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China's Tiananmen Square crackdown continues 30 years later

Pro-democracy student demonstrators face to face with police during the funeral ceremony of liberal reformer Hu Yaobang in April 1989. The protests were crushed six weeks later. Photo: Catherine Henriette/AFP/Getty Images

Thirty years ago right about now, Chinese troops were beginning a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square that would leave an estimated 1,000–1,500 dead.

Flashback: What began in April as student demonstrations tied to the death of a reformist former leader, Hu Yaobang, “swelled as older people joined and the list of demands broadened,” writes Willis Sparks of GZERO Media.

  • “The occupation of the square took on a life on its own, and some within the Communist Party leadership began to see a threat to their monopoly on political power.”
  • “The contest for control of the square soon became a battle for information. ... Any sign of movement by police or soldiers sent protesters scrambling to landline telephones in nearby buildings to call supporters to flood the square to make it more difficult for security forces to enter.”

What happened next, on the morning of June 4, is infamous around the world and a closely guarded secret in China.

  • Dong Shengkun, a protestor who was arrested after Tiananmen and spent 17 years in prison, saw armored vehicles and soldiers firing indiscriminately.
  • “There was blood and brain matter all over the ground. There were dead people lying in the streets. Those who survived got up and helped the injured back indoors or into the alleys,” he told the Washington Post’s Anna Fifield.
  • “In tears, I told a major that I was in the army, too, and that I never imagined that some day my own comrades would be pointing their guns at me.”

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has rewritten textbooks, authored propaganda and aggressively censored any information related to the massacre in an effort to erase not only historical memory of it, but also the democratic idealism that powered the protests.

  • Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe said Sunday that authoritiesmade the “correct” decision 30 years ago. His rationale was that “political turmoil” had to be sorted out, and China has “enjoyed stability” since.

The crackdown “cut short a decade of Chinese political enlightenment,” Minxin Pei writes for Nikkei Asian Review.

  • “Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the intellectual fervor and diversity of the 1980s when we look at today's China, where ideological re-indoctrination, censorship, and persecution of outspoken thinkers have turned the country into an intellectual wasteland.”
  • “No one knows what China would look like had the enlightenment movement of the 1980s not been cut short. … But one thing is sure. In the aftermath of the crackdown, the CCP launched a systematic campaign of anti-enlightenment to eradicate the movement's influence.”

The big picture: 1989 is remembered in the U.S. and Europe as a time of democratic possibility because of an event that happened five months later — the fall of the Berlin Wall, Gideon Rachman writes in the FT.

  • The world looked destined to go the direction of Berlin, with walls coming down and politics opening up — even in China. It hasn't quite worked out that way.