Massive street protests have become common over the past few years from the various color coded rebellions that led to the down fall of remnant Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the former USSR, the Arab Spring that led to the downfall of the Egyptian government and threatened conservative regimes, austerity protests across Europe, a mass student rebellion in Canada, and on a lesser scale the big marches and encampments of the Occupy Movement in this country.
Except were the rebellions seem somehow to service American foreign policy interests, the U.S. press shows us almost nothing of this. Yet those of us who are interested in the world have found ways to watch the power of people taking control of their own lives via the blog-o-sphere and social media. The images are powerful, but after a while tend to blend together. We become almost blasé about yet another million or so people taking to the streets.
The recent events in Turkey, a westernized Islamic country about which American know little, however, have galvanized our attention. What started out as a modest protest against taking Taksim Square, the last green space in the center of Istanbul, for redevelopment as an upscale shopping mall. But massive attacks on the demonstrators using what looks like the most intense and sustained use of tear gas ever unleashed accompanied by a new wrinkle—tear gas mixed in the spray of powerful water cannons—and traditional charges by mounted police and cops with truncheons, quickly inspired a popular insurrection.
In four days it has spread from Istanbul to the capital of Ankara and to at least 27 major cities in all corners of Turkey. It began with secularized, urban middle class and students but has quickly grown to include the labor movement which today announced plans for a general strike, and even to the government’s base of moderate Islamists. Unlike other movements in the region, more radical Islamic elements seem isolated and unsure what to do.
Violence has escalated. Thousands upon thousands have been injured by gas, gas projectiles, beatings, and trampling. The government acknowledges the arrests of more than 1,700, a figure that is probably ridiculously low. Much of the street fighting goes on at night out of the vision of western media. Use of lethal live fire and heavy armor has not been confirmed. But stunning photo shows a literal river of blood washing down an Istanbul street, stark evidence that atrocities have been committed. Yet the rebellion only grows.
Photos and videos have provided images of the uprising that stun an move us—an attractive, defiant young woman in a fashionable red dress, Italian shoes and shoulder bag standing alone just feet in front of police taking as stream of gas directly in the face, a section of street littered from gutter to gutter with thousands of spent gas canisters —most made in the U.S.A., the fog of gas boiling nearly to roof lines, young men emerging from the cloud, a Whirling Dervish in black and a gas mask dancing defiance.
All bring back memories of other iconic images from China twenty-four years ago.
On June 4, 1989 the tanks and troops of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) swept thousands of demonstrators from Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and adjacent streets. It was a bloody end to nearly two months of escalating protests against the leadership of the Communist Party of China and corruption of government officials.
It began during the most liberal period country had witnessed since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1948. In 1976 earlier Tiananmen Square protests of disrespect shown by hard line leaders to the death of popular Premier Zhou Enlai had set off events which would lead to the ouster of the so-called Gang of Four following the death of Chairman Mao Zedong. That finally ended the last vestiges of the reign of terror known as the Cultural Revolution which had taken many lives, sent hundreds of thousands to exile or re-education camps and virtually destroyed the economy.
The Gang of Four’s leading opponent, Deng Xiaoping was acting premier at the time of the protests and was exiled for supposedly sponsoring the rebellion. With the Gang in prison and their allies deposed, the Politburo recalled him to Beijing. Two years latter he had consolidated power to become China’s de-facto supreme leader while publicly holding secondary offices.
Deng completed the purge of Cultural Revolution figures in the Party and gained public support by hailing the Tiananmen demonstrators as heroes. He loosened state control of the media and allowed a relatively free press to operate for the first time ever. Free speech flourished on campus and in villages, which rewarded Deng with their loyalty. Most significantly he instituted broad free market reforms that jumpstarted the moribund economy.
Yet he had failed to match his economic reforms with political ones. The Communist Party remained rigidly in control of all levels of government and the economic boom was accompanied by widespread corruption among officials.
Even many senior party members, including Party Chairman Hu Yaobang, supported broadening political reforms. So even as agitation for change picked up speed, there was an aura of hope. It came as a shock when Chairman Hu was purged in January 1987 and forced to make a humiliating public self-criticism by old guard Politburo members who feared reforms had strayed too far from Maoist orthodoxy and threatened China’s one party system.
Democracy advocates were taken aback by the development but encouraged that other allies remained in senior positions. But when Hu died suddenly of a reported heart attack in April, activists were outraged that the Party refused to give him an adequate memorial in the city’s ceremonial heart, Tiananmen Square on which sits the Great Hall of the People with its enormous portrait of Mao. Nearby is the Zhongnanhai, the walled in compound which is the seat of both the Party and Government.
On April 15 relatively small groups of people began to hold mourning gatherings for Hu at the Monument to the People’s Hero in massive Tiananmen Square while students at local Universities began to hold campus meetings. On the afternoon of April 17 the first of several marches of university students to mourning gatherings outside of the Great Hall of the People began. By late evening a few thousand people were on the square either at the Monument or in the crowd in front of the Great Hall. Police arrived and tried to convince the crowds to leave but did not use force.
Sometime that night discussions among the student demonstrators resulted in a List of Seven Demands that they wanted the Party and government to address. The tone was respectful, and the demands quite moderate requests for reform. On the morning of the 18th one group marched on the Zhongnanhai complex to present their demands. They were blocked by police and began a sit-in at the gates. Over the next two day some officials did emerge to engage in unofficial discussion with the students and to plead with them to go home.
On the 20th baton wielding police dispersed the demonstrators from in front of the government complex. All of this was being freely reported by the as yet uncensored Chinese media. Word of the clashes only swelled crowds on the Square. The eve of Hu’s funeral the next day drew more than 100,000 to the square before authorities blocked access.
Student protestors, with the support of their faculties, announced strikes as the numerous colleges and universities in the capital, and strikes spread to other major cities as well. By this time senior leadership of the Party was getting alarmed, but was still split between sympathetic reformers and an emerging block of hard-line senior leaders.
The student movement itself was far from unified and still included many Party members and sympathizers seeking incremental reform within the system and growing numbers calling for a deeper Democratic reform and even the abolition of the supreme power of the Party.
Yet demonstrators routinely sang approved patriotic songs, the International, and venerating the memory of Mao. Three young men who defaced the giant Mao poster on the square, in fact, were subdued by demonstrators and voluntarily turned over to the police.
The movement was also beginning to attract support from the city’s workers who were less concerned with democratic reforms than with tempering the hard edges of the market reforms which were causing rising unemployment and escalating prices.
Despite displays of loyalty the nation’s top paper, the People’s Daily assailed the movement in a front page editorial on April 24th signaling a hardening of official attitudes. On May 4th, the 50th anniversary of anti-western, nationalist student demonstrations that led to the downfall of the Imperial system, 100,000 marched in Beijing demanding formal talks with the government on reform. The government refused to negotiate with anyone but representatives of discredited party led approved student unions.
Huge rallies of students began on the Square on May 13th and hundreds of students began hunger strikes until official negotiations began. Reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev arrived in the city on a state visit midmonth bringing with him hoards of international press, who stepped up their coverage of the unfolding demonstrations.
On the 18th Premier Li Peng had a public dialogue with a handful of student leaders which was broadcast. Civility quickly broke down when the students accused the government of dragging its feet on reform and Li personally of being insincere in his discussions.
The Party was still divided. For his part Li stressed the need to retain order. Early morning on the 19th Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, a reformer believed to be in sympathy with the students, came on the square and addressed the demonstrators with a bull horn. Many believed he had promised real negotiations.
But a shadow cabal of senior leaders including Deng Xiaoping and Premier Li Peng had enough and took control of Party and state apparatus, issuing Martial Law on May 20. The People’s Liberation Army was ordered to the Square, but was peacefully turned back by demonstrators.
Party elders realized that local units in Beijing, including senior officers, were sympathetic to the strikers and unwilling to move against them with force. The order was publicly rescinded on the 24th but the hardliners were only regrouping. They declared a May 30th deadline to end the demonstrations before the hunger strikes could result in any deaths and generate public sympathy.
In the wake of the embarrassing national TV spectacle, press censorship was reemployed as demonstrations spread throughout the country. Zhao and other moderates were purged. Meanwhile they scoured the nation for military units loyal enough to move against the demonstrators.
On May 30th students unveiled a giant Goddess of Democracy holding a Torch of Freedom. The Statue, with its more than passing resemblance to the Statue of Liberty was the final straw. That night troops and tanks from PLA units in the provinces arrived on the scene. They were ordered to clear the demonstrators on June 1.
As word spread Beijing residents, most of them not students flooded into the streets to block the troops. Barricades were set up and street fighting, including the use of Molotov cocktails erupted around the city. Some PLA army crews were reported dragged from armored personnel carriers, beaten, and killed. Advance units finally reached the Square early the next morning but had orders to hold fire and offer the demonstrators there a chance to withdraw. Debate raged on the square about whether to stay or go. Students were given a deadline of 6 AM on the 3rd.
Meanwhile fighting continued on adjacent streets. Sometime that morning units began “rolling up the streets” firing directly into crowds and crushing bicyclists and pedestrians ahead of them. A BBC reporter observed troops firing directly into the Square, others reported seeing gun flashes and hearing fire from that direction. But there were no international film crews or photographers on the Square itself.
Students took refuge in or behind rows of busses, but were pulled out and beaten or shot. Some students were assaulted and shot as they tried to leave the square. Meanwhile a last group held out near the Hall of the People. Accounts vary as to their fate. Reports of Spanish news film crewof about 5000 people being escorted peacefully out of the square have never been verified by any footage.
The Chinese government itself claims that the Square was taken peacefully, although it acknowledged casualties on the surrounding streets.
CBS newsman Richard Roth reported being driven across the square shortly after dawn in a PLA vehicle and seeing no bodies, no ambulances, no blood or any evidence a battle had occurred on the square. Others maintain that there was a final battle but that clean-up crews rapidly descended on the Square.
Final estimates of casualties in the whole operation vary greatly. The Chinese government claim of 241 dead, including soldiers and 7,000 wounded is clearly nonsense. Soviet intelligence reported 10,000 dead, both civilian and military. Although some soldiers were killed by mobs or burnt up in their vehicles, most were killed and wounded in their own wild cross fire.
Chinese Red Cross reported officially that 2,600 died before their report was censored. Later a Red Cross official privately said that the number was closer to 5,000 dead and 30,000 injured. Hospitals were overflowing before authorities closed them to demonstrators. Many avoided them after reports of patients being taken away. There were undoubtedly many avoidable deaths due to untreated injuries over the next weeks.
Reports also are in conflict about how many people were subsequently detained and how many might have been executed.
The most iconic image of the Tiananmen events actually occurred on June 5 as a column of tanks was trying to leave the Square. Western television cameras caught one young man in a white shirt blocking the column by standing directly in front of it. He defied the tank, even climbing on board to talk to the crew, before he was finally led away. He was never positively identified and rumors swirl as to his fate—did he escape into a life of hiding, or, more likely, was he arrested and executed?
In subsequent years China has become the most vigorous economy in the world and an acknowledged super power. It has polished its international reputation with the Olympics and a World’s Fair. But the government and Party remain in rigid control and brook no public dissent.
This week Chinese officials announced that Jiang Yaqun, now 73 years old and suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, was finally released after 24 years in prison. He was reputedly the last surviving detainee of the uprising.
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