Tiananmen Square: Where Freedom’s Name was Etched in Blood

By: Rolly

Submitted: May 27, 2009



This paper will be about the 1989 protests Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China and the incentives and causes as well as the failed outcome of the protests. The paper will start by providing background information on the protests, saying who and what started them and their effects on the Chinese people and government. After the basic, factual information, the paper will reveal the positions on three beliefs pertaining to the conflict. The protests were an unsuccessful attempt to capitalize and democratize China, and a generational battle between youth and age was non-existent. The essay will argue that China has undergone capitalist reforms and enjoyed economic prosperity because of China’s own need to compete in a global economy. The paper will argue that the protests failed to bring democracy to China with the evidence that virtually no democratic reforms have been implemented. Then, the essay will discuss how the young and old Chinese shared the same goals during the protests, but the only thing that would provide evidence of a generational battle would be the difference in the method of achieving those goals.

The horrific encounter between the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Chinese demonstrators during the early hours of June 4, 1989 marked the end of a two month-long protest against China’s communist and socialist policies. It began when several young students from Beijing, Peking, and Tsinghua University wished to mourn the death of Hu Yaobang, a disgraced Communist Party member who supported greater individual freedoms, and about 10,000 students gathered on Tiananmen Square on April 17, 1989. From that day, young intellectuals and eventually Chinese citizens of all ages continuously protested the policies of the Chinese government, going on hunger strikes and destroying PLA equipment to persuade the government to make democratic reforms. Widespread protests soon occurred throughout China. In early June, when negotiations between demonstration and administration representatives broke down, the government authorized the use of military force in order to take control of the. So, on June 4th, the 27th and 28th units of the PLA killed and wounded an International Red Cross estimate of 2,000-3,000 people. However, after the violence, China began to move away from traditional Maoist policies. The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 did not help China evolve into a partially capitalist country and in changing the communist regime into a democratic government. Also, there was no generational conflict, as all generations of the population supported the demonstrations.

The economic climate prior to the 1989 riots was slowly changing from the Maoist era environment. Deng Xiaoping reduced the role of political ideology in economics, differing from Mao, and Deng even followed the economic planning and control mechanisms of Western nations by letting certain bureaucrats oversee international trading but keeping the decisions up to the business owners. He allowed farmers to have state-owned land and private land while offering the opportunity to sell surplus crops from private land in the free market, allowing monetary benefits. Industries benefitted from improved technology, both being funded by banks that profited from consumer deposits. Industries and businesses profited greatly from an increase in export-led growth under Deng, who encouraged foreign trade and involvement in the global market.

For further background, Deng’s reforms were revolutionary, but the people who participated in the Tiananmen Square protests were still unhappy with the slow pace of the actual change caused by the reforms and the skepticism of the older Party members. Also, rising inflation and uncontrolled urbanization provided more motivation for the Tiananmen demonstrators. The group also pointed to earlier student demonstrations from 1986-1987 and to pro-market government officials, including the current General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, as signs that many were still waiting for large-scale economic progress. The passionate beliefs of more economic freedom combined with the current economic hardship led to the student led riots.

The implementation of capitalism and resulting economic boom were products of Deng’s existing philosophy and further changes the government put forth. The Tiananmen Square protests had no direct correlation with the economic success China had since the early 1990’s. First, if the government wanted to make capitalist changes to the economic system because their people demanded for it, why did negotiations between representatives from both sides break down? Why did the government order the PLA to murder the demonstrators? The government clearly sympathized with the protestors; most of the Party leaders wanted to come to an accord with the students, and Deng himself, along with Zhao and others, urged the activists to stop a hunger strike that the students decided to execute. However, the students’ interests were not in the government’s interests. In fact, Deng did not propose more reforms until 1992, four years after the protests and just following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Deng expressed the feelings of the government: “We never will forget how savage and ruthless our enemies [the demonstrators] were. We should not show them an iota of forgiveness.” In addition, if the government did change anything after the protests of 1986-’87, why would it alter its stance only a few years later? The government, as open as it was towards capitalism, was not ready to meet the radical demands of the students, which they saw as too much too soon.

The main reason for creating a partly capitalist society in China was to compete in a globalized world geared towards economic power; whichever nation had the greatest economic influence tended to have the most overall influence on the world. The collapse of the Soviet Union signaled to the Chinese government that in order to sustain global economic power in an environment where the United States, Britain, and other democratic nations held substantial power, they could not preserve a purely socialist economy. Eastern European countries decided to undergo a “rapid cold shower of market reform” after the fall of the Soviet nation, so Deng Xiaoping decided to do the same but with a different approach. “Deng’s other famous saying, ‘Cross the river by feeling the stones,’ encouraged the Chinese to find their way cautiously and gradually…better life.” Deng promoted a “step-by-step” approach to achieving economic prosperity, and he believed this method was best for the country moving forward. In contrast to Mao, Deng looked to China’s intellectuals to help the country climb out of the economic downturn of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s and compete in the world. Under Deng, the philosophy of class struggle was ignored, as the upper class was rebuilt and a middle class began to emerge. Deng also knew the future of the country depended on its vast majority of farmers.

Agriculture was a large factor in China’s surge in economic progress. Before the Deng era, there were collectives, or farms on which many farmers worked. This method of agriculture did not benefit China’s economy because people were separated from their family, had no incentive to work hard, and were expected to produce unrealistic amounts of crops. Deng decided to scrap collectivism and, “Allowing economic freedom for farmers proved one of the greatest successes.” When Deng offered the opportunity to grow food on private land and sell them for profit, agricultural output soared, stimulating internal economic growth and foreign trade. In turn, the relaxation of control over agriculture brought 200 million people out of poverty. In short, Deng’s theory of gradualism and the departure from collectivism to survive in a changing global economy led to the evolution of capitalism in certain sectors of the economy in China, not the Tiananmen protests.

In addition to dissatisfaction towards the lack of fast pace economic change, the young students were also concerned with the fact that Deng Xiaoping kept the political system intact. The same political system that Mao Zedong developed remained the same, except for minor relaxations of control over the press. For much of the 1980’s, the Chinese government was stuck in political turmoil, plagued by corruption, strained relations with the Soviet Union, and feelings of distrust towards them among the Chinese population. The protestors wanted the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to relax its strict, “iron fist” control over people’s day-to-day lives. Many still desired for individual freedoms, such as freedom of speech and assembly, and local journalists and media outlets strongly opposed almost complete censorship of the press. The Soviet Union underwent some dramatic political change in the late 1980’s, when Mikhail Gorbachev implemented his policy of “glasnost,” which gave citizens much greater freedom of speech, press, freedom to read previously banned books, and the ability to debate over government activities that were made public; the rebellious groups in China expected their government to follow their neighbor’s example. Although Deng was a more amicable dictator than Mao, Deng still shunned those who supported anything that was against the beliefs of the CCP; such action occurred when Hu Yaobang sympathized with demonstrators during the 1986-‘87 protests, and this action angered the students.

The Tiananmen Square demonstrations were not successful in democratizing China because China, then and now, is not ready for a political upheaval. Also, the government wanted to retain the level of power they had. China had just begun developing capitalism in small parts of the economy, and the students’ quest for a democracy as well was too much to ask for. Even former student leader Pu Zhiqiang admitted it: “At that time, Chinese society was not psychologically prepared for political conflict of that scale.” Pu also thought complete liberty was still in the distant future, and now, the foundation for democracy is too weak to handle all of the discords that follow such “historic transformations.” Furthermore, Deng explained that it was China’s failure to educate the masses about the communist doctrine that caused the riots: “We have failed to make the Four Cardinal Principles [adherence to socialism, “people’s democratic dictatorship,” leadership of CCP, and Maoism] the basic framework for educating the people, students…Party members.” He went on to say that the Party’s principles must be taught better and with more discipline. Deng’s dialogue shows how he believed communism must be strengthened instead of ended. This shows that the Tiananmen protests did not change the opinion of the highest member of the government towards communism.

Another reason why the 1989 demonstrations failed to bring democracy to China was that China’ leaders did not want to give up their power. First, this belief was clearly visible when the government decided they felt the need to murder the protestors to keep their authority secure. Deng himself stated that their power was threatened to the extent that it required military action. In addition, Deng declared in a speech that China would continue its form of government instead of adopting American democracy. Also, according to a Party secretary of Hongzhuan county, China researched “why the Communist Parties of the Eastern Block [Eastern Europe] fell from power…political reform outpaced economic progress…[the people] had the right to complain but not the wherewithal to improve their lives…voted out the communists.” China looked to avoid the same mistake, so the government, which studied how to preserve communism in the first place, will make sure that economic growth reaches a very high point in development before it makes any political changes. Thus, the protests that occurred in 1989 were not successful in democratizing China, which will not become a democracy in the near future.

On a more minor note, the demonstrations were not examples of a generational conflict between the young and old of China. This statement only holds water in the context of the young student population rejecting the government’s traditional Maoist philosophies. It is neither logical nor factually true that the younger Chinese citizens were in conflict with the older generations of China. The only disagreement between the generations was how to go about creating change. The elder, wiser, and more patient population believed through history and experience that China would change on its own in due time. After Mao Zedong’s death, the Communist Party proclaimed it would change its policies., and China also had a long history of leaders being overthrown and replaced by new, well-supported rulers. With history and the new attitude of the government, the older generation knew that China would undergo reforms naturally. In contrast, the younger masses wanted immediate change. They were far more impatient than their elders, and they could not use personal experiences to guide their actions and beliefs. The government, with Deng Xiaoping as its leader, was steering the country in a different direction from than Mao. The students and young intellectuals thought putting immense pressure on the government would accomplish their goals of achieving democracy and capitalism. They were looking at their impending task through rose-colored glass. This is where the clash between the young and old occurs.

Furthermore, the older and younger generations worked together to protest the existing communist policies of the government. The energy and ambition of the youth eventually rubbed off on the older population, and this brought thousands of protestors—of all ages—to Tiananmen Square every day. In fact, uproars occurred in many places throughout China, including Shanghai, where Maoism was born. The only disagreements between generations were between the youth and laws that have existed for a long time—thus students in conflict with traditional law. Older citizens all over the country supported the demonstrations and even took to the streets to protest themselves, showing there was no battle between youth and age during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

What many in China today call the “June Fourth Massacre” is infamous for the government sponsored violence that transpired. It is clear that the lives sacrificed for liberty and freedom were for naught in the sense that the ultimate goals were not reached. In a positive light, China is far removed from the death, destruction, and terror that are associated with Mao Zedong, the Gang of Four, and the Red Guards. The nation as a whole has regrouped since that fateful June morning, showing off their pride and progress to the world in events such as the 2008 Summer Olympics. Who knows what the future holds for China politically and economically? For now, what serves as inspiration to the Chinese people is this phrase from a poem by the famous Chinese poet Ai Qing: “You [God]…please bring to mankind your message of comfort…Tell all that what they’ve been waiting for is coming.”


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