In the spring of 1989, Mainland China was beset by student-led movements. In the US, they are known simply as Tiananmen Square or the Tiananmen Square Protests until the final two days when the protests ended in bloodshed and it became the Tiananmen Square Massacre with thousands of deaths. In its documentary “Tiananmen Square: The People versus the Party,” PBS explores this whole movement with interviews of student leaders and sinologists, including a local man who is now banned from mainland China.
This wasn’t the first time there are been protests in Tiananmen Square (天安門). The square is named for the gate that separates it from the Forbidden City and the name means “Gate of Heavenly Peace,” but peace is not what it is known for in the US. The gate was built in 1415 during the Ming dynasty. The square was built much later, in 1651 and in the 1950s was enlarged.
During the Second Opium War, the British and the French pitched camp near the gate in 1860, while the US moving toward the American Civil War (1861-1865). The US already had opened up Japan by show of military force in 1852-4). The Japanese would be a US and UK ally during World War I. Although the Japanese had been insulted by the failure of an equality clause in the Treaty of Versailles, China, also an ally, was angered that the treaty gave Shandong, China to Japan (Japan was given all German possessions in the Pacific north of the equator while Australia was granted those south of it with the exception of German Samoa which was given go New Zealand). The Chinese delegation refused to sign the treaty (28 June 1919). Students in Beijing protested earlier that year in what is known as the May Fourth Movement.
Students from 13 different local universities drafted a five point resolution against the granting of Shandong to the Japanese and advocating a protest against it. Gathering at Tiananmen Square, the students spoke out against the Allied betrayal of China and the weakness of government officials in protecting China’s interests. There was a call to boycott Japanese books. These protests were not peaceful; students set fire to the residences of officials they accused of collaborating with the Japanese and beat the people there. Some protestors were also arrested.
While the May Fourth Movement was successful in pressuring the Chinese delegation not the sign the treaty, it also seems to have laid the foundation for the Communist party.
Under Mao Zedong, the square as enlarged and Monument to the People’s Heroes ( 人民英雄纪念碑) was erected, completed in 1958. The Ten Great Buildings which commemorated the 10th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China was completed in 1959 with some on the borders or near Tiananmen Square.
In 1975, the death of Chinese Premiere Zhou Enlai (8 January 1976) would lead to the Tiananmen Incident, a protest against the removal of displays of mourning for Zhou, supposedly orchestrated by then-vice premiere Deng Xiaoping. Mao Zedong died in 1976 and his mausoleum was completed in 1977 and located in the middle of Tiananmen Square.
The documentary looks at the surrounding political problems and the social milieu of the 1980s. The protests came during the 70th anniversary of May Fourth Movement. Sinologist Andrew Nathan notes that it was the “perceived mistreatment by the West” had 3,000 marching through Tiananmen Square during the May Fourth Movement and these “leaders went on to become founders of the Chinese communist party.”
The 1989 Tiananmen Protests began in mid-April and ended with violence as troops and tanks fired on the protestors on 4 June. For that reason is is known as 8964 or the June 4th incident (六四事件).
The Communist party had promised Four Modernizations but there was a fifth modernization–democracy. Yet like a previous protest, the 1989 movement was sparked by the death of an official Communist Party member, Hu Yaobang (20 November 1915-15 April 1989). We get to hear from sinologists like French man Jean-Philippe Béja (1949) and American Perry Link and the British legal scholar Robin Munro (principal China researcher and Director of the Hong Kong office of Human Rights Watch, during Tiananmen Square protests of 1989). Members of the 21 most wanted student leaders are also interviewed, including Wang Dan, 50, who, the documentary calls the “principal strategist” as well Shen Tong; Wu’erkaixi, 51, who current resides in Taichung, Taiwan; the recently deceased Zhang Jian (张健) who passed away in April at age 49.
Some of the protestors make clear that “the protestors, me included, wanted to the government to recognize us” and “we never wanted to overthrow, we wanted to reform.”
Yet Link notes that the students seems sincere and he suggest naive in their state desire that “we’re only trying to help the party be better.” He recounts that the Beijing was oddly peaceful and even joyful.
Wang Dan was one of the 21 and ended up serving time in prison. Other live in permanent exile. Link along with Nathan translated the so-called “The Tiananmen Papers” (國六四真相) in 2001–secret Chinese official documents about the Tiananmen Square protests. The validity of the book has been questioned but both Link and Nathan are banned from China. (Orville Schell is the third translator/editor).
Hu Yaobang’s image suffered although he wasn’t directly responsible for the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. On what would have been his 90th birthday in 2005, Hu was officially rehabilitated. For some, it is too late. Some demonstrators were executed. One of the enduring images is the “enigma” of tank man: A man with two grocery bags stood in front of the tanks and made them stop. He’s rumored to have been executed although others say he escaped. His identify has not been verified either way. One hopes that he was one of the lucky, living on in anonymity or safely in another land. In recent years, Wu’erkaixi has attempted to be arrested, but failed and in doing so, failed to be reunited with his parents.
“Tiananmen Square: The People versus the Party” reminds us that the protests weren’t only in Beijing but nationwide. Yet, it seems all memory of the massacre has been erased from the public memory in Mainland China, but, Link believes, its chilling effect is felt even today.
In a recent interview with CBS News, Wu’erkaixi agreed, saying, “We failed miserably. Let’s face it, they are exchanging our economic freedom with our political freedom.”
With its rising economic power, China is an important part of the global economy and understanding Tiananmen Square is profoundly important to understanding China and Chinese refugees today. “Tiananmen Square: The People versus the Party” premieres on PBS on 25 June 2019 (Check local listings).