The 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square were arguably the greatest challenge to the Chinese Communist state since 1949. During April and May 1989, Beijing witnessed an extraordinary series of demonstrations known as ‘the Beijing Spring’. Protesters demanded freedom, democracy and the end of corruption. An estimated 3,000 civilians were wounded and over 200 killedalthough there is no official death toll.
Although initiated and dominated by students, the protest attracted widespread public support for the first time, most significantly from urban workers. Demonstrations reached a climax when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev arrived in Beijing for what was supposed to be a dramatic end to the Sino-Soviet split, drawing journalists from all over the world.
Central leadership was divided in its response. This sent contradictory messages and caused mounting domestic tensions and global interest.Zhao Ziyangwas sympathetic regarding economic reforms,including the privatisation of state-owned enterprises, placing him at odds with party members Premier Li Pengand paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.
On 19th May, leading functionaries gathered to enforce martial law. Zhao did not attend and instead addressed the protestors in Tiananmen Square, demonstrating Party division for all to see. On 3-4thJune, the People’s Liberation Army tanks ambushedprotestors, with Zhao later being purged.
It has been claimed thattop Party leaders approached Swiss diplomats to send ‘significant amounts of money’ toforeign bank accounts during the crisis, suggesting greater fears for stability than previously thought.
Because of the open ferocity of the government’s response following the ‘beginning of the end’ of the Cold War, the Tiananmen massacre has proved a watershed moment in Western impressions of and responses to China. Tiananmen has become an icon of cultural-political difference: the violation of human rights by the repressive state. Acceptance ofLocke’s principleof man’s concession of liberties to the state raised questions regarding how far the state could intervene in personal autonomy, especially when it is not democratically elected.
The Chinese argument was that only a strong state could protect the people. Nevertheless, we have tended to romanticise the events of 1989 because they idealiseWestern political themes. China was ‘an Oriental mirror image of its own hopes and dreams’ (George Hicks).Thecultural issue of the European example is clear to see.
In spite of China’s assertion that sovereignty of the state is the most important substance of human rights, the political regime has continued to cause contention. Today, the people of Hong Kong are venting their frustration at the increasingly impervious political domain, just as the students at Tiananmen Square did before them.