A Century of Cries for Freedom in China

A Century of Cries for Freedom in China

December 6, 2021 0 By Anton

This is the first part of the essay on Tiananmen Square Massacre that happened on Fourth June 1989 in China. It traces 100 years of pro-democracy and pro-freedom movements in China. You can read the introduction article here, or by going on to “Project 1989”, “Tiananmen Square 1989” section on this website.

Most people in the Western world would be familiar with the “tank man”: the solitary man in a white shirt with bags in each hand blocking four tanks of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) which was sent by the CCP to deal with the protestors in Tiananmen Square. History Magazine describes the image as following:

“Historian and journalist T.D. Allman, who witnessed the uprising from the balcony of a Beijing hotel room, has described him as the “true exemplar” of the Chinese protesters’ heroism.

Time magazine has referred to him as the “Unknown Rebel,” and included him in its list of the 100 most important people of the 20th century.

But the identity of the lone, brave protester—captured on film and in countless photos giving a defiant “stop” sign to a phalanx of Chinese tanks rumbling through Tiananmen Square—remains shrouded in mystery.”

tank man tiananmen square 1989 China
“Tank Man”

The image encapsulates the greatness of the human spirit, that courageous cry for freedom and demand for liberty, a demand which comes from the enlightened realisation that each individual matters, that each life is invaluable; this energy and the hope for a freer and therefore, better, society is what animated the protests in the summer of 1989 in Beijing.

“Like with the Arab Spring protests of early 2011, it seemed at the time that an unstoppable tide of freedom and vitality was sweeping over the world. On the same day as the Tiananmen Square massacre, Solidarity stormed to victory in Poland’s legislative election, setting the stage for the fall of Communism in that country. Mass demonstrations were underway in Hungary, and revolutions would soon sweep over the entirety of the Eastern Bloc,” wrote Carlos Roa for National Interest.

Indeed, the year of 1989 saw the death blow to the communist regimes across Central and Eastern Europe, with waves of revolutions that eventually led to the collapse of the USSR in late 1991. These events revealed to the CCP’s leadership that the people of the world were not the Marxist ammunition for a communist utopia, but strongly and clearly rejected the nefarious reality of socialism.

As George Bush and Brent Scowcroft observed in “A World Transformed”, published in 1998, “[…] one of the most dramatic upheavals in Eastern Europe – the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu – was the main reason” for the way the CCP behaved regarding the protestors during and in the aftermath of the 1989 events. This perspective was echoed by Jeffrey T. Richelson and Michael L. Evans, who edited the declassified history of the Tiananmen Square protests which were published in 1999:

“The Chinese had watched anxiously as communist regimes fell in Eastern Europe in the fall of 1989 but were apparently unmoved until the bloody end of the Ceausescu regime in Romania. “When Ceausescu was toppled,” Scowcroft recalled, “I believe the Chinese leaders panicked. It had appeared to me that they had taken great comfort from his apparent impregnability.””

What was happening at the time in the world was not the only fear factor that pushed the CCP to send the PLA and deal with the protestors. China itself has a clear history of patriotic, anti-corruption and pro-liberty movements that unfolded to various magnitudes across the 20th century.

“[…] student demonstrations in late 1985 and 1986 that, in hindsight, were signs of the events to come, the period leading up the PLA’s use of force, and post-crackdown assessments of the events and their significance,” recall Richelson and Evans. The 1989 protests however have their roots in events that were buried even further in the past.

Two years before the birth of the CCP, in 1919, China’s first major student protest unfolded. This was primarily an intellectual movement concerned with the Chinese identity in a world that seemed increasingly indifferent (and even hostile) to their country.

Indeed, one of the root ideas and sentiments of the 1919 demonstrations was patriotism: “The movement peaked on May 4th 1919, when thousands of students rallied in Beijing to protest against China’s treatment in the Treaty of Versailles. Their protest was supported by students and striking workers across China,” explains Alpha History, an Australian-based group concerned with the revolutionary movements in China.

1919 Chinese Students’ Demonstration
1919 Chinese Students’ Demonstration

However, among the more noble desires for a fair treatment of China on the international stage, as well as for better living standards for its people, as it is too often the case with intellectual movements, radicals became more radicalised. One of the outcomes of this movement was the establishment of the CPP in 1921 by individuals such as Li Dazhao and Chen Duxiu who were deeply inspired by the 1917 Bolshevik takeover of Russia.

In the early years, the fate of the CCP was similar to that of many communist parties around Europe which, during the late 19th – early 20th century, experienced acute and sometimes violent opposition, pushing them in the undergrounds of their societies. This was one of the greatest mistakes in human history and one which has been repeated throughout the ages, even in our day: the banishing through violence or censorship of ideas, something which should always be criticised and opposed. When this happens, ideas do not die, but move out of sight, flourishing in more and more radical minds which await the opportune moment to come back to light and strike with vengeance.

It won’t be until 1949, in the aftermath of the World War II, when the CCP would take over the country’s political reigns and form the People’s Republic of China. The CCP won the Chinese Revolution, which was the result of an armed conflict (civil war) between the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT) and the communists that erupted in the immediate aftermath war. However, these two factions – the CCP and KMT – have been in conflict of various degrees of violence since the 1920s.

Needless to say that the CCP betrayed its ideals of a better and equal society, delivering instead famine which led to cannibalism in some parts of China, mass terror, brainwashing and the eradication of the Chinese history, culture and, ultimately, national identity. This package of inhumane actions came in two important episodes: “The Great Leap Forward” (1958 – 1962) and “The Cultural Revolution” (1966 – 1976), both claiming tens of millions of lives.

The next student movement came as a response of these two episodes, but in particular due to the tragic impact of the Cultural Revolution, a period characterised by the brutality of Red Guards (self-appointed goon squads made predominantly of young people that were indoctrinated to worship Mao Zedong and his socialist ideas). The terror and paranoia of those years is well related by Fan Shen in his book “Gang of One: Memories of a Red Guard”.

As a result of the horrific actions committed by and in the name of the CCP during the Cultural Revolution, between 1974 and 1976 two important things happened which underlined the Chinese people’s distain for how the communists ruled them.

In 1974, the “Li Yi Zhe Manifesto” was erected on a wall in Guangzhou by Li Zhengtian, Chen Yiyang and Wang Xizhe. The authors denounced not only Chairman Mao’s regime as fascist but also that of Lin Biao, who was a general that played a key role in the victory of the CCP following the Chinese Revolution of 1949.

“According to the authors, a sinister group had emerged from within the communist party to form a new “social-fascist dictatorship.” The authors demanded the setting up of a new system which they characterized as “socialist democracy and legality”, explains Anne McLaren from The Ohio State University.

Members of the Li Yi Zhe group, 1974
Members of the Li Yi Zhe group, 1974

Two years following this event, in April of 1976, “more than 2 million people went to Tiananmen Square to commemorate Premier Zhou Enlai, who had died three months ago. Memorial poems and articles appeared on the Square, many of which displayed dissatisfaction and criticism toward Mao Zedong and the “Gang of Four“. By early next morning, all the wreaths on the Square had been taken down”, information from the Virtual Museum of China ’89 reveals.

The events of 1976 are known as the Tiananmen Incident. Zhou Enlai was a key figure in the power struggles of the CCP’s Politburo and his opponents were the so-called “Gang of Four”, a group of hardcore Maoists. The symbolism of the people mourning the death of a figure whose opponents were a closer representation to Mao’s China was suggestive that the public sentiment was changing against the CCP.

Three years after the death of Chairman Mao, between 1978 and 1979, China’s Democracy Wall was constructed alongside a long brick wall in Xicheng District of Beijing where people from all walks of life put up articles on any topic they wanted, including criticism of Mao Zedong, the Cultural Revolution and the immense government corruption that was destroying the country.

This phenomenon was the result of a recommendation made by the 11th National Congress of the CCP in 1977 to add in the Chinese constitution the freedom of speech, freedom of debate and the freedom of posting articles.

China’s Democracy Wall
Democracy Wall

Richard Baum from the University of California explains that “the wall […] soon became the focal point for a remarkable display of free and unfettered public political discourse. Wall posters have long served both as a pressure release valve and as an informal conduit for disseminating inside information and opinion in China. In the spring of 1978, the people’s right to post dazibao had been enshrined in a new, newly revised, state constitution, along with the right to engage in ‘big debates” and “big blooming and contending.”

The Democracy Wall inspired 10,000 participants who marched in Tiananmen Square and demanded democracy and human rights for China.

From Baum: “At the end of the month, a startling 66-page wall poster appeared on Mao’s Memorial Hall at the south end of Tiananmen Square. Its anonymous author boldly called on the Chinese people to rise up and “settle accounts” with all dictators, “no matter who they are.””

Of course, it was all a trap. As Clipper Media wrote: “Before long it became clear that the government was more-or-less ‘allowing’ dissidents to express their thoughts not as a sign of freedom, but as a means of identifying trouble-makers.”

However, despite the CCP’s tactic to root out dissidents, the Chinese people’s inclination towards individual freedom was not killed. In fact, in the year of 1982 the CCP appeared to be listening to the demands made the population when it changed the constitution to reflect some of their requests. Nevertheless, through these actions, the Party also aimed to strengthened its position.

As WSWS wrote in 2009: “The anti-Stalinist “Solidarity” movement of Polish workers in 1980-81 had already had a major impact on the thinking of the Chinese regime. In 1982, the CCP removed the right to strike from the Chinese constitution. The following year, as market reform was extended to urban industry, Beijing created the People’s Armed Police—a 400,000-strong paramilitary force specialising in domestic repression.”

As such, four years later, between December 1986 and January 1987, student protests erupted across China due to the dissatisfaction with the lack of meaningful political reforms. Students carried placards and banners with slogans such as “Law, Not Authoritarianism” and “Long Live Democracy”.

According with an article published in 2010 by the International Centre of Nonviolent Conflict, “Chinese student demonstrations in late 1986 and early 1987 were inspired by widespread discontent with high-level government corruption, inflation, and growing income inequality, as well as writings such as those of astrophysicist Fang Lizhi who encouraged young people to ‘seize democracy from below’”.

One of the documents from the collection published by Richelson and Evans reports “that thousands of protesters filled Tiananmen Square on New Year’s Day 1987, and that, “some 24 ‘troublemakers’ reportedly were taken away by the police for ‘education and examination.’”

During these protests, Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang wanted to have a dialogue with the students. However, this move was seen as weakness by other powerful figures inside the CCP and resulted in the resignation of Hu Yaobang, who remained a progressive figure in the minds of many Chinese people.

Indeed, it was his death on 15 April 1989 that proved to be the catalyst for the 1989 protests. “The demonstration that had begun as an expression of grief over the loss of a popular political figure had, by April 26, taken on a decidedly political character,” explained Richelson and Evans. It is in this context that the events of the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989 must be viewed. Without the historical understanding of the Chinese people’s struggle with the tyranny of the communist regime, the philosophical and practical importance of the 1989 protests is diminished.

In the next part, “The Tiananmen Square Protests and Massacre of 1989”, we will look in detail at what happened during the Spring and Summer months of that year.