China's June 4, 1989: Remembered — and Misremembered

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Gonzalo Fuentes / Reuters

French gendarmes block a demonstration organized by "Reporters Sans Frontieres" (Reporters Without Borders) on June 3, 2009 in Paris to commemorate the 20th anniversary of June 4, 1989 massacre in Beijing

The Chinese protest surge that ended in bloodshed exactly 21 years ago today near central Beijing's Tiananmen Square continues to exert a powerful hold on Western thinking about China. The very term "Tiananmen" has taken on a powerful and protean life of its own in the realm of political analogy: Last July, for example, commentators wondered whether Tehran had experienced a "Tiananmen" moment when post-election protests erupted into violence in the Iranian capital, and the specter of a "Thai Tiananmen" was raised this year when thousands of anti-government protestors clashed with the military in central Bangkok. In spite of this notoriety and the fact that major events in the original Tiananmen played out on television screens around the world, much has been forgotten — and misremembered — about the demonstrations that took place in April and May of that year and the brutal crackdown that culminated in the June 4th massacre.

Who Protested?

China's 1989 is typically described as a student movement, and rallies by educated youths did start things off. When crowds a million strong thronged Beijing's streets, however, only a minority of demonstrators belonged to this social group — as had to be the case since there were far fewer than a million college students in the entire country. When soldiers killed hundreds of protesters and onlookers in the capital late on June 3 and early on June 4, more of the dead were workers than educated youths. The iconic figure of the struggle — the unidentified man who stood before the tanks — though often described as a "student" in the Western press, was probably a worker.

Where Did The Action Happen?

Tiananmen Square was not the only site of dramatic protests in China in 1989; large demonstrations also took place in the central plazas of scores of other cities. Nor was Beijing the only urban center that witnessed a massacre. In Chengdu, on June 4 and 5, soldiers also killed at least dozens of people. Finally, the widely-used term "Tiananmen Square Massacre" is misleading, as the main killing fields in the capital were near the plaza, not in it.

When Did the Chinese Authorities Clamp Down on Discussion of 1989?

Initially, the authorities strove to popularize their interpretation of events, which held that there had been "counter-revolutionary riots" that had threatened to plunge the country back into the kind of chaos it had experienced during the Cultural Revolution, and then "order" was restored by soldiers who showed great restraint. This official version of the story, complete with its denial that the June 4th Massacre took place, has not changed. From the early 1990s on, though, the government has switched from telling its tale loudly to discouraging any public talk of 1989. Internet minders work diligently this time of year, for example, to keep the Chinese Internet free of all references to "liusi" ("June 4," literally "6/4," the most common shorthand for the upheaval), and to ensure that web searches for "Tiananmen" and "Tiananmen Square" will take browsers only to sites that discuss this plaza's role as the home of revolutionary monuments and the venue for officially sponsored ceremonies, not the place where protests occurred in 1989.

What Did Protesters Do?

The main tactics used in the 1989 protests — marches by banner-carrying demonstrators, rallies and speeches at Tiananmen Square, students kneeling before the Great Hall of the People to present a petition with their grievances — are well known. But too little attention is sometimes given to the central importance of the group hunger strike students launched on May 13, 1989. Nothing did more to galvanize popular support for the struggle, drawing its power from the stark symbolic contrast it set up between selfless youths who fasted and selfish officials who feasted. The lavish banquets that only the well-connected enjoyed at that time in China had come to epitomize rampant official corruption.

Why Did People Take to the Streets?

This is perhaps the most frequently misremembered aspect of the movement. The protests were not at their heart an effort to end Communist Party rule in favor of democracy, since many protesters called on China's leaders to do a better job of living up to their own professed ideals. The grievances behind the struggle included disgust with nepotism (some early wall posters focused on the privileges enjoyed by the children of top leaders), economic frustration (inflation was high and unemployment a national concern), and annoyance that the government was intent on micromanaging the private lives of China's citizens (the state's interference with campus social as well as political activities was galling to many students).

One more motivation to factor in, which is often forgotten in the West's remembrance of the day, provides a fitting place to end these anniversary reflections: patriotism. A favorite song of the students in 1989 was "Children of the Dragon," a folk anthem with nationalist overtones. And a central demand of the students who stayed longest around the Square was that the government needed to apologize to them for official editorials that had described their protests as efforts to damage the country. The students wanted a formal acknowledgment that, to the contrary, they had marched precisely because they loved their country — loved it so much that they were willing to risk their lives to make it a better place.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom's China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know was published in April by Oxford University Press.