HomeBad Ass AsiansTiananmen: The People Versus the Party Remembers Tank Man and the Spring...

Tiananmen: The People Versus the Party Remembers Tank Man and the Spring of 1989

By Jana Monji

The PBS documentary, Tiananmen Square: The People versus the Party, explores the spring of 1989 when a student-led movement led to a confrontation that caught the world’s attention. It’s striking to see the archival photographs of some of the student leaders–some who fled and others who suffered imprisonment–beside interviews with them today. The analysis comes from both foreign (US and French) sinologists as well as the participants themselves. Some mysteries remain such as the identify of tank man, but also there are two important points made in passing that one might miss under a Eurocentric or Western-oriented version of history: The student demonstrations weren’t necessarily inspired by US or Western student-led demonstrations and Western nations and the entrenched racism in those nations had some influence.

This wasn’t the first time there are been protests in Tiananmen Square (天安門). The protests came during the 70th anniversary of May Fourth Movement. Sinologist Andrew Nathan notes that it was the “perceived mistreatment by the West” had 3,000 marching through Tiananmen Square during the May Fourth Movement and these “leaders went on to become founders of the Chinese communist party.” Students from 13 different local universities drafted a five point resolution against the granting of Shandong to the Japanese and advocating a protest against it. Gathering at Tiananmen Square, the students spoke out against the Allied betrayal of China and the weakness of government officials in protecting China’s interests. There was a call to boycott Japanese books. These protests were not peaceful; students set fire to the residences of officials they accused of collaborating with the Japanese and beat the people there. Some protestors were also arrested.

The Japanese was a US and UK ally during World War I.  Although the Japanese had been insulted by the failure of an equality clause in the Treaty of Versailles, China, also an ally,  was angered that the treaty gave Shandong, China to Japan (Japan was given all German possessions in the Pacific north of the equator while Australia was granted those south of it with the exception of German Samoa which was given go New Zealand). The Chinese delegation refused to sign the treaty (28 June 1919).

While the May Fourth Movement was successful in pressuring the Chinese delegation not the sign the treaty, it also seems to have laid the foundation for the Communist party. What the documentary doesn’t note is that China and Japan were under the unequal treaties despite being allies and their citizens could not immigrate to the US under anti-Asians exclusion acts (Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 wasn’t rescinded until during World War II in 1943), Canada (Chinese Immigration Act, 1923), and Australia, (Immigration Restriction Act 1901). Post World War II, the US committed to helping Europe rebuild under the Marshall Plan which was enacted in 1948. That allotted $15 billion to 16 European nations, including Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, West Germany and Norway. Aid was also separately provided to Asian nations ($5.9 billion), including China/Taiwan and India.

Turning away from the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek who fled to Taiwan in 1949,  China became a Communist country. Under Mao Zedong, the square as enlarged and Monument to the People’s Heroes ( 人民英雄纪念碑) was erected, completed in 1958. When Mao Zedong died in 1976, his mausoleum was completed in 1977 and located in the middle of Tiananmen Square.

The documentary looks at the surrounding political problems and the social milieu of the 1980s. The 1989 Tiananmen Protests began in mid-April and ended with violence as troops and tanks fired on the protestors on 4 June. For that reason is is known as 8964 or the June 4th incident (六四事件).

The Communist party had promised Four Modernizations but there was a fifth modernization–democracy. The 1989 movement was sparked by the death of an official Communist Party member, Hu Yaobang (20 November 1915-15 April 1989). We get to hear from sinologists like French man Jean-Philippe Béja (1949) and American Perry Link and the British legal scholar Robin Munro (principal China researcher and Director of the Hong Kong office of Human Rights Watch, during  Tiananmen Square protests of 1989).  Members of the 21 most wanted student leaders are also interviewed, including Wang Dan, 50, who, the documentary calls the “principal strategist” as well Shen Tong; Wu’erkaixi, 51, who current resides in Taichung, Taiwan; and the recently deceased Zhang Jian(张健) who passed away in April at age 49.

Some of the protestors make clear that “the protestors, me included, wanted the government to recognize us” and “we never wanted to overthrow, we wanted to reform.” Yet Link notes that the students seems sincere and he suggest naive in their state desire that “we’re only trying to help the party be better.”  He recounts that the Beijing during the protest was oddly peaceful and even joyful.

Wang Dan was one of the 21 and ended up serving time in prison. Other live in permanent exile. Link along with Nathan translated the so-called “The Tiananmen Papers” (國六四真相) in 2001–secret Chinese official documents about the Tiananmen Square protests. The validity of the book has been questioned but both Link and Nathan are banned from China. (Orville Schell is the third translator/editor).

Hu Yaobang’s image suffered although he wasn’t directly responsible for the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. On what would have been his 90th birthday in 2005, Hu was officially rehabilitated.  For some, it is too late. Some demonstrators were executed.  One of the enduring images is the “enigma” of tank man: A man with two grocery bags stood in front of the tanks and made them stop. He’s rumored to have been executed although others say he escaped. His identify has not been verified either way.  One hopes that he was one of the lucky, living on in anonymity or safely in another land. In recent years, Wu’erkaixi has attempted to be arrested, but failed and in doing so, failed to be reunited with his parents.

Tiananmen Square: The People versus the Party reminds us that the protests weren’t only in Beijing but nationwide.  Yet, it seems all memory of the massacre has been erased from the public memory in Mainland China, but, Link believes,  its chilling effect is felt even today.

In a recent interview with CBS News, Wu’erkaixi agreed, saying, “We failed miserably.  Let’s face it, they are exchanging our economic freedom with our political freedom.” Yet the earlier failure was in the US and other Western nations, in the unequal treaties and the failure to consider democracy in action in Versailles after World War I. The racism that was rampant and reflected in immigration legislation was also at the World War I peace talks and even in our history lessons where China and India seem to be the forgotten allies of World War II.

To understand the chill in China toward democracy, one has to understand the significance of 8964 or the June 4th incident (六四事件).  What happened in Tiananmen Square thirty years ago is profoundly important to understanding China and Chinese refugees today. Tiananmen Square: The People versus the Party premiered on PBS on 25 June 2019 and is currently streaming.

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