carriers (APCs), and trucks from several directions toward Tiananmen Square. The actual advancement of troops started into the central parts of Beijing in the wee hours of June 4, killing the demonstrators. At the centre of this action was the 27 Army of Shanxi Province, which was "60 per cent illiterate and are called primitives." The students are believed to have resisted the PLA march till June 5, 1989. The iconic 'Tank Man' is still the symbol of that resistance. There are estimations of the death toll ranging from several hundred to thousands. One widely used figure is the number announced by the Red Cross Society of China early on June 4, which estimated 2,700 dead. As many as 10,000 people were reportedly arrested, and few hundreds were executed. Many of them continue to face persecution to date. Some of them managed to escape the country under Operation Yellowbird with the help of Hong-Kong based "Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China" in mid-June 1989. Some of them are still working as the nucleus of "a Chinese democracy movement in exile". Officially, China tried to deny the occurrence of any of such event, but the brutal suppression of a pro-democracy protest could not be kept hidden from the International Community for long. All attempts are being made to whitewash the stains of this barbaric massacre from Chinese minds. Since then, to nip any activism and peaceful criticism threatening the CCP, in the bud has been the policy. What remained immortally symbolic is the picture of the 'Tank Man' who captures the imagination about the happenings in the Communist country. The damages of this event for China were tremendous. In the aftermath of the Tiananmen Massacre, the United States and many Western countries imposed sanctions including banning or restricting arms sales and technology transfers, losing high-level contracts. It was a major blow to Deng's economic reforms policy. China got isolated in the international community for the abysmal human rights record. On the background of the landmark visit of the then U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1998, when he decided to visit the Square with Chinese leaders, China changed a track giving some concessions to the protesters. The Communist Regime wanted to go for foreign investments and was seeking entry into the World Trade Organisation. For these immediate gains, the Government released prominent political dissidents Wei Jingsheng and Wang Dan in exile since 1997 and 1998 respectively. The provision on "counterrevolution" from the Criminal Law was removed in 1997. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was also signed by Beijing in 1998, though never ratified. Some controls were gradually loosened with the economic liberalisation, but the optimism was short-lived as winning the bid for hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics was the ulterior goal. CCP's zero tolerance towards any organised political opposition is still an undiluted policy and 'political reforms' is still a distant dream. Contemporary Relevance The time has changed. Authoritarian China with more muscle and money power, with overt expansionist tendencies, which is labelled as 'revisionist' in sophisticated Communist parlance, cannot escape scot free this time. Xi Jinping is a tough and ambitious leader, occupying the top post, without any signs of 'lying low' internationally. His anointment to Chairmanship disturbed many equations within the Party. The trade war between the U.S. and China was already looming large. And in this backdrop, the World is facing the China-originated COVID19 virus raising many questions about Chinese culpability. With more than 3 million people infecting globally and causing more than 200,000 deaths, the anti-China sentiments are at an all-time high in recent times. It is in this context that the CICIR report becomes even more critical. The underpinning message of the report is a global negative perception of China, especially CCP, and the possibility of 'a worst-case scenario for an armed confrontation between the two global powers', namely the United States and China. But the real issue is about the domestic situation in China. As Jayadeva Ranade points out, "Worrying Xi Jinping, in particular, would be the two letters purported to have been written by ‘princelings’, China's influential and powerful elite consisting of the children and relatives of veteran Party leaders". Business tycoons of resurgent and global supply chain controller China are questioning the leadership over handling of the health crisis. The response of belligerent Communist leadership is the formation of 'Safe China Construction Coordinating Small Group', with a declared task of "Prevent and crackdown on activities that endanger the political security of the country". As history suggests, whenever the Communist leadership face a challenge to political power, aggression and brutality have no limits. Perhaps, Wuhan and the entire World have already witnessed it. The guarded but internationally publicised deliberations of the recently held National People's Congress, China's top legislative session, indicate the growing attempt by the party leadership to maintain the stronghold amidst opposition. The expansionist policies and imposition of authoritarian laws in Hong Kong, invoking Taiwan issue and tension over contested territories in the South China Sea, should be seen in the same light. For many, the Chinese attempt to disturb the status-quo on the Tibet border is also part of the same strategy. To conclude, Communism in any form has been anti-people and anti-democracy. With a dragon-like mindset, it is all the more destructive. When world-over many are coming forward to salvage China from the damage done due to non-transparent practices, and some are even promoting the dangerous Maoist variant of Communism in India and World over, reminding the horrors of Tiananmen Square by the CCP regime, is not just relevant but a pre-requisite to deal with China.


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