Tiananmen Square massacre: A tale of facts in blood, lies in ink
   Date :04-Jun-2023

A tale of facts
Much has changed in the world since Communist China’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square on June 3-4, 1989. However, in China, while the citizens have been keeping the spirit of ‘Goddess of Democracy’ alive in one way or the other, the authoratarian regime has been busy tightening its grip on public life to enforce ‘collective amnesia’. But, as the recent happenings in China show, people have not forgotten Tiananmen Square massacre. The lies in ink have failed to dilute the facts in blood. As the ordinary Chinese citizens observe the 34th anniversary of Tiananmen Square massacre, ‘The Hitavada’ provides a brief recounting of the past in the light of the present context.

June 3-4, 1989. These dates are etched in world’s collective memory as days of bloodbath with specific reference to Communist China. For, on these two dates, Chinese government of the day unleased on its own people - mostly students - the tanks, and fired shots at them, to crush the 50-day long pro-democracy protests. What had happened in that spring and early summer 34 years ago, still haunts the Communist China. For Chinese people across the world, the anniversary of the Tinanmen Square massacre is an occasion to rededicate themselves to the cause of democracy in the authoratarian rule in China. Tinanmen Square ‘massacre’, which the successive Chinese authorities have been trying to sweep under the carpet as an ‘incident’, brought to an end the pro-democracy protests spurred by the death of liberal leader Hu Yaobang on April 15, 1989. Hu Yaobang was General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from 1982-87 till he was forced to resign due to his views that did not gel well with those of then Chinese towering figure Deng Xiaoping. For it to be understood briefly, but in context, one has to go back to 1984-85 when Chinese economy looked positive but concerns emerged. Vijay Gokhale, former Ambassador of India to China and an eyewitness to Tiananmen Square happenings, has described the situation in China very well in his masterly book Tiananmen Square: The Making of a Protest.

He has observed in the book that though the rural boom due to agriculture sector reforms was at its peak in China in 1984-85, there were no additional gains in cities. He has also recorded that there was ‘industrial overheating’ due to Government spending in infrastructure, doubledigit inflation, and tightening of credit policies was causing severe growth slump. Besides, fissures emerged in CCP over proposed urban reforms. Often, in western discourse on Tiananmen Square happenings, the fissures within CCP are ignored and focus is only on discontent among students. The political fissures were, however, visible to the public in 1986 when Wang Ruowang, who was opposed to Deng Xiaoping’s methods, published an essay titled ‘One Party Dictatorship can only lead to Tyranny’. Another dissident Fang Lizhi, who was backed by Hu Yaobang, proposed an academic conference to bring on record what he called ‘true story’ of Chinese dictator Mao’s purge of intellectuals dating back to 1957. Such purges were regular during Mao’s regime to target the dissidents by branding them as ‘rightists’ or ‘revisionists’ or ‘supporters of bourgeoise liberalisation’. The idea of Fang Lizhi, who was at Chinese University of Science and Technology at Heifei, evoked a strong response from the authorities, who decided to not proceed with the idea of electing university student bodies at his university. This started the first spark leading to Tiananmen Square gradually. In 1986, students protested against this. In fact, as per the records available, despite the best efforts of the Communist China to erase those from public memory, the student protests in 1986 spread from Heifei to Shenzhen, Shanghai, Wuhan, and Kunming too. Posters calling for ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ appeared at a couple of universities in Shanghai. Obviously unhappy, Deng Xiaoping dismissed Hu Yaobang in January 1987.
Fang Lizhi was demoted and Wang Ruowang was expelled. Deng tightened his grip and brought Zhao Ziyang in picture as General Secretary of CCP. Within two years, differences emerged between Zhao and Deng as the former was more liberal as compared to others. Meanwhile, though the earlier student protests were over, the Chinese authorities asked the Ministry of Public Security to ‘establish units’ inside key campuses to monitor student activity. State Education Commission also was asked to ‘send work teams to prevent big-character posters’. As per the available records, Deng also was fed up of demonstrations being allowed by liberals and had even told CCP Central Committee, “If there is a demonstration 365 days a year, nothing can be accomplished and no foreign investment will come into this country.” While the situation was snowballing into a crisis, Hu Yaobang’s death due to heart attack on April 15, 1989, unleashed the popular displeasure on to the regime of the day. Soon, posters appeared in praise of Hu Yaobang, and students gathered across campuses to discuss his death, and wreaths were laid for him. This, was the start of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. It grew bigger as number of students gathering at the Tiananmen Square rose day after day, criticism about CCP and its leaders surfaced. The seeds of economic problems and curbs on people’s lives in Communist China bore the bitter fruits of popular discontent. The students demands reflected what ailed China at that time.
They demanded greater opportunities in education and jobs, elimination of favouritism by way of ceasing extension of benefits to children of party cadres, personal freedoms, and the Government to become more responsive and sensitive to needs of citizens. No Communist country tolerates dissent and demands for freedoms, and China did not prove to be an exception. Instead, as the protest extended for almost 50 days and more and more people started supporting the students not only at Tiananmen Square in Beijing but also at other places including Chengdu, Communist China set a bad example by ordering military crackdown on own people. People were mowed down by the tanks, shots were fired, some were bayoneted on June 3-4. As the videos of the time reveal, those injured in firing by the Peoples Liberation Army troops were carried to hospitals on benches as stretchers were not available easily. Some ambulances carried the injured to hospitals. Some of the students carried their injured friends even on tricycles, with someone tailing or leading on bicycle. The ‘Statue of Democracy’ made of styrofoam was installed during the protests, but after June 4 crackdown, the statue was turned into mangled remains, reflecting how Communist China crushed democratic aspirations of own people. In fact, one can understand the enormity of the tragic loss from a reference in the book The Tiananmen Papers. “The English-language section of China Radio International was the first Chinese medium to announce the shocking news to the world. At 6:25 A.M. on June 4, its broadcast asked the world to remember the ‘most tragic events’ of June 3, in which it said ‘several thousand people, mostly innocent citizens’ had been killed by ‘heavily armed soldiers’. It relayed eyewitness accounts of machine-gun killings and of armored cars running over soldiers who dared to hesitate. It urged its listeners to protest these horrible violations of human rights and violent suppression of the people,” reads a paragraph from the book. Obviously, for this act of defiance of official diktat, the Communist regime in China transferred the person in-charge of the English-language section (who was the son of a Politburo member of CCP) and investigated him. Besides, all the employees of the section were forced to write self-criticisms as is the Communist style. Though the details came out in the International knowledge to the extent that the regime in China could not control initially, the official exercise of suppression of facts by the Chinese authorities began soon.
The authoratarian regime resorted to erasing collective memory through expunging references or what many call ‘cultural amnesia’ imposed by the Government. In fact, a book on Tiananmen massacre has been titled The People’s Republic of Amnesia. Since then, there has been widespread detention of journalists, artists, activists and human rights lawyers ahead of the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre every year. There has been an attempt to whitewash the entire tragic chapter, with tightening of control over publication and media and even digital space. As the dissident Fang Lizhi has been quoted as saying once, “Technique of forgetting history, has been an important device of rule by the Chinese Communists.” But, from whatever material became available to the other countries of the world, demands have been growing for China to do full accounting of the massacre. More recently, on June 4, 2020, the Press Secretary of Trump-era White House issued a Statement commemorating 31st anniversary of Tiananmen Square massacre. The statement minced no words and stated, “The Chinese Communist Party’s slaughter of unarmed Chinese civilians wasatragedy that will not be forgotten. The United States calls on China to honour the memory of those who lost their lives and to provide a full accounting of those who were killed, detained, or remain missing in connection with the events surrounding the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4, 1989.” Democratic voices have been growing louder even in Hong Kong, where the world recently witnessed crackdown by the Communist China on pro-democracy protesters. Within China also, voices emerge for accountable and representative governance, freedom of speech, assembly, religious beliefs, more open and transparent rights-respecting society.
As the world saw, China was on the brink of ‘Tiananmen 2.0’ last year when tanks were on the streets once again due to protests taking place against the strict COVID-19 containment measures. There was strict monitoring of sale of white cloth following what is known as echoes of ‘Sitong Bridge protest’ in Beijing by one man in October 2022. As per a report in The Independent (UK), the banner put up by the lone protester read, “We want food, not PCR tests. We want freedom, not lockdowns. We want respect, not lies. We want reform, not a Cultural Revolution. We want a vote, not a leader. We want to be citizens, not slaves.” He even called Xi Jinping, President of China, as a ‘dictator and national traitor’. It soon found echoes in other parts of China as well as within Chinese community abroad. The same newspaper reported thatagraffiti on the walls of a public bathroom in Sichuan read, “The spirit of 8964 will never be snuffed out.” Here, ‘8964’ means the date of the Tiananmen Square massacre with ‘89’ being the year 1989, ‘6’ being the month of June, and ‘4’ signifying the date of China’s brutal crackdown against the pro-democracy protesters. It is but obvious even from the latest incidents that the pro-democracy spirit in China is still alive despite the authoratarian regime responding to dissent with censorship, surveillance, arbitrary detentions, imprisonments, undermining of privacy rights, and attempts to erase the memories of 1989 from the public mind. Still, CCP has been continuing with its efforts to portray 1989 massacre as ‘incident’ and justifying own stand. This is reflected in The Global Times editorial of June 4, 2021 titled ‘1989 incident provides Chinese people immunity from colour revolutions’. “If the incident 32 years ago has any positive effect, that is, it has inoculated the Chinese people with a political vaccine, helping us acquire immunity from being seriously misled. China underwent a ‘colour revolution’, but wasn’t brought down by it.
The leadership of the Communist Party of China has saved the fate of the nation at a critical juncture,” it read. It was the worst that the Tiananmen Square had seen in China’s modern history. Lu Xun, considered one of the greatest modern authors of China, had probably anticipated that such things might happen again when he wrote after armed police had opened fire on demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1926 to crush the protest against warlord Zhang Zuolin accepting Japanese demands. Lu Xun had prophetically written, “This is not the conclusion of an incident, but a new beginning. Lies written in ink can never disguise facts written in blood. All blood debts must be repaid in kind: the longer the delay, the greater the interest.” In 1989, after Tiananmen Square massacre, the students in Chengdu had written on sheets ‘All blood debts must be repaid in blood’. The book The Tiananmen Papers, published 12 years after 1989, makes a relevant mention at one place, “The demand to be peacefully heard wells up again and again from the Chinese people. As China develops, this is bound to be more true rather than less. Dissenters within and outside the regime will continue to insist on being heard.
If there are no channels within the system, they will go outside. The pressures both between society and regime, and within the regime cannot be handled without coming to terms with the demands raised more than a decade ago in Tiananmen Square.” Probably, happenings in China in the past few years are reflecting this sentiment in Chinese society. In her wonderful and insightful book The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited published in 2014, Louisa Lim has so aptly summarised the situation of China with reference to Tiananmen Square incident: “The violent suppression of the 1989 movement was not an anomaly. Its precedents were the May 4th Movement in 1919, the Tiananmen killings that Lu Xun wrote about in 1926, followed by the repression of mourning protests after the death of Zhou Enlai in 1976, and the failed student movement of 1986–1987. Thus, Chinese history loops endlessly in on itself in a Möbius strip of crushed aspirations, cycling from one generation to the next, propelled by the propensity to embrace amnesia.” But, with rapid changes in the World Economic Order, globalisation of technology penetrating the toughest of the firewalls in one way or the other and posing newer challenges for the surveillance State, the virtues of democratic values of the free world will someday breach the collective amnesia of the Chinese people. Then shall come the true next revolution for the Chinese people, and from the bloodstains deep in the ground at Tiananmen Square will rise the spirit of the ‘Goddess of Democracy’. Then, the facts in blood will triumph over lies in ink in case of China.