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June 04, 2019 Tuesday 01:34:54 PM IST


Expert Counsel

The second half of the ninth decade of the twentieth century was a period of great churning in the countries where Communist Party was in power. The weakening of power of Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) due to the long-drawn involvement in Afghanistan, along with the policy of opening up of economy initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev, led to the unravelling of Communist governments in east Europe. People’s Republic of China, who had embarked on a policy of economic reforms from the late 1970’s onwards, faced a huge crisis in the months of May and June, 1989, on account of an uprising led by students. Tiananmen Square protests, as this incident has come to be known, caught the leadership of Communist Party in Beijing on the wrong foot by challenging its supremacy and hegemony. At this juncture, when 30 years have passed by since this painful episode in the history of People’s Republic, a study into its causes as well as the consequences is warranted, both to understand its significance and to analyse the impact it had on the Chinese society.

 At the time of demise of Mao Zedong, the undisputed leader of Chinese Communist Party, the country was on an abyss of a nearing disaster on account of the chaos and economic stagnation created by the ‘Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution’ that commenced in 1966. Deng Xiaoping, who took charge of the affairs of the party and nation in 1978, set about undoing the damage caused during the previous decade by ushering in economic growth. Deng was assisted in his endeavours by Hu Yaobang, who took over as Secretary of Communist Party and the newly appointed Premier Zhao Zhiyang.

 Private participation

To meet the objective of attaining faster economic growth, Communist Party of China allowed, for the first time ever, private participation in production, both in agriculture as well as in industry, with permission to earn and retain profits. The immediate results surpassed even the wildest expectations of the leadership as economy grew at double digit rate, with sectors that had hitherto remained dormant also taking part in the process enthusiastically. However, the rapid economic growth, without any concomitant changes in social and political milieu, brought about a few problems as well. The most important amongst them was that the institutions of the State, and the bureaucrats who controlled them, were pitchforked into positions of power and influence from where they were able to distribute benefits of this growth. This led to widespread allegations of corruption and favouritism as bounties offered by the changes came to be concentrated in a few hands.

 The opening up of the economy also led to a move towards market-based pricing system, which, besides being inflationary, affected the State-owned enterprises that had grown by operating in a closed environment without any challenge. This led to downsizing of these establishments with resultant loss of jobs. With the private companies in the fray employing minimum numbers and offering lower emoluments, the job markets for those who came out of the universities did not appear rosy, despite the economic growth. Fang Lizhi, a professor in Astrophysics, who returned to China after a stint in Princeton University in USA, propagated new ideas of political reform, including freedom of press, which found wide acceptance amongst the students. All this led to a series of demonstrations by the students in the major cities of Beijing and Shanghai as well as in other parts of the country in December 1986. 


Communist leadership was alarmed by these developments and struck back strongly. Hu Yaobang, who was considered to be soft in dealing with the students, was forced to resign as General Secretary of the Communist Party and his place was taken by Zhao Zhiyang. The Party also initiated a ‘Anti Bourgeois Liberalisation Campaign’ which led to suppression of the student movement. However, the embers of the protests did not die down completely as could be understood from the incidents that broke out three years later when Hu Yaobang died in April 1989.

 Hu’s death brought forth outpouring of grief on a scale that took the authorities by surprise. Posters appeared in university campuses all over the country and students took out marches in bigger cities to condole the demise of the popular leader. In Beijing, these marches invariably ended at Tiananmen Square, where, on April 17, a group of students staged a sit-in that the authorities could not disperse. The number of students staging the sit-in started increasing as their compatriots from various parts of the country started joining them. This emboldened the students to prepare a list of seven demands for presenting to government, which included affirmation of views of Hu Yaobang, lifting of press censorship, publishing income of leaders of Communist Party, etc. Students further announced the formation of an independent organisation named Beijing Students Autonomous Federation.

 Widening conflict

As the students came out into the streets all over the country and workers joined them in a show of unity, the Communist Party leadership was caught in a bind. One section led by secretary Zhao Ziyang favoured talks with the protesting students while Premier Li Peng and his supporters sought firm action. As the leadership dithered, the protestors seized the initiative and started a hunger strike three days before the commencement of a much publicised visit by Gorbachev. The government tried negotiating with the students, appealing to their sense of patriotism, so that the visit could proceed without any embarrassment. However, students unwisely decided to up the ante and the visit was held in the backdrop of the protests, leaving the leaders in Beijing red faced.

These developments alarmed Deng Xiaoping who decided that the situation warranted tough handling and the standing committee of Politburo decided to impose martial law, which came into effect from May 20. Thirty Divisions of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) were mobilised from across the country. However, protestors blocked the entry of tanks and armoured vehicles to Beijing forcing them to turn back to their bases outside the city. This was hailed as a big victory for the students and western media predicted that the tide had turned against the government.

 Divergent views

This was followed by a lull, during which the differences of opinion amongst the protestors came into the open. Many of the striking students left Tiananmen Square as they felt that the movement did not have any specific objective. Various factions also arose within, all of them accusing each other of colluding with the government. It was at this juncture when it was apparent that the movement was losing steam that the government struck again.

 Government warned residents in Beijing to stay indoors as armed forces moved in full strength towards the city from June 3. Attempts to stop the convoys by putting up obstacles and blocks failed as the tanks opened fire killing those who stood in their way. Pitched battles took place in many parts of the city between the troops and ordinary people supporting the students. Finally, in one concerted action on the night of June 3-4, the army cleared Tiananmen Square by removing striking students through use of force. Similar actions, albeit on a smaller scale, were conducted in other parts of the country as well so that all protestors were rounded up and the movement crushed completely.

 Enormous loss

Official figures given by the government cited 300 casualties in the operation along with 7000 wounded, though unofficial estimates pegged them much higher. The government resorted to mass arrests and summary trials to punish those in the vanguard of the movement. Some of the student leaders who escaped action by going abroad were not allowed to return to China. The power of the party over the government and life of people increased in the immediate years after 1989 as more restrictions were placed to prevent a recurrence. In the longer run, Communist Party decided to take a more liberal attitude towards religion, while downplaying the significance of Communist tenets and promoting a cult of nationalism.

 USA and other western democracies decried action against the protestors while most of the Asian nations chose to stay silent. International agencies stopped economic aid and lowered China’s credit rating while tourist arrivals plummeted. China, on their part, sought to woo back the international community by adopting a more co-operative and collegial approach in talks and joining more multilateral organisations through the 1990’s. It was only by the turn of the century that they were able to fully recover from the aftermath of this incident.

Tiananmen Square incident of June 1989 will retain its place in history as the first spontaneous movement of its kind within People’s Republic of China. Though the students’ movement was crushed brutally, it could not be termed as a complete failure as it prompted the leadership to have a rethink on the pace and progress of reforms. The lessons learnt by the Chinese leadership from this episode have, besides addressing the factors that led to the protests, helped them to frame policies that have taken the country forward during the last three decades. 

Dr. K N Raghavan

The writer is Chairman and Executive Director Of Rubber Board. 
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