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June 3-4, 1989: Carnage in Tiananmen Square

After crackdown, change comes slowly to China

By Greg Botelho

Despite the massive Chinese military presence in Beijing, one protester remained defiant.
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From the murder of Robert Kennedy to the verdict on Timothy McVeigh, CNN looks back on the week of May 30 to June 5.
Civil Unrest
Zhao Ziyang
Deng Xiaoping

(CNN) -- One man, alone and unarmed, boldly shuffles to confront a column of tanks, climbs atop one, then berates its occupants. For many, this image defined the tumultuous 1989 clash between Chinese armed forces and anti-government protesters.

Yet this scene, broadcast to millions worldwide, ran counter to what transpired in Beijing that bloody week. Whereas that still unidentified man walked away unscathed, hundreds of fellow demonstrators did not, killed as troops tore through the city. Ultimately, the military showed little restraint, and protesters could claim few victories.

When the massive Tiananmen Square rally ended, so did many Chinese hopes for immediate, drastic political reform. Much like after similar student-led protests in 1919, 1976 and 1986, quiet quickly displaced pro-democracy chants, industriousness took the place of rebellion in the capital and throughout the country.

"They had come close to the edge of chaos and looked over, and they didn't like what they saw," UCLA Professor Richard Baum said of the millions of Chinese, including many of his friends, who had backed the students. "Now they were saying that China needs time to heal its wounds, that we'll have gradual change instead."

But outside China, the reverberations were far more pronounced. Unlike at the earlier, large-scale protests, the global media -- having flocked to Beijing to cover Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's summit with China's Deng Xiaoping -- witnessed the huge demonstrations and stern crackdown.

"The students in the square rained on Deng's parade," noted Baum, calling the incident a "public relations disaster" for China's leadership. "The world press turned their cameras on the more interesting show... Internationally, China suffered a huge amount of damage."

Leaders worldwide swiftly and strongly condemned China's leadership. Many subsequent sanctions, including U.S. and EU bans of arms and certain technical sales, remain in place to this day, as China plays an increasingly vital role in the global economy.

"China was viewed as a pariah state -- it was catastrophic," said University of Pennsylvania Professor Avery Goldstein. "It catalyzed the redefinition of the American view of China" from being a useful ally to being a close-minded, authoritarian nation without respect for human rights.

A Communist exception

Most everywhere else, state communism -- like one of its preeminent symbols, the Berlin Wall -- crumbled in the late 1980s.

Huge demonstrations
The ruling Communist regime acted militantly after the number of activists topped 1 million.

In 1988, Gorbachev announced massive military cuts and pulled forces from Afghanistan, while Soviet citizens voted in legislative members three years ahead of the regime's fall.

The next year, the Solidarity movement swept out the ruling Communist party in Poland, long-time dissident Vaclav Havel became Czechoslovakia's first freely elected leader, and Romania's army joined its citizenry to evict then execute strongman Nicolae Ceaucescu.

The wave seemed set to hit China, the world's most populous Communist state, in spring 1989.

A once modest demonstration marking the death of Hu Yaobang, a party leader ousted two years earlier for being soft on student protesters, had swelled in two months. Not only had Chinese leaders refused to listen to the 1989 protesters' demands, but Deng blasted them as unpatriotic -- actions that fueled popular discontent.

"The government [claimed] this was turning into massive civil unrest," said Goldstein. "In fact, that was not the case. There was some turmoil, but these were peaceful demonstrations."

By early June, hundreds of thousands had gathered in Tiananmen Square urging not just anti-corruption measures, but democracy and an end to Communist rule. Demonstrations took place throughout China, particularly fervent in major northern and eastern cities.

"In every city, the majority of the citizens supported the students and what they were doing," said Baum, who spent much of May 1989 in China and observed huge rallies in Shanghai and Nanjing.

"They shared the grievance that the government wasn't paying attention to ordinary people, that it was time to respond to the negative byproducts of economic reform. They considered the government to be arrogant, haughty and unresponsive."

In early June, government leaders toughened their stance, ordering soldiers to break up the demonstrations in Beijing. Troops began rolling through the streets late June 3, firing on dissenters. The following morning, protesters ceded to regime demands and departed Tiananmen Square.

Although exact fatality figures are unknown, estimates range from 300 to several thousand dead. The government, to date, has resisted calls for an open inquiry into that week's events, including a full account of victims.

"There was a sense of disbelief after June 4," recalled Baum. "People in China, even liberal intellectuals, were sobered by the crackdown and its ferocity."

New age

Victory tent
The demonstrations built up gradually, spreading their message to an international audience.

Twentieth century China has seen many examples of the state's heavy-handed approach to dissent, particularly under the rule of Communist leader and icon Mao Zedong.

But after the bloody Cultural Revolution and Mao's 1976 death, China inched toward a "more open, more pluralistic, more tolerant society" in the 1980s, said Baum.

Chinese authorities initially pushed economic and political reforms simultaneously, before deciding to accelerate the former while stunting the latter -- learning from what happened in Poland, where the ruling Communists cession on small issues to Solidarity leaders had opened the floodgates for regime change.

After Tiananmen, China's leadership continued to resist major political reforms in favor of promoting financial development -- ironically, making many 1989 demonstrators wealthy in the process.

"They wonder if the authoritarian order may have facilitated economic growth," Goldstein said, referring to the mixed feelings many student protesters and their supporters now feel. "They realize that political stability made it easier to carry out reforms and attract foreign investment."

Still, Goldstein said the poor health of Zhao Ziyang -- the former Communist party secretary exiled for his conciliatory views in 1989 -- may now worry Chinese leaders, fearful the large demonstrations might erupt should he die.

"If they're helping defray his medical expenses, they're making sure he lives well past June," said Goldstein.

But he adds that a repeat of the 1989 Tiananmen Square events -- both in terms of matching the number of demonstrators, or the prospect of a heavy-handed response from the Chinese government -- is unlikely, given the strength of China's economy.

Economic globalization has opened the country up to new information, new ideas and new personal and national aspirations. Today, there are 280 million cell phones, 120,000 lawyers, 42 million satellite dishes, 60 percent home ownership and an "enormous middle class" in China, according to Baum.

While a total political overhaul -- such as open national elections, an end to one-party rule or a full accounting of what happened in 1989 -- may be decades away, Baum said Chinese "are freer now than ever before."

"Leaders at the top may still cling to power but, in the meantime, bubbling up is a healthy, vibrant society," he said.

"For the first time, I hear more and more Chinese say in open forums that they understand China will [become] more open," seconded Goldstein. "They recognize that eventually tight control will no longer be viable, but they want an orderly process."

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