Commentary: The ghost of Tiananmen Square hovers over a 'fragile superpower' even after 30 years
The Tiananmen Square crisis in Beijing was the first time a popular uprising in a long-isolated country was broadcast live around the world, says University of Southern California’s Mike Chinoy.
HONG KONG: Thirty years ago, at 1am Jun 4, 1989, I stood on the balcony of a room at the Beijing Hotel, holding a telephone and broadcasting live on CNN. “The assault on Tiananmen Square in now underway,” I told the network’s viewers in the US and around the world.
There has been gunfire. There are people dead. There are people wounded in various parts of Beijing.
From my vantage point, with the square just a few hundred yards to the west down Chang’an Avenue – the Avenue of Eternal Peace – illuminated by street lamps, I could see red tracer bullets whizzing through the air. The gunfire came closer and closer, with volleys every few seconds.
Out of the gloom, an armoured personnel carrier broke through a makeshift barricade in front of the hotel and headed towards the square, where an angry crowd confronted it throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails.
The vehicle burst into flames. Two of the soldiers inside were dragged out and beaten to death.
Soon after, I watched People’s Liberation Army troops establish a cordon across Chang’an Avenue at the square’s northern edge. Moments later, they opened fire at crowds just below me. Trying to keep my voice level, I continued my live reporting.
The troops are firing directly at the demonstrators. People are now running down the street. It’s absolute panic. There are bodies, injured and dead, all over the place.
I counted at least a half dozen bodies and watched in horror as a steady stream of flatbed bicycle carts carried casualties to nearby hospitals.
Amidst the bedlam, however, I could still see the Goddess of Democracy, the 10m-high plaster figure resembling the Statue of Liberty that the students had erected a few days before, standing defiantly in the square.
Thirty years later, these scenes remain as vivid and immediate to me as they were the night I witnessed them – testament to the continuing power, political and emotional, of the events of 1989.
Chinese authorities have tried hard to wipe out the memory of those days, but the ghosts of Tiananmen still haunt them enough to clamp down on this anniversary day.
That spring began amidst unprecedented hope. For weeks, tens of thousands of deeply idealistic students had marched for an end to corruption and nepotism and a more open government.
The protests were the outgrowth of what remains the most liberal decade in modern Chinese history. The years leading up to 1989 were marked by an acceleration of market-style economic reforms and movement towards political liberalisation, encouraged by some at high levels in the Chinese Communist Party.
Reformers in the leadership supported expansion of grassroots elections, a more open media and scaling back the party’s role, while on university campuses, so-called “democracy salons” sprang up where students passionately debated the country’s political future.
Within the leadership, however, hardliners saw such a prospect as a mortal threat to Communist Party rule. A bitter power struggle led to the defeat of party reformers. Senior leader Deng Xiaoping, despite his interest in economic experimentation, was no liberal and ordered the military response.
As dawn broke on Jun 4, I watched a long line of tanks rumble past the Beijing Hotel. Some of the soldiers fired in our direction as they drove by, sending my colleagues and me diving to the floor.
In Tiananmen Square, an armoured personnel carrier toppled the Goddess of Democracy. The remaining students, having negotiated safe passage with the army, disconsolately made their way out of the square’s southwest corner.
“The soldiers have now taken over Tiananmen Square,” I reported.
The student protest has been crushed.
It was a heady time and as the protests grew in Beijing and spread to other cities, there was palpable hope that a new and fairer political and economic structure might emerge in China.
But the spirit of resistance had not been entirely extinguished. The following morning, a lone man blocked a column of tanks in front of the Beijing Hotel as reporters watched in astonishment.
The man in front of the tank, his name unknown, became one of the great photos of the 20th century – an enduring symbol of popular resistance to injustice.
The tankman and the Goddess of Democracy also became iconic images in the media coverage of Tiananmen – itself a watershed moment.
The crisis in Beijing was the first time a popular uprising in a long-isolated country was broadcast live around the world.
The coverage not only shaped international perceptions of China for years, but by forcing the US and other governments to respond as events played out on live television, redefined the relationships among the press, public opinion and the making of foreign policy.
Within China, however, in the months and years that followed, thousands of people were jailed or fired for participating in the protests, and the government began a campaign – which has largely succeeded – to erase all memory of what happened.
Discussion of the events of 1989 was banned, and those who did try to remember were punished, while the idealism of that time was replaced with an emphasis on strident nationalism and “patriotic education.”
The government also offered the Chinese people greater control over their private lives – the ability to earn money, travel and make a wider range of personal lifestyle choices. The tradeoff – expansion of personal liberty in return for accepting ever-tighter curbs on political freedom – was one most Chinese seemed willing to accept.
Even with the current narrative in the West of China’s inexorable rise, Chinese authorities in fact have reason to worry. Economic growth, so central to the party’s legitimacy, is slowing, and faces a new threat from the trade war with the United States.
The move by current leader Xi Jinping to end term limits, which enables him to rule indefinitely, upended a carefully crafted system put in place by Deng to avoid emergence of a tyrant like Mao Zedong and ensure that leadership power struggles would no longer threaten political chaos.
Moreover, Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, although popular, has antagonised important constituencies in the Communist Party, the army and the business community. Having arrogated so much power for himself, Xi will be blamed if things go wrong.
For all the outward signs of confidence, therefore, China remains, in the words of one American scholar, a “fragile superpower".
Beneath the surface, the unhealed wounds of Tiananmen Square cut to the heart of the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party – explaining why, as my former college history professor Jonathan Spence, the great historian of China who has taught at Yale since 1966, said following the crackdown:
June 4 is a date that will haunt governments in China for decades.
Mike Chinoy was a foreign correspondent for CNN for 24 years, serving as the network’s first Beijing bureau chief and as Senior Asia Correspondent. Currently a non-resident senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s US-China Institute, he is the author of four books and the creator of Assignment China, a documentary history of American correspondents in China.
This commentary first appeared in Yale Global Online.