30 years of Tiananmen Square: When China used tanks to break up student protests

Exactly 30 years ago, Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, from where Mao Zedong had announced the communist regime of China in 1949, was quite a scene. More than 10 lakh protesters, mostly university students, were on the ground demanding democracy, personal freedom and probe into corruon by ministers and top communist officials.

The Chinese government had responded by sending tanks against the protesters and ordered firing on its own citizens. China had first denied any deaths in the incident and later put the death toll at 200.

But in 2017, a BBC report cited a secret cable sent by Sir Alan Donald — the then British ambassador to China — to put the death toll at 10,000. The report stated that the original source [of information] was a friend of a member of China’s State Council.

Now, China’s defence minister, Wei Fenghe has defended the use of battle tanks on protesters at Tiananmen Square as a correct policy.

That incident was a political turbulence and the central government took measures to stop the turbulence, which is a correct policy, said Wei on Sunday during his visit to Singapore.

Tiananmen build-up

The young protesters gathered at the Tiananmen Square in 1989 sought greater freedom, individual rights akin to those available in the West, and complained about very high inflation, stagnant salaries and housing problems. The sentiment was building among people since the late 1970s when China changed its economic model from state ownership to private enterprise and capitalism.

The pro-democracy movement got a boost when astrophysicist Fang Lizhi returned from the US to China in 1986; touring Chinese universities he launched a campaign for democratic rights and personal liberty. Deng Xiaoping, Chinese leader and successor of Mao Zedong, warned Fang Lizhi about his pro-West ideology.

But protests, under the influence of Fang Lizhi, had spread to many Chinese cities including Shanghai and Beijing, with Tiananmen Square as the rallying centre. Growing support for the pro-democracy protests left the communist government of China nervous which pinned the blame on Communist Party of China general secretary Hu Yaobang.

Hu Yaobang was forced to resign, in January 1987, as general secretary on charge that he allowed protests to grow and that he favoured western ideals of democracy and personal liberty. Two years later, in April 1989, Hu died of a heart attack.

The massacre

The protesters suspected foul play and marched towards Tiananmen Square with seven demands that included endorsement of Hu Yaobang’s views on democracy and freedom by the communist regime, allowing private and free press, and publishing information on income of state leaders and their family members.

The Deng Xiaoping administration did not relent and the protesters continued to fill up Tiananmen Square. More than a million, reports suggest, had gathered by June 1. The government asked protesters to vacate Tiananmen Square, and on the night of June 3, tanks opened fire on unarmed protesters.

Reaching Tiananmen Square, which is of the size of about 70 football fields, is not that easy today. It has been encircled by high walls. Tiananmen Square bears the testimony to what pro-democracy activists call the greatest sacrifice for the cause.