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Dissent in Tian’anmen Square


Blood debts must be repaid in kind – the longer the delay, the greater the interest.
– Lu Xun, writing after the massacre of 1926.

Chinese history is about to turn a new page. Tian’anmen Square is ours, the people’s, and we will not allow butchers to tread on it.
– Wuer Kaixi, student, May 1989.

It may have been designed as a space for mass declarations of loyalty, but in the twentieth century Tian’anmen Square was as often a venue for expressions of popular dissent; against foreign oppression at the beginning of the century, and, more recently, against its domestic form. The first mass protests occurred here on May 4, 1919, when three thousand students gathered in the square to protest at the disastrous terms of the Versailles Treaty, in which the victorious allies granted several former German concessions in China to the Japanese. The Chinese, who had sent more than a hundred thousand labourers to work in the supply lines of the British and French forces, were outraged. The protests of May 4, and the movement they spawned, marked the beginning of the painful struggle of Chinese modernization. In the turbulent years of the 1920s, the inhabitants of Beijing again occupied the square, first in 1925, to protest over the massacre in Shanghai of Chinese demonstrators by British troops, then in 1926, when the public protested after the weak government’s capitulation to the Japanese. Demonstrators marched on the government offices and were fired on by soldiers.

In 1976, after the death of popular premier Zhou Enlai, thousands of mourners assembled in Tian’anmen without government approval to voice their dissatisfaction with their leaders, and again in 1978 and 1979 groups assembled here to discuss new ideas of democracy and artistic freedom, triggered by writings posted along Democracy Wall on the edge of the Forbidden City. In 1986 and 1987, people gathered again to show solidarity for the students and others protesting at the Party’s refusal to allow elections.

But it was in 1989 that Tian’anmen Square became the venue for a massive expression of popular dissent, when, from April to June, nearly a million protesters demonstrated against the slowness of reform, lack of freedom and widespread corruption. The government, infuriated at being humiliated by their own people, declared martial law on May 20, and on June 4 the military moved in. The killing was indiscriminate; tanks ran over tents and machine guns strafed the avenues. No one knows how many died in the massacre – certainly thousands. Hundreds were arrested afterwards and many are still in jail. The event remains a taboo topic; look out for droves of undercover police on the massacre’s anniversary.

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