Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Tiananmen Square (4 June 1989)

A large public plaza in Beijing, capital of the People's Republic of China (PRC), Tiananmen Square, literally meaning "Gate of Heavenly Peace," has been the site of student movements since the 1919 May Fourth Movement. The Tiananmen Square protests of 15 April–4 June 1989 were of the utmost importance in both their domestic and international contexts. The protests began on 15 April when Beijing's students gathered in the square, mourning the death of Hu Yaobang, former secretary-general of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) during 1980–1987. That Hu was ousted from office in January 1987 because of his sympathetic stance toward the prodemocracy student movement of 1986 helped transform mourning activities into a series of nationwide student demonstrations. Students renewed their calls for immediate democratization and demanded direct dialogues with senior leaders. The movement employed mass sit-ins, boycotts of classes, public forums, bicycle demonstrations, and hunger strikes.

On 4 May 1989, organized prodemocracy demonstrations occurred in fifty-one Chinese cities. Other sectors also expressed their discontent with the CCP. Coincident with the visit of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in mid-May, the protests received global media coverage.

The worldwide attention and escalation of the student movement irritated PRC leaders. The handling of students' demands renewed the factional struggles between the liberal reformers and the conservatives, whose origins dated to 1979, when the paramount leader Deng Xiaoping introduced a market economy and open-door policy to modernize China. This time, the struggle was personalized by the liberal reformist CCP Secretary-General Zhao Ziyang and the conservative hard-liner Premier Li Peng. Zhao preferred a conciliatory stance, arguing that the protest was of a patriotic nature and that political reform should be accelerated to facilitate economic modernization. Li, by contrast, insisted on clear-cut coercive measures to disperse the demonstrators and restore stability.

Although away from the front line since the early 1980s, Deng remained highly influential as the chairman of the Central Military Commission. Fearing that his economic program would be jeopardized, he supported Zhao's soft-line, accommodating posture. The government's dialogues with students, however, proved fruitless. With no sign that the protests would soon end, Deng's patience was exhausted, and he decided to adopt Li's hard-line approach.

On 20 May 1989, Li declared martial law in Beijing, ordering the People's Liberation Army (PLA) to clear Tiananmen Square on the condition that no bloodshed occur. Owing to the students' blockade, the army stopped on the outskirts of Beijing city, resulting in a stalemate for the rest of the month. Meanwhile, the government was preoccupied with two issues: preparing a change in leadership to end the factional struggles and regaining Tiananmen Square to end the protests. On 28 May, Zhao was placed under house arrest and was replaced by Jiang Zemin, the party secretary of the Shanghai Municipal Committee, whose decisive action in closing down a newspaper for reporting the Tiananmen Square protests drew the conservatives' attention.

After consulting retired elder statesmen such as Li Xiannian, Bo Yibo, and PRC President Yang Shangkun, Deng finally agreed on more forceful means to end the standoff, implying the clearance of the square at all costs. On 2 June, Yang ordered a military crackdown on the student demonstrators and the clearance of Tiananmen Square on the grounds that an alleged counterrevolutionary riot was fermenting and that continued instability would retard economic reform. On 4 June at midnight, the PLA marched into the square, and by dawn it had fulfilled its orders, thereby ending the seven-week-long protests. Because of a press blackout, the estimated deaths and injuries on that night vary from 240 to 10,000.

To prevent a recurrence, on 9 June the government ordered the arrest of all student leaders and activists. Some leaders, such as Wang Dan, were arrested and sentenced to long prison terms, while others such as Chai Ling and Wuer Kaixi fled abroad. On 10 June, the PRC claimed that a total of 468 "troublemakers" had been arrested and that calm had been restored in Beijing.

The PRC's use of the PLA to suppress the student demonstrations stunned the world. Some contemporaries labeled the incident the Tiananmen Massacre. Foreign condemnations, including those from the Soviet bloc, flooded in, followed by a number of punitive sanctions, including the suspension of arms sale to China, the linking of human rights issues to the PRC's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO), and economic embargoes. From a broader perspective, the legacy of the Tiananmen Square protests was twofold. In the PRC, the protests enabled the conservatives to gain the upper hand. In November 1989, Deng relinquished his remaining post to Jiang, passing the ruling power to the third generation, and his economic modernization was slowed down. In the Cold War context, there is a consensus that the Tiananmen Square protests in some ways inspired the liberation of Eastern Europe from Soviet control, precipitating the Cold War's end.

Law Yuk-fun


Further Reading
Evans, Richard. Deng Xiaoping and the Making of Modern China. Rev. ed. London: Penguin, 1997.; Nathan, Andrew J., and Perry Link, eds. The Tiananmen Papers: The Chinese Leadership's Decision to Use Force against Their Own People—In Their Own Words. New York: Public Affairs Press, 2001.
 

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