China's Tiananmen uprising of 1989 is remembered today mainly for the brute force — the gunfire and tanks — with which China's ruling Communist Party, on June 4, snuffed out the peaceful protests centered in Beijing's vast Tiananmen Square. But it is vital to remember the uprising itself. It was a protracted act of incredible courage, in which for weeks millions of Chinese citizens defied their rulers to call for freedom, justice and democracy.
In the 70-year history of the tyranny founded by Mao as a "people's republic," the Beijing Spring of 1989 was China's finest hour. It was the only interval in which China's people had a chance to freely assemble and speak up, not only to the world, but to each other. They asked for liberty and a real say in how their country was run. Some quoted Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address. They wanted government "of the people, by the people, for the people."
That's not even remotely what you'll hear from China's government, which at the time denounced the Tiananmen democracy movement as a "counterrevolutionary turmoil," dispatched China's own army to kill some of China's own people, and has since dedicated itself to erasing within China almost all memory of the towering events of 1989.
In dealing with China today, we must not forget Tiananmen. Some things I can tell you firsthand. In almost four decades of reporting from around the globe, it was the most inspiring and heartbreaking story I have ever covered. I was there in the spring of 1989, reporting in Beijing for the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal. I covered the growing protests, watched demonstrators build their own Statue of Liberty in Tiananmen, and witnessed in the streets of Beijing and in Tiananmen Square itself, on the night of June 3-4, the showdown in which China's army retook the square.
What echoes most for me, to this day, was the cry of so many Chinese, before they were silenced once again by their own government, the lines I quoted at the end of the dispatch I filed to my newspaper on June 4, 1989: "Tell the world what we want. Tell the truth about China."
One important truth is that the demonstrations were not by any stretch limited to Tiananmen, or to Beijing, nor was the desire for freedom limited to students. It was much bigger than that. The demand for democratic change was spreading rapidly through society and around the country. Protests erupted in other major cities, from Shanghai to Guangzhou to Chengdu. From across the country, including rural China, people converged on Tiananmen to support or join the demonstrators.
In one corner of the square, workers set up a nascent independent labor union, inspired by Poland's Solidarity movement. Typical of what many in Beijing were saying was the comment of a 43-year-old Chinese cleaning woman, who approached me in Tiananmen in early May, to offer a foreign reporter her thoughts on the need for justice in China. "So many students try to get freedom," she said, "So I follow them."
Another important truth is that for most Chinese who joined in these protests, it was neither a naive nor a casual decision. It was heroic. Almost all of the many demonstrators and their supporters — young and old — with whom I spoke during those sleepless weeks in Beijing knew the danger they faced. In the spring of 1989, there was as yet no record of a communist government falling or ceding power to its own people. The collapse of the Soviet Union was still two years off. The USSR's Eastern European satellites were close to shaking the communist grip, but it hadn't happened yet. And China's communist regime, with its pervasive dictates, security services and gulag, or laogai, had by then been terrorizing, brutalizing and silencing its own people for 40 years.
Yes, in the 1980s under Deng Xiaoping's slogan, "to get rich is glorious," China had launched some market reforms. But these were sputtering, corruption was rife, and political control was unrelenting. In April 1989, students seized on the funeral of a deposed communist party chief, reform-minded Hu Yaobang, to stage a protest march to Tiananmen Square, demanding democracy.
The movement began to grow. China's authorities denounced the protesters and demanded they disband, but hesitated to act. China's regime was on a diplomatic roll, hosting a series of high-level international meetings designed to present a civilized face to the world. On May 4-6, in Beijing, China for the first time hosted a meeting of the Asian Development Bank. On May 15-18 came a landmark visit to Beijing by Soviet party boss Mikhail Gorbachev for a summit meant to mark the end of the long Sino-Soviet rift.
By the time Gorbachev arrived, Beijing had become the site of the biggest display of dissent in the history of Communist China. Tiananmen was occupied by hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, more than 1,000 of them on hunger strike. China's rulers, unable to use Tiananmen for their usual formal welcome of foreign dignitaries, moved the ceremony to the airport. Foreign reporters arriving en masse to cover the Gorbachev-Deng summit found themselves covering the demonstrations. This was the era before ubiquitous internet and mobile phones, but a large contingent of foreign correspondents equipped with cameras, satellite hookups and fax machines meant the story and spectacle could get out. The world tuned in.
China's despots tried to up the ante. Shortly after Gorbachev's departure, China's Soviet-schooled premier, Li Peng, accused protesters of trying to "negate the socialist system," demanded they leave Tiananmen, and declared martial law. Troops began moving in to Beijing. But at that stage, instead of regaining control over Tiananmen Square, China's rulers lost control of their own capital city.
Civilians came out onto Beijing's main access roads to block the soldiers, and to the amazement of many, the army stopped — apparently awaiting orders. People surrounded troop trucks and tanks, talking to the soldiers and in some cases offering them food and drink. This standoff, eerie but peaceful, went on for several days. Civilians set up roadblocks around the city, using everything from buses to fencing to peddlers' carts.
Three nights later, most of the troops withdrew. In the predawn hours of May 23, I watched a convoy of army trucks retreat, with the soldiers waving and smiling at the crowd. The civilians who had been blocking the soldiers did not leave. I asked why they were staying put. A young man who described himself as a farmer gave the prescient answer: "We don't believe in the government … there's no guarantee that they won't come back."
On the night of May 29, protesters in Tiananmen built their own Statue of Liberty — they called it the Goddess of Democracy — facing the square's giant portrait of Mao. Made of plaster and Styrofoam, brought to Tiananmen in three huge sections on tricycle carts, the statue became a rallying point for thousands who sat up all night to watch its builders put it together. In the crowd was a young doctor from rural China, who told me the statue "stands for democracy. Liberty. That is the most important thing." When I asked him if we could meet again near the statue the following week, he warned that by then it might be gone.
On the evening of June 3, troops of China's People's Liberation Army began shooting their way along major roads into Beijing, converging on Tiananmen to clear the square. People rushed out into the streets, as they had two weeks earlier, trying to stop the troops and protect the symbol of freedom that Tiananmen had become. This time, the soldiers did not stop. Backed by armored personnel carriers, they kept shooting and advancing. Civilians set fire to bus barricades and trucks, in futile efforts to block the advance. My first view of this was just after midnight, on a broad avenue a few miles west of Tiananmen, where people clutching bricks and bottles were facing into the bullets of their own army's AK47s.
By 1:30 a.m. on June 4, thousands of troops had reached Tiananman. They took up positions on three sides of the square, firing tracer bullets, low, from the north end — where during the half hour I spent near a makeshift medical tent, I saw seven people brought in who'd been shot. The troops kept the south end of the square open for demonstrators to leave. Thousands of students stayed, most of them gathering on the two-tiered Monument to the People's Heroes near the south end of the square, flashing the V for victory sign, some of them saying: "We are not afraid to die."
A standoff ensued, in which civilians along the edge of the square tried to reason with the soldiers. At 4 a.m. the lights in the square went out, and armored personnel carriers drove into the square. Just before 5 a.m. the lights came back on, showing the troops with weapons ready to storm the monument. The students announced they would leave, and at short-range gunpoint they filed out of Tiananmen.
By daybreak on June 4, the democracy statue was gone, tanks were rolling into Tiananmen, army gunfire was continuing around the city, and the government was proceeding with arrests.
This was the context of the iconic photo, taken the next day, of a lone man at the edge of Tiananmen, standing up to a column of tanks. It is a picture that inspires the world. But it is censored in China, where the anniversary of June 4 is marked chiefly by tightened security, especially around Tiananmen Square, lest China's people assemble there once again to present their overlords with their own ideas about how they should be governed.
Since 1989, China's regime has loosened the economic controls enough to allow China's remarkable economic rise. But Western hopes that greater economic latitude would bring political freedom have not worked out. China's Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, a Tiananmen protester repeatedly jailed for persistently demanding an end to one-party dictatorship, had served eight years of an 11-year prison sentence when he died in 2017 of cancer, paroled just in time to perish.
Having shed the worst economic idiocies of communism, but failed to reform politically, China is emerging in the 21st century as a colossal techno-tyranny. China sets up communications networks around the planet, while trammeling its own 1.4 billion people within a surveillance state girdled by the Great Firewall. Absent the essential modernization of democracy, China today is a growing threat to the Free World. It is ruled by a president-for-life, Xi Jinping, who is busy channeling the domestic discontent of his own people into plans for global dominance.
It is tempting to wonder: What if? What if the heroes of Tiananmen had succeeded? What if China's tyrants in 1989 had acquiesced to the brave calls for government of, by and for the people?
But the practical question today is: What now? To that I have a partial answer. Though it has become a long wait, no one should write off the desire among China's people for liberty. The People's Republic, which has never really belonged to the people, will celebrate its 70th anniversary this October with flags and parades and extreme security in and around Tiananmen. Why such security, a full 30 years after the "turmoil"? Because what Tiananmen came to stand for in 1989, when so many people risked their lives — not to demand world dominance but to call for liberty and justice within their own country — that is not gone, and it is not over.