A quarter of a century ago something quite unordinary occurred in the world’s most populous country. Almost thirteen years after the death of Mao Zedong, the founder and “Great Helmsman” of the People’s Republic of China, a young generation of Chinese students, largely from the University of Beijing, congregated in the 109-acre Tiananmen Square, to demand more democratic reforms in a country celebrating its 40th anniversary. The ruling Communist Party sat quietly by, allowing the students to vent their frustrations and make their demands, and having done so, the hope was they would soon return to their studies and classrooms. But they did not leave, and with each passing day and week their voices grew ever stronger and strident. Before long the ranks of the students were joined by others long tired of government corruption and in the desire for more personal freedoms. Soon the assembled masses swelled to an estimated three million and spread well beyond the square. Nobody was going home and the government realized it had lost control of the situation.
Enough was enough. The nascent seven-week pro-democracy movement finally ended on June 3-4, 1989 with the Communist government declaring martial law and ordering heavily armed soldiers and tanks of the People’s Liberation Army into the streets of central Beijing to restore order. Yet the protestors did not back down in the face of an overwhelming show of military might as they attempted to block the advance of tanks and troops into the Tiananmen Square from every direction.
Without provocation the PLA units opened fired on the demonstrators several miles from the square, killing several. They inflicted heavy civilian casualties as they continued moving toward the square and soldiers fired indiscriminately on nearby buildings lining the route of their advance. The local populace, incensed by this unnecessary violence and killing, quickly took to the streets to attack the soldiers and tanks. The casualty rate grew on both sides. As the PLA units approached Tiananmen Square demonstrators there were warned not to oppose the implementation of martial law. By this time, however, word of the death toll elsewhere in the city had reached the tens of thousands of demonstrators in the square. The moment of decision had arrived . . . to depart or to continue their non-violent protest.
Despite pleas for calm by some of the protest leaders, the largely peaceful demonstration descended quickly into violence as the units of the PLA arrived in the square. They were pelted with rocks and bottles and several vehicles were set ablaze. In an attempt to seal off the square and to isolate the demonstrators, several more unarmed students were shot or killed as tanks and armored personnel carriers overran and crushed the tent city erected there. The indiscriminate killing continued for several more hours until the PLA had finally secured the square and forced the demonstrators to leave. But it did not end there. The PLA pursued and attacked them beyond the square and dozens of civilians were reported shot in the back as they fled. The blood continued to flow in the streets of central Beijing.
The government eventually regained control following the military's seizure of the square. With suppression of information about the crackdown the death toll estimates have varied widely, from several hundred to a few thousand. Leaders of the demonstration were arrested and jailed and the fate of many remains unknown to this day. At the time the Communist regime in Beijing justified its actions as suppression of counter-revolutionary agitation resulting in brutal attacks on the PLA by the demonstrators. Those in the government who originally condoned the demonstration were quicky purged and the government began the process of a state-enforced erasure of the pro-democracy movement and its bloody finale from the collective memory of the Chinese people. Now, 25 years after these events, it is still forbidden to speak of the uprising and the resulting judicial murder of dissenters. Images of the protest on the Internet have been censored in China. If its actions were justified, why is the regime so afraid to talk about it now? I think the answer is quite obvious.
What can one say about a country that will murder dissenters in cold blood? A country that cannot reconcile itself with its past is a country living in self-denial, a country that will fail learning from that past. Even though the Chinese government has attempted to erase all memory of its crimes against its own people striving for basic human freedom and dignity, it is important that the rest of the world stand united in its condemnation of the cruel and unnecessary slaughter of a people brave enough to stand up for their beliefs in the face of their oppressors.
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