AP Explains: China’s bloody 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown
China’s bloody 1989 military crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests was a pivotal moment in the country’s political development. Despite the Communist Party’s efforts to erase memories of the event, every year its anniversary triggers heightened security and surveillance on the mainland, along with furtive commemorations by a handful of activists.
With this weekend marking the 27th anniversary of the military assault on the night of June 3-4, The Associated Press looks at some of the key questions surrounding the event and its aftermath.
Q: What happened on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on the night of June 3, 1989, and the early hours of the following day?
A: After weeks of student-led pro-democracy protests, only a hardcore group remained camped in Tiananmen Square, although they enjoyed broad support from many ordinary citizens. Fed up with the show of defiance, the Communist Party leadership headed by Deng Xiaoping decided to use force to end the situation. Tanks, armored vehicles and assault troops converged on the city center from multiple directions. Estimates of those killed range from the government’s official figure of 241 to more than 2,000.
Q: How are the events marked in China by the government, the public, and by activists of that generation?
A: The government forbids discussion of the crackdown, which it initially labeled a “counterrevolutionary riot,” and memorials for those killed — both public and private — are forbidden. That approach has made the crackdown a fading memory for many of those alive at the time, while young Chinese may have only a hazy knowledge of it gleaned largely from foreign sources. An annual candlelight vigil in Hong Kong continues to draw large numbers of participants of all ages, however, while exiled former student-leaders also hold public commemorations. Activists within China are generally placed under house arrest or forced to leave Beijing around the time of the anniversary.
Q: Who are the Tiananmen Mothers, what are their demands, and what is the likelihood that they will be met?
In the face of government surveillance and harassment, relatives of some of those killed have coalesced into a loose grouping known as the Tiananmen Mothers that calls for a formal investigation into the crackdown and justice for the victims. Chinese legal bodies have refused to accept their petitions and their public appeals mostly fall on deaf ears within the country. With most members now elderly and frail, the government seems content to let the movement die out on its own, although others have vowed to continue the struggle.
Q: How have the protests and subsequent crackdown shaped the party’s strategy in leading today’s China?
A: The crackdown largely destroyed faith in communism and ended most attempts at political reform. In response, the leadership promoted raw nationalism and economic growth while improving conditions for students, lifting restrictions on private businesses and allowing some personal freedoms such as foreign travel. The party, however, continues to severely curtail civil liberties, allowing no political opposition, and lawyers, labor activists and nongovernmental groups face onerous restrictions, harassment and the ever-present possibility of arrest.