Twenty-five years ago Wednesday, a seven-week long pro-democracy movement ended in bloodshed in and around Tiananmen Square, located in Beijing, China, and was kept secret from many citizens. The Chinese Communist Party forbids discussing this incident, and the party has been successful in keeping it from at least some citizens.
In the past several weeks, there have been reports of 50 people being detained as the anniversary approached, many linked to the 1989 protests. International coverage has been blacked out on television screens across China this week as well. Posts mentioning Tiananmen Square on sites like LinkedIn and Facebook have also been censored Wednesday.
The Tiananmen Square massacre is not even taught in schools in China, which helps the government in attempts to keep the event a big secret. Another thing to note is that the date the protests ended, June 4. The number four is suspicious to some Chinese, as the English word sounds like the word “death” in many Chinese dialects.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney released a statement early Wednesday on the 25th anniversary highlighting that the U.S. will always support the “basic freedoms” sought by the protesters. The statement also recognized China’s ascension to the world’s second largest economy while not forgetting to mention America’s dismay following the massacre.
A heavy-armed presence was around Tiananmen Square and roads leading to it. Pedestrians were allowed to enter these areas, but many were subject to waiting for over an hour as they underwent security screening. Foreigners were questioned and closely observed, according to reports. Journalists were especially monitored and even denied access, adding to the Chinese government’s censorship of foreign media on the anniversary.
Pedestrians were also subject to random checks, and all were requested to show identification. Even drinks are seized. As afternoon fell, security personnel outnumbered visitors, one possible indicator of how many Chinese nationals don’t know about 1989. There were some reports of two people distributing flyers in the area being taken away by security after 4 p.m. local time. Others were also told to leave and to come back another day.
In semi-autonomous Hong Kong, over 100,000 people appeared at a vigil for those killed on the night of June 3 and the morning of June 4, 1989. Some sources report that over 180,000 were present. Hong Kongers has been experiencing a decrease in some of their freedoms following the United Kingdom handing the city-state over to mainland China almost 17 years ago.
Those in the know and who were present in Beijing as the massacre approached have been reflecting on the event. James Miles, a BBC reporter and a witness to some of the killings, said that the Chinese government quickly took advantage of the weak reporting done. He added that “few, if any” protesters were killed in the square over the two days. Many were killed in areas around the square, and the exact number of deaths is still unknown to this day.
Many outsiders are unaware that the 1989 protests spread to 400 cities in China, including Shanghai. Molotov cocktails and rocks clashed with bullets as the military advanced on protesters in the square as June 4 approached. The “Tank Man” immortalized in the event’s most iconic photograph remains anonymous to this day.
The protests lasted for over a month and coincided with a visit from Mikhail Gorbachev in May. They began after students and others were fed up with corruption, inflation, nepotism and the death of Hu Yaobang, a popular liberal reformer, in April 1989. Those who first came to Tiananmen Square were there to mourn Hu, and soon protesters who were unhappy with the Communist Party gathered there to let their grievances be known peacefully. Martial law was declared May 20, after the protests spread throughout mainland China.
As China gains momentum behind the U.S.’s economy and attempts to increase its influence in parts of Africa, the Communist Party takes advantage of some citizens’ awareness by keeping secret the Tiananmen Square massacre and other important events in the country’s history. The crushing of a peaceful pro-democracy protest just meters from the Forbidden City shocked millions outside of China’s borders, yet many within are still unaware of the big secret their government is trying to hide from them for years.
By Sibylla Chipaziwa