The Tiananmen Square protests continue
Students began the hunger strike on 13 May, two days prior to the highly publicized state visit by the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the first of its kind in 30 years since the beginning of the Sino-Soviet split. As the welcoming ceremony for Gorbachev was supposed to be held on the Square, student leaders wanted to use the hunger strike in order to be more visible and as a bargaining chip to urge the government to meet their demands. As a result, Gorbachev’s welcoming ceremony was held at the airport. Restriction on the freedom of press were significantly loosened during early to mid May, to the extent that there was some broadcasting footage sympathetic to the protestors and their movement, even by the State media. On 14 May, intellectuals led by Dai Qing gained permission from Hu Qili to bypass government censorship and air the progressive views of the nation’s intellectuals on Guangming Daily. The intellectuals then issued an urgent appeal for the students to leave the Square in an attempt to deescalate the conflict, making the students believe that the intellectuals were speaking for the government and, thus, refusing the offer. The talks between the government officials and student representatives broke down after the students having found out that this event had not been broadcasted nationally – as was initially promised. The situation remained tense, with no results achieved and the hunger strike still continuing. However, it is believed that the hunger strike garnered even more sympathies for the protesters from all over the country.
Support for the movement and the first crackdown attempt
Shortly after, a declaration by leading intellectuals was published, urging the government to recognize the legitimacy of the Students’ Autonomous Federation, promote political reform, eliminate corruption and respect their freedoms. The 17th of May witnessed more than 1 million people marching in the capital, including workers, All-China Federation of Trade Unions officials, journalists and physicians. Furthermore, after the departure of Mikhail Gorbachev, many foreign journalists remained in Beijing to cover the protests, giving the course of events international spotlight.
The protesters’ cause was supported by Chinese diasporas across the globe. For example, in Hong Kong, which was then a British territory, over 300,000 people gathered at the Happy Valley Race Course for a gathering called “Democratic songs dedicated for China” on May 27th , where many Hong Kong celebrities sang songs in support of the protesters. The following day Hong Kong Island saw a parade of 1.5 million people, a total of one fourth of Hong Kong’s population, marching in support of Tiananmen. Furthermore, Western governments pushed Beijing not to use military power on the protesters.
When the “paramount leader” Deng Xiaoping declared martial law on the 20th of May, accusing the protestors of being “bourgeois liberalism” advocates, it posed a great threat for the movement. As many as 250,000 troops were eventually sent to the capital to suppress the protests. In response, however, throngs of protestors blocked the streets, lecturing soldiers and appealing to them to join their cause. Not only did they try to negotiate with the soldiers, but they also provided them with food, water and shelter. There was no way for the troops to advance under such circumstances. 4 days later, the army withdrew, though, just to start the mobilization for a final assault 2 weeks later.
Internal divisions inside the movement and the bloody night of June 4
Despite the circumstances seemingly having turned to the favour of the protestors, internal divisions intensified within the student movement which resulted in the lack of organization. On June 1st, Li Peng, the Premier of the State Council, as well as one of the core figures opposing the protests, described the protestors “terrorists and counter-revolutionaries” in his report, persuading the Politburo to clear the Square using any and all means.
Meanwhile, on June 2nd, the movement saw an increase in activity and protests, solidifying the Communist Party’s decision that it was time to act. The protesters were outraged by the articles with the demands to leave the square. One of the most active participants and organizers of the protests, Li Lu, recalls the atmosphere during the last days of the Tiananmen events, emphasizing the reluctance to leave the square: “Despite feeling the upcoming danger, people were unwilling to leave Tiananmen. Even though they sensed imminent danger there, the sense of hopelessness and powerlessness alone at home made them want to stay out in the crowd, so they would feel hopeful. Nobody wanted to leave the square, because as soon as they entered Tiananmen Square they would start to feel hopeful.” A second hunger strike was declared by some protestors, including Chinese intellectuals Liu Xiaobo, Zhou Duo, Gao Xin and Taiwanese singer Hou Dejian to raise the spirit of the pro-democracy movement.
With reformist Politburo members Zhao Ziyang and Hu Qili having been ousted, the remaining members of the Politburo standing committee and Deng Xiaoping unanimously decided on clearing the square by force. On the same evening, there had already been reports that an army trencher ran into four civilians, killing 3. Soon after the news, students started setting up roadblocks at major intersections.
In the morning of June the 3rd, some troops dressed in plainclothes tried to smuggle weapons into the city. Having discovered this, the students seized and handed over the weapons to Beijing Police. Unarmed troops emerged from the Great Hall of the People and were quickly met with a huge crowd of protesters. Initially engaging in a scuffle, both sides would sit down and sing songs in the end, and then the troops retreated back into the Hall. However, the tragic culmination was only a step away. On the same day, 3 politburo members met with military leaders and issued an uncompromising order of the enforcement of martial law. It included a clause demanding that the square be cleared by 6:00 AM.
On the evening of June the 3rd, state-run television warned residents to stay indoors, but crowds of people took to the streets, as they had done two weeks before, to block the incoming army. At 10:00 PM fire was opened on protestors. The victims’ list started to quickly grow longer as the 38th Army opened fire on protestors trying to halt the advancement of the military convoy some 30 minutes later. Having been infuriated by the killings, the crowd became violent in return and resorted to throwing Molotov cocktails and rocks at soldiers and setting fire to military vehicles. Despite the turmoil and serious threats to their lives, there were estimated to be some 70,000 people in the Square at midnight. However, the number dropped to zero by 6:00 AM, as either rocks and human chains proved to be helpless against the numerous violent and well-armoured troops.
The morning of June 4th witnessed a virtually empty square, with all possible entrances blocked by the infantry, so that no civilian could enter. Crowds of people did attempt to enter the square, but to no avail. The spring ended abruptly, and was replaced by awkward silence, interrupted only by wails or the soldiers’ warnings not to approach.
It is hard to imagine what the East Asian region would have been like now, had the events not turned the way they had. Though harshly suppressed, the Chinese back then did truly experience a gulp of spring and even though it is getting forgotten, the heroism and selflessness of the leaders of these demonstrations will always be remembered.
Written by: Audrius Sabūnas
Edited by: Šarūnas Šalkauskas