Global Studies’s Updates

Tiananmen: How Wrong We Were

Photo courtesy of Daduzi / WikiMedia Commons | Article Link | by Jonathan Mirsky

Twenty-five years ago to the day I write this, I watched and listened as thousands of Chinese citizens in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square dared to condemn their leaders. Some shouted “Premier Li Peng resign.” Even braver ones cried “Down with Deng Xiaoping and the Communist Party.” Before long, on the night of June 3–4, the People’s Liberation Army crashed into the square, rolling over the tents pitched there by industrial workers who had joined in the protests, and mowing down unarmed demonstrators. Until then, crowds in the square had walked wherever they pleased rather than standing on one of the numbered paving stones in that vast space. For decades, those who went there to see and hear national leaders were instructed to stand on a particular stone and shout prescribed slogans. But in May 1989, students and ordinary people were engaged in something the Communist Party has never been able to tolerate: zifade, “spontaneous” demonstrations.

That spontaneity spread from Inner Mongolia to Guangzhou. In Beijing, instead of the usual greeting between acquaintances, “Have you eaten yet?” people asked, “Have you demonstrated yet?” Police and soldiers had almost disappeared, and the staff of the Party’s newspapers appeared in the square holding high a banner bearing the words “We don’t want to lie anymore.” A few days before the killings, thousands of unarmed soldiers marched towards the square only to be scolded by elderly women and shamed into turning back.