Remembering Tiananmen Square as Hong Kong Officials Ban Vigil—Again

grisly 1989 massacre of pro-democracy protestors left hundreds dead

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

A memorial for the Tiananmen Square Massacre was once again banned. Arrests of activists have caused skepticism over Hong Kong authorities’ claims that the coronavirus pandemic is the cause of the ban. Hundreds died in the massacre on June 4, 1989.

Tiananmen Square, China
For the second year, Hong Kong officials have banned the public from gathering for a vigil to commemorate those who died in the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. Photo By TonyV3112 / Shutterstock

The massacre at Tiananmen Square killed hundreds, if not thousands, of pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong in spring 1989. It was the bloody and tragic result of political division, civil unrest, inflation, panic buying, and student hunger strikes.

For the second consecutive year, Hong Kong officials have banned the public from gathering for a vigil to commemorate those who died in the massacre, citing a concern of further COVID-19 spread. However, some have doubted the government’s reasoning, claiming the pandemic is merely an excuse to cover political motivations for banning the vigil.

Before his unfortunate passing, Dr. Richard Baum, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Los Angeles, explained in his video series The Fall and Rise of China how the massacre came to happen.

The Road to Tiananmen

Pro-democracy student demonstrations first came to a boil in 1986. Dr. Baum said that in December of that year, 75,000 students from 150 colleges in 17 Chinese cities participated. Conservatives in the Chinese Communist Party stirred up rhetoric against the students’ “bourgeois liberalism” and demanded that the high-ranking politician Deng Xiaoping—known as the “architect of modern China”—get rid of his liberal-leaning protégé Hu Yaobang. They blamed him for instigating the protests.

“Deng Xiaoping went along with them, partly for the sake of party unity, and partly because he was angry at Hu Yaobang’s lack of toughness in dealing with student unrest,” Dr. Baum said. “But Deng was not willing to allow [conservative] hard-liners to use Hu Yaobang’s ouster as an excuse to roll back Deng’s hard-won economic reforms, and so he insisted that the post of party general secretary should go to his other liberal-leaning protégé, Zhao Ziyang.”

With Hu out and Zhao in as party general secretary, Deng seemed to have traded one liberal appointee for another. Conservatives countered Deng’s efforts by installing one of their own—a young hydraulics engineer named Li Peng—to take over Zhao’s old post as premier of the state council.

“It was an uncomfortable compromise, at best,” Dr. Baum said.

April 1989: A Match Is Lit

On April 15, 1989, Hu Yaobang, the former party general secretary who had been ousted for promoting “bourgeois liberalism,” died of complications after a heart attack.

“When his death was announced on April 15, tens of thousands of Beijing college students spontaneously left their classrooms and left their campuses,” Dr. Baum said. “Marching to Tiananmen Square, they demanded the restoration of Hu’s good name and reputation. When the government refused to acknowledge the students’ demands, the demonstrations grew larger and began to spread to other cities.”

Concerned over China’s political stability, Dr. Baum said, Deng Xiaoping told students they were being manipulated by “unpatriotic elements” and accused them of creating “dongluan”—a Chinese word for a certain kind of turmoil—in the nation, which was a very serious charge.

Deng’s comments only fanned the flames of unrest. When his comments were published, demonstrations in Tiananmen Square grew from tens of thousands of protestors to over a hundred thousand. In the second week of May, a student hunger strike was declared, timed to coincide with Mikhail Gorbachev’s first visit to China—at the time, Gorbachev was new to the leadership of the Soviet Party. Humiliated by the attraction of world attention, Deng dug in and refused to negotiate with demonstrators.

The Final Blow

On May 18, student leaders met with Li Peng—the conservative-appointed premier of China’s state council—and other high-ranking officials. The meeting went poorly, with student leaders accusing Premier Li of a patronizing display of concern for the students. Li responded by blaming them of inciting anarchy. At the end of the meeting, one student leader, Wu’er Kaixi, refused to shake Li’s hand.

This meeting, followed by a tearful appearance and address in Tiananmen Square by Zhao himself, enraged Deng Xiaoping, who used an emergency override on May 19 to declare martial law. Li Peng’s forces were met with such public opposition, however, that they were recalled on May 23.

“The People’s Liberation Army’s deadly drive to recapture Tiananmen Square from student demonstrators commenced shortly after dark on June 3,” Dr. Baum said. “Armored military columns slowly converged on the center of the city; their instructions were to clear the Square by dawn’s early light using all necessary force. The order had been given by Deng Xiaoping himself.”

According to Dr. Baum, soldiers fired into crowds of civilians while armored personnel carriers “ran amok” scattering crowds while being retaliated against by citizens with bricks, rocks, and Molotov cocktails. Several dozen PLA soldiers were separated from their units and set upon by the public, only to be beaten to death, disemboweled, hanged, or doused in gasoline and set on fire.

“When the dust settled at dawn, Tiananmen Square had been physically liberated but at a terrible cost,” Dr. Baum said. “Hundreds of civilians, perhaps more than a thousand, had been killed, and several thousand wounded. The real totals may never be known.”

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily