On This Day

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The bodies of civilians lie among mangled bicycles near Beijing's Tiananmen Square.(AP)

On This Day: Chinese Troops Overtake Tiananmen Square

June 04, 2009 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On June 4, 1989, hundreds or thousands of people were killed when the Chinese army crushed a prodemocracy demonstration in Tiananmen Square, Beijing.

“Beijing Death Toll at Least 300”

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In mid-April, 1989, tens of thousands of Chinese students began convening in Tiananmen Square to mourn the passing of Hu Yoabang, former General Secretary of the Communist Party. The students, who demonstrated for more freedom of expression and democratic reform, saw Hu as a representation of change, according to PBS.

Demonstrations spread throughout the country; by June 2 government leaders decided to quell the protests, and troops began approaching the Square and firing on civilians.

When the army entered the Square the next day, troops first warned the remaining protesters to disperse, and they complied. But when individuals tried to reenter the area later in the morning the army starting firing, according to The New York TImes.

The day after the Tiananmen crackdown The New York Times reported that at least 300 people had died. “By ordering soldiers to fire on the unarmed crowds, the Chinese leadership has created an incident that almost surely will haunt the Government for years to come. It is believed here that after the bloodshed of this weekend, it will be incomparably more difficult to rule China.”

The Chinese government says that 241 people died and 7,000 were wounded over the next two days. PBS states that the Chinese Red Cross put the death toll at 2,600 at first.

After the Chinese had put down the major protests, a young man blocked the path of moving tanks on June 5. The image of the unknown “tank man” has come to symbolize the opposition, and his fate today is still unknown. Time magazine named him as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.

Although China has received international condemnation for its reaction to the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, the government maintains that it was putting down a potential uprising.

Background: Accounts of the protests and response

The organization Human Rights in China provides the testimony of Qi Zhiyong, who was wounded in the Tiananmen Square protests: “I was carried to the bus, which already held several wounded people. The bus drove along, and suddenly the left hand of the person on my left fell off! I tried to rouse him but he didn't answer, and the driver said he had probably died. Then I fainted.”

For the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square killings, The BBC offered a number of articles with interviews from individuals present at the 1989 crackdown. Zhang Boli, deputy director of the hunger strike at the square, was quoted as saying, “While we were making preparations news came from all sides saying that the troops had started to open fire. I remember many students ran to the square with blood running down their faces.”

An article by FindLaw columnist Joanne Mariner described the controversy over the 1989 events years later, noting that “no manifest signs of remembrance were allowed in Beijing. The police stopped anyone who tried to mark the anniversary publicly.”

Opinion & Analysis: “The Tiananmen Square massacre myth”

In a 2004 article for The Japan Times, Gregory Clark, a former Australian diplomat and vice president of Akita International University, argued that Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping was not the hardliner he was made out to be. Clark said that the incident “is not a deliberate massacre of innocent students.”

Reference: U.S. documents on the Tiananmen affair

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