Tiananmen Square is situated in the center of China’s capital, Beijing, and is known as the largest public space in the world. Besides being one of the greatest tourist attractions, Tiananmen Square has great cultural significance for Chinese history as it was the place for important political events, including the famous protest of 1989 (Wong 278). Nearly twenty-six years ago, every Western media outlet, along with the U.S. government were inflaming a full scale of agitation and attack against China for what was characterized as a cold-blooded ‘massacre’ of many thousands of unarmed ‘pro-democracy’ students and workers who had occupied the Tiananmen Square.
Nevertheless, with many people injured, and an unknown number of citizens and soldiers reported dead, Peoples Republic of China was left with a tarnished reputation. These all were the results of the Tiananmen Square protests that ended on June 4th, 1989. My hypothesis is that I will certainly find that the frenzied hysteria about the Tiananmen Square ‘massacre’ was based on fabricated stories about what really happened when the Chinese forces ultimately removed the protestors from the Square. Taking into consideration on how complex this historical event is,
I have combined several sub-headings and questions into a more coherent organization.
What caused the protest?
After winning the battle with the Kuomingtang party in China, the Communist party leader, Mao Zedong, introduced many communist reforms such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution (Zhao 127). This system was followed by the next chairman, Deng Xiaoping, who later tried to change China in his own way and gradually move the country to a market economy. However, by the beginning of 1989 these reforms have generated two very unsatisfied groups of people. The first group consisted of students and intellectuals who were not satisfied at all with the new reforms, demanding more changes. The second group involved workers who felt insecure and claimed that the new reforms had put their lifestyle in danger. On April 15, 1989, these two groups have begun their protests on the Tiananmen Square.
More than a million people participated in the protests, which started with daily marches and later hunger strikes (Zhao 171). From the beginning some of these attempts led to negotiations with government officials. The visit of Mikhail Gorbachev (last leader of the Soviet Union) triggered an unusual abundant presence of Western media on the Tiananmen Square. The press was very intrigued by these protests and covered the events with extreme curiosity. Around the end of May 1989, the protestors have constructed the Goddess of Democracy statue, also known as the Statue of Liberty. According to Han, the statue was 10 meters tall and efficiently constructed in only four days (1990). It was built so big that the government would not be able to take it apart but only destroy it, which would have fueled a lot of criticism. Following a countless number of negotiations and the Chinese government continuously calling the protestors to leave the Square, the co-operations between the two sides had stopped. This compelled the party leaders to end the protest by force.
On the 20th of May 1989, party elders declared Martial Law (’20th Century China Chronology’ 1). This is when government calls its military forces to cease a threatening event by any measures necessary. A few convoys of military vehicles from China People’s Liberation Army were sent to the Square but were unable to precede any further upon reaching thousands of protestors. The military forces had to withdraw and return since they were greatly outnumbered by a mass of demonstrators. After this, the authorities were left to recourse to greater measures. Initially the withdraw of government forces was seen as in favor of protestors, but in reality every military region was sending army personnel and units to Beijing (Brook 82).
Towards the end of the protest
The protests were dragging for so long that by the end of May 1989, Tiananmen Square had serious hygienic and overcrowding problems that the government was not able to take care of anymore (‘The Gate of Heavenly Peace’ film 1995). At the beginning of June, the party leaders decided that it was necessary to end the chaos, and that the students should return to their institutions. Yet, the party members had many issues and struggled with the idea of using coercion. Ultimately, the government leaders had to agree that the only option to restore peace was only through the Martial Law. Eventually, they have issued a report named ‘On the True Nature of the Turmoil’ (Zhang 330). This report stipulated that the students were counter-revolutionaries and they were getting stronger support daily, moreover, their number was growing considerably. As Politburo members were more and more frustrated by the events, they have agreed to end the protests immediately and as peacefully as possible. But, if the protestors would not move and continue fighting, the army soldiers were authorized to use force to clear the Square. By June 3rd, there were reports of severe violence from both sides, the soldiers’ and the protestors’ (Wu 2009).
People’s Liberation Army in the Tiananmen Square
As the protestors found out that more troops are advancing to the Square from different directions, a great deal of panic had erupted. The protestors began to block the streets leading to Tiananmen Square in order to stop the oncoming troops. According to Wu, this was followed by vicious riots with protestors now using rocks and Molotov cocktails on the streets, which in turn infuriated Chinese officials even more (2009). There were reports of protestors burning soldiers alive in their military vehicles and beating other to death. Therefore, the army willingly responded by firing bullets on the attacking protestors. Many soldiers and protestors were killed or seriously injured during these clashes. Unable to advance further, the troops then had to use weapons on the people blocking the streets leading to Tiananmen Square. People’s Liberation Army tried very hard to clear the Square without violence but the protestors still continued to fight back. Getting desperate, the troops had to use gas, smoke and their weapons as the protestors were pulling soldiers from their vehicles and beating them to death and then hanging. In fear, many protestors were leaving the Square and by 5:00 am the Tiananmen Square was evacuated.
Aftermath of the protest
Finally the peace was restored in the Tiananmen Square but several protests were still happening in other parts of China. There were large protests in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Guangzhou, etc. Other countries were also protesting and criticizing the government of China. To this day there is no evidence that a ‘ massacre’ took place and that ‘thousands’ were killed, and nobody can provide an official death count number. While a dozen of tanks were exiting the Tiananmen Square on April 5th, an angry man stepped in front of the first tank signaling them to leave. He eventually was dragged away from the Square but the picture of this unknown man standing in front of the tanks, soon appeared on the cover pages of many popular newspapers around the world. After this civil act of disobedience, he became a legend named ‘The Tank Man’; his picture became the symbol of Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 (BBC News 2005).
The selective footage and extreme wording used by Western media was the first thing presented and it definitely shocked the world. The Western governments in particular criticized the Chinese response to the clashes. Criticism also came from other parts of the world, like Europe, Australia and some Latin American countries. Countries from the Asian region stayed quiet throughout the protests. India too, kept its television to the minimum about the events, in order to maintain good diplomatic relations with China. However, Chinese government was supported by North Korea, Czechoslovakia, Cuba and East Germany, countries that denounced the protestors (‘China: Aftermath of the Crisis’ 1989).
Impact on China
Needless to say, China’s international image had been greatly damaged. After the Tiananmen Square events, foreign credits have been delayed and the tourism profit has slightly decreased. The U.S. officials met the actions taken by the Chinese government, to cease the ‘pro-democracy’ protests, with extreme frustrations. At first, the U.S. government imposed economic sanctions but this effect was small and the U.S. political establishment very soon realized that the Western corporations and banks would be the ones to lose in the 90’s if they would cut off China completely, which was further opening its national labor and market to the investments from U.S. corporations (Sun 1993). And since the American largest banks and corporations put their own profits first, U.S. politicians who depend on them simply cannot make irrationally changes into their international economic affairs.
The ‘massacre’ that wasn’t
The attempts to ruin China’s reputation were highly effective. U.S. and nearly all of its allies accepted the imperialistic presentation of the events. Chinese government declared that there was no ‘massacre’ on citizens on Tiananmen Square but this response was quickly defined as false propaganda. As reported by Kristof in New York Times, China said about three hundred people died in clashes on July 4th, including soldiers (1989). Chinese officials have also reported that two days before June 4th unarmed soldiers that were sent to the Square, have been incinerated and their bodies hanged from the buses; others were burned when their military vehicles were set on fire and soldiers were not able to escape, and many other soldiers beaten to death by violent attacks (Kristof 1989). There is a great amount of evidence and eyewitness testimonies on these accounts. It would be easy to predict how the U.S. forces would have responded if the Wall Street movement had similarly burned to death soldiers and police forces, taking their weapons and use it against troops that tried to clear the public spaces. Even Washington Post detailed how anti-government protestors were organized in large groups and armed with Molotov cocktails and iron clubs, waiting for the soldiers who were still unarmed a few days before June 4th. On the western avenue leading to the Tiananmen Square, the demonstrators destroyed and set on fire a whole convoy of military tanks and trucks (Wei Po 1989). Pictures from the top and endless columns of smoke had supported Chinese claims that the soldiers were the victims, not murderers. There are other scenes showing soldiers bodies and protestors now with weapons on top of military trucks ready to take larger armed fights.
The media coverage
Immediately after June 4th, the newspaper New York Times titles and articles were making extreme claims that People’s Liberation Army has killed ‘thousands’ of peaceful demonstrators on the Square. Times was referring to its estimation of 2,600 dead (Mathews 1998). Nearly every Western media channel was reporting ‘thousands massacred’. NBC in Washington claimed that ‘tens of thousands’ had been slaughtered on the Square. Many other media outlets said ‘as many 8,000’ have been killed. Later on, the fictionalized narratives about a ‘massacre’ were slightly corrected but it was too late, a deluded impression on China has been shaped. The erroneous story highly publicized by the media became the dominant truth. They effectively buried the facts to favor political goals of the American government. Long after the events, journalists like Jay Mathews (Washington Post) admitted that they were removed from the Square after the Western Media has been reporting false claims on these events. Those who were able to stay close had ignored the facts and dramatized the protests to support the myth of a ‘massacre’. During that time, almost all the media reports on the ‘mass killing’ of students and workers claimed the same thing and thus it was perceived as the truth throughout the world. However, these reports had no evidence or eyewitness statements.
What really happened
Several weeks before June 4th, the Chinese party leaders were calm and collected in not using force against the protestors who had occupied the center of Beijing. Even the Prime Minister had agreed to meet with the protest leaders who had the full American support. The negotiations between the two sides were also shown on national television. The protestors have built a big statue in the middle of the Square as the U.S. statue of Liberty, to show that their political sympathy was with capitalist America in particular. They were determined to fight until the government was expelled. Frustrated Chinese leadership finally agreed to end the turmoil and clear the Tiananmen Square. Soldiers came to the Square unarmed on June 2nd and many were severely beaten, killed and their armored vehicles destroyed. Two days after the army returned to the Square with weapons, is when the Western media claimed that a ‘massacre’ on ‘thousands’ of peaceful students has happened.
Chinese Party officials said that these reports of ‘massacre’ in Tiananmen Square were a myth created by U.S. media and by the demonstration leaders who took advantage of the extremely curious Western media to launch a violent campaign of propaganda for their political interests. Chinese officials acknowledged that fights and armed clashes occurred on the streets close to the Square. But they assured that no massacre happened. Chinese national media showed how around 5:00 am on June 4th, the students negotiated with the soldiers and left all together as troops moved in Tiananmen Square (Mathews, 1998).
Propaganda as part of the New World Order
As Burgess stated, the U.S. government was known as very active in popularizing and provoking the ‘pro-democracy’ protests through a large, very well financed and regulated international propaganda scheme as part of the New World Order (1989). The Western propaganda scheme has been spreading rumors of both, truths and lies about the 1989 protests, in order to create chaos and confusion that would destabilize the Chinese government. The ultimate goal of imperialists was to instigate a regime change in China and oust its Communist Party, which governed since 1949. As part of the plan, The Voice of America has expanded its broadcasts in Chinese language to eleven hours per day and specifically directed them to Chinese satellites (New York Times 1989). The reports of The Voice of America consisted of lies about the Chinese soldiers firing on each other, that some troops were on the side of the protestors and some were loyal to the Chinese government.
Evidently, the actions of The Voice of America broadcasts and Western media are examples of attempts to create anxiety and disorientation in the Chinese people who supported their government. There were other fabricated reports like the Prime Minister of China Li Peng was ‘dead’ and that the chairman Deng Xiaoping is in near ‘death condition’ (Liberation Newspaper 1989). The New World Order activists and the media expected the Chinese Communist Party to be overthrown by the imperialist ‘pro-democracy’ forces, as it was the case with many other socialist countries from Eastern and Central Europe in 1988-1989.
Moreover, the ‘pro-democracy’ movements in China were run by favored, well-linked students from prestigious universities who were specifically demanding the regime change from communism to capitalism (Mathews 1998). The protest leaders had connections with the United States. Surely, thousands of other students had their own objections contra Chinese government, however, the leadership students who were connected to the imperialist scheme had a clear plan to overthrow the government. Chai Ling, the primary leader of the protest (currently a U.S. citizen), has told the Western reporters on June 3rd 1989, that the main goal of the movement is to lead the students and workers into a battle to topple the Chinese government, which would be possible only if they can provoke the government forces to use violence and attack the protestors (Kristof, New York Times 1989). Chai Ling has also made it clear that the leadership plans could not be revealed to the demonstrators. Another student leader, Wang Dan became very famous after his interview to the U.S. media about why the leadership did not welcome workers to join their protests. He said ‘the movement is not ready for worker participation because democracy must first be absorbed by the students and intellectuals before they can spread it to others’
(qtd. in New York Times 1989).
Twenty-six years later-U.S. still attempts regime change in China
The 1989 protests still live with us today in many different ways. Tourists can visit the Tiananmen Square where the actual event happened. There are also many documentary films and writings that were made to this famous incident worldwide. There is even a film made about the popular legend: The Tank Man. Still, the protest of 1989 remains one of the most controversial topics in Chinese politics. The action taken by the Chinese leaders to halt the ‘pro-democracy’ movement in 1989 was met with offense and irritation within the United States government. Even though Washington imposed some economic sanctions, the impact was minimal and eventually faded due to the economic interdependence between the two countries.
Nonetheless, the problem with counter-revolution in China may appear again. The economic reforms that were launched in the post-Mao leadership opened the country to foreign capital. China has made great economic improvements but along the way it also developed a large capitalist society inside that is being influenced by different U.S. financial and academic institutions. Today, with China’s new assertive policy, United States government is forcing even greater military pressure on China. It is showing the increasing struggle with the rise of China by making more allies in the East Asian Region and securing new military strategies (Sterba, Ignatius and Greenberg 1989).
If the counter-revolution attempts were to be achieved, the results would be disastrous for China. China would more likely be dismembered as a nation as it happened to the Soviet Union when its Communist Party was overthrown. A counter-revolution and rupture would certainly strike it backwards and thwart China’s peaceful rise. For many years, United States political establishment is plotting to splinter China and undermine it as a nation, which would allow the Western powers to occupy its most productive regions. China has already experienced this scenario in the era when the Western imperialistic powers dominated the country. The Chinese Revolution has been trough many stages of triumphs and failures with countless contradictions. Sixty-five years later, the People’s Republic of China still stands firmly in place.
What happened in Beijing, what took the lives of many protestors and soldiers in 1989, was not a massacre of peaceful students and workers but a battle between soldiers and armed forces of the supposed pro-democracy movement. U.S. political establishment once again attempted a counter-revolution to topple the Communist Party and splinter People’s Republic of China. Western reporters have purposely excluded the facts and participated in the fabrications of the Chinese protests in 1989. But we now have overwhelming documentation proving that facts were very different from what was reported. Moreover, we have ample evidence showing that the Chinese official version on the events had been true. Yet, excessive media attention with its ‘massacre’ myth had seriously damaged the reputation of PRC in the West. Obviously, the Chinese government had no choice but to send its army to end the violence and clear the Square from dangerous rioters. As Wei Ling Chua said ‘The truth is that no government will allow a protest to go on endlessly to the extent that it begins to destabilize the country and economy’.
When Jeff Widener looks at the most important photograph of his career, it makes him think about failure. Like most news photographers, Widener is often worried that he will be absent during a critical moment and miss a critical shot. And like many of the most important photographs in history, Widener’s Tank Man almost didn’t happen. “I don’t have it on my wall,” says Widener, “because every time I look at it, it reminds me how close I came to messing it up.”
In 1989, Widener was a picture editor for the Associated Press in Southeast Asia. As political turmoil and student protests heated up in Beijing that spring and summer, Widener was dispatched to China to cover the melee. Day after day, he would leave the AP bureau inside the U.S. diplomatic compound in Beijing and ride to Tiananmen Square to shoot pictures. At first, the assignment seemed relatively safe and straightforward. “The square was actually very organized. They had street sweepers. They had sort of a security ring all the way to the top, where they had printing presses. There were long lines of people getting food,” says Widener.
But around June 3, Widener’s job became more dangerous as the chaos and violent clashes in Beijing spilled into the streets. In one particularly terrifying encounter, a Chinese man approached Widener and opened his jacket. Inside was a machete dripping with blood. On another occasion, Widener was hit in the head with a rock, shattering his camera, causing a concussion and nearly killing him.
Widener’s leftover headache from the incident was still throbbing on the morning of June 5. His AP bosses in New York wanted someone from the bureau to go to Tiananmen Square, where government troops initiated a major crackdown on protesters the night before. The AP photographers on duty drew straws. Widener got the short one. With film stuffed down his pants and camera equipment hidden in his Levi’s jacket, Widener pedaled off in the direction of the Beijing Hotel, which stood at the edge of the square. After narrowly evading security in the lobby with the help of a sympathetic American exchange student, Widener made his way to a sixth-floor room.
(More:Tank Man Revisited: More Details Emerge About the Iconic Image)
In between sleeping off his headache, he photographed the events outside from the hotel room’s balcony. “There were tanks pushing burnt-out buses. There were people riding around on bicycles,” Widener remembers. “Occasionally, there’d be a little tinkle of a bell, and it would be a guy in a cart with a body or somebody dying, blood everywhere.”
Then suddenly, a column of tanks began rolling by and a man carrying shopping bags walked in front of them. Widener raised his camera and paused, anticipating the perfect moment to snap the shutter. “I waited for the moment that he would get shot, and I waited, and I waited,” says Widener. “And he wasn’t.” Instead, the man waved his arms in front of the lead tank as it tried to proceed around him and eventually, he climbed on top of the hulking metal. While this was happening, Widener realized he was armed with the wrong speed film and too far away to get a good picture. A piece of equipment to improve the shot was on the hotel room bed, several feet away. Should he leave his balcony perch and get it? “It was again a huge gamble, and I’ve always gambled. So I went back to the bed, and I got it,” says Widener.
The result is an iconic picture of defiance in the face of aggression. “I was just relieved that I didn’t mess up,” says Widener, whose photograph appeared on the front pages of newspapers the next day from New York to London and has been known since as one of the greatest news photographs of all time.
“Here’s this guy who is obviously just out shopping, and finally he’s just had enough ” says Widener. “I assume he thinks he’s going to die. But he doesn’t care because for whatever reason—either he’s lost a loved one or he’s just had it with the government, or whatever it is—his statement is more important than his own life.”
Tank man was pulled away by several others on bicycles and has never been identified, but, in a sense, he’s been with Widener for the past 25 years. “If somebody had a way of checking my brain thoughts, this guy probably goes through every single day. Because he’s become a part of me.”
Photojournalist Jeff Widener was a picture editor for the Associated Press in Southeast Asia from 1987-1989
Kate Pickert is a staff writer at TIME. Follow her on Twitter @katepickert