Tiananmen Square Uprising: A Perspective

SinoMania, n.d. [2002]

WHO WERE THE PROTESTERS and how many were there?

Popular perception is that the vast crowds of protesters in Tiananmen Square were mainly students, young, intelligent, and full of youthful optimism and idealism. The core group of organized protesters, it is true, were students and they came not just from the elite schools of Beijing but from all over China.

At the height of the protests over 56,000 students entered the capital in one day alone. Most came by rail. The railways leading to Beijing were overwhelmed by the endless stream of excited youth. Most of the students demanded to ride without paying for tickets and essentially took over the trains on their journey to Beijing. They used the public-address systems on the trains to broadcast messages, roamed the cars and asked passengers for contributions, hung posters in and on the cars, and even demanded free food. Crowds from at least 319 different schools were in Tiananmen at the height of the protests, most from outside Beijing. In fact, many Beijing students returned to their campuses or went home before the demonstrations ended.

There are no clear estimates of exactly how many people were camped out in Tiananmen Square or took part in the mass demonstrations. The figure of one million has gained popular acceptance as the best guess of the size of the crowd at its height. But the crowds camped out in Tiananmen were only part of much larger group of protesters who were not students. By late May 1989 between three and five million people, many unemployed workers, were roaming Beijing streets angrily denouncing the government for double digit inflation and mishandling the economy through corruption. The capital of China was sliding into anarchy.

WAS THERE A MASSACRE in Tiananmen Square?

To paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, the situation in the Chinese capital was a vivid reminder of the excesses suffered during the not-so-distant Cultural Revolution and he feared civil war. The police gave up attempts to contain the crowds and stood by idly as Tiananmen Square was barricaded. In the early hours of May 21 martial law was declared in the five central urban districts of Beijing. By this time, Tiananmen Square was a giant cess pool. Sanitation workers tried in vain to cope with mountains of human waste and prevent outbreak of disease as the temperature swelled. The rest of May 1989 was a hopeless stand off between the government, which felt threatened and without options, and the core group of student protesters who wanted impossible concessions.

Early morning June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square was cleared by army troops. A Spanish television crew filmed the retreat of the remaining 5,000 students and hunger strikers from the square just before dawn. They had negotiated safe conduct from the military at the last minute. Deng Xiaoping wanted no deaths to result from breaking up the demonstrators and clearing Tiananmen Square. Chinese leaders instructed the army that soldiers should not turn their weapons on innocent civilians, even if provoked. For the most part, this desire was realized. But as troops and tanks made their way to the square confrontations erupted on the streets of Beijing. According to government and eye witness reports, most of the deaths occurred when tanks crashed through barricades erected at the Muxidi bridge, in the western suburbs of Beijing.

The first press reports of 2,600 to 3,000 casualties in Tiananmen Square were prompted by the USA Central Intelligence Agency, according to respected Dutch journalist Willem Van Kemenade. Immediately throughout the world, press agencies and wire services reported that thousands had died. A USA State Department Briefing the morning of June 4, 1989, reported 180 to 500 deaths. Renowned sinologist and Yale University professor Jonathan Spence has used the figure of 700 deaths in his writings on the events in Tiananmen Square.

On June 6, the Chinese government released information that 300 people were killed in clashes on city streets (but not in Tiananmen Square itself) including 23 students. Another 400 soldiers were either missing or killed. Five thousand soldiers and 2,000 civilians were reported injured. But by then the idea that thousands (even ten or twenty thousands) of pro-democracy demonstrators had died in Tiananmen Square was already rooted in popular conciousness throughout the world.

Other than the official Chinese information, no reliable evidence of deaths has ever been produced by anyone on either side of the issue. As Jay Mathews, former Beijing bureau chief for the Washington Post has said, there is no evidence anyone died in Tiananmen Square. Yet no journalist or politician outside China has ever attempted to correct the record. Instead the myth that thousands of unarmed people were deliberately mowed down by their own government is spread as part of an unacknowledged campaign of misinformation led by sinophobic press and politicians.

COMMENTS on Tiananmen:

...I knew Deng Xiaoping was right. I have not changed my mind. There are more than 300 cities in China. When you have that kind of wildfire, you either stamp it out quickly or you are burnt out yourself. ...You have to remember that this is China. When you attack the emperor, that&s it. He paid in blood for the right to govern.

Singapore Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew
in an interview at the 2001 World Economic Forum
held in Davos, Switzerland

Deng [Xiaoping] asked Henry [Kissinger] why we were so shocked over Tiananmen when the Cultural Revolution was going on when we opened relations with the PRC. He pointed out that surely that was much worse. He had a point.

Former First Lady Barbara Bush relating a November 1989 dinner conversation with Henry Kissinger who had just returned from China. In Barbara Bush: A Memoir. New York: Lisa Drew Books, Charles Scribner&s Sons, 1994.

How the GPRC [government of the People&s Republic of China] decides to deal with those of its citizens involved in recent events in China is, of course, an internal affair. How the USG [United States of America government] and the American people view that activity is, equally, an internal affair. Both will be governed by the traditions, culture, and values peculiar to each.

classified USA State Department document
entitled Themes dated June 29, 1989.


Why have the Chinese governments controlling Taiwan not made more use of the Tiananmen crackdown for propaganda? It may be because Taiwan had its own bloodbath many years before. In fact, at the heart of the independence movement for Taiwan is a true massacre committed by troops sent by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek in early 1947.

After the Japanese (who had occupied Taiwan since 1898) were ousted at the end of World War II, governance of Taiwan fell to the corrupt Nationalist or Guomindang (Kuomintang) government based in Nanjing (Nanking) under Chiang Kai-shek. The Nationalists proved more unpopular than the Japanese occupiers and rampant corruption prompted large demonstrations by the indigenous population of the island. On February 28, 1947, the protests were forcibly ended. The army was ruthless in its suppression. The report from the American consul in this instance was that 10,000 had perished.

A campaign of silence was maintained on the massacre until 1991 when the Nationalist government finally agreed to an inquiry. An official report, issued in 1992, said that all told 18,000 to 28,000 persons were killed or executed without trial. The Nationalist government has never offered an apology but has compensated each family of identified victims with $250,000 (USA dollars) in reparations.