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Tiananmen Square

By Peter Coates - posted Thursday, 4 June 2009

Twenty years ago today, June 4, 1989, about 3,000 students were killed by bullets, bayonets and tank treads at Tiananmen Square, the main square of Beijing. Today our politicians will make speeches, maybe shed a tear, but China is our main trade customer so other issues, perhaps swine flu, may well be pushed in the media by the government to distract us. There will be much repetition today over what happened at Tiananmen (Tiananmen Square protests of 1989). This article seeks to provide just a bare bones account, but also make some observations and ask a few questions.

By June 4, after seven weeks of protest, the crimes of the students were many including, idealism; hope that the economic change already occurring would bring political change; and the sheer gall of them occupying Tiananmen Square which is right next to the Great Hall of the People. The Communist Party leaders felt embarrassed and humiliated.

A fact often buried by the Beijing-centric media coverage was that Beijing was not the only city of protest. There were 400 cities involved including Shanghai and as far away as Inner Mongolia. Not only students but workers also protested for independent trade unions and the right to strike - all denied by force in the workers’ paradise.


1989 was not the only tragic year in Tiananmen Square’s history. The square had been used as a camping ground by invading western armies in 1860 and 1900. These western armies killed many more than the 3,000 killed in and around the square in 1989.

A huge portrait of Mao hung over the square before 1989 and is still there now. He is still seen officially as near infallible but his decisions led to the death of millions in the Great Leap Forward, 1958-61, and the Cultural Revoultion 1966-76. These are not memorable events for us because the press was not there and the cameras were not rolling to capture the mass killings and starvation. The Party has not released verifiable records and is not likely to. The death of a “mere” 3,000 is more memorable due to high quality camera footage taken in 1989. How unjust is that? Which crimes were worse if the trial can only be by media?

A major factor in sustaining the student protest and the spur to fully occupy Tiananmen on May 13, 1989, was the anticipated visit to Beijing two days later of the reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. He attracted more journalists into Beijing. The students rightly assessed that no violent crackdown could occur before or duing his visit as the Party would lose face in the eyes of the leader of the founding and most powerful Communist country. Perhaps without this visit the protests would have lost their momentum and no bloodbath would have occurred. We’ll never know.

Once Gorbachev departed China the Party leadership, after significant squabbling, ordered the troops in. But these were local troops with family or at least ethnic connections to the protesters. They were horrified at the mass violence they would have to commit and equally horrified by the reaction from the crowds who did not run away but fought them, and burnt some of these troops to death. These first divisions, including many of their commanders, took the truly democratic course of not mutinying but stopping, camping and basically going on strike while chatting with the crowds, their countrymen.

The hardliners in the party leadership sought to breakup this peaceful impasse by sending in less friendly troops. Thousands of Mongolian troops were deployed who had little in common with the educated Beijing students (almost all Han Chinese like the troops on strike). The largely Mongolian troops were let loose in the square on June 4 in the worst totalitarian tradition.

Twenty years down the track, where does that leave us? What can we learn, if anything? Did media greed build a story, stoke student passion and raise student hopes that the whole world was watching? Or was it the other way around with canny students manufacturing a media event knowing that press numbers in Beijing would be unusually high for the visit of Gorbachev? Perhaps no manufacturing went on - things happen, sometimes tragically, due to evil men.


Today our politicians will make speeches, Prime Minisiter Kevin Rudd chief among them. He is sure to shed a tear like Bob Hawke did at the time, but, only a brief one. China, after all, is our main trade customer, our regional future. We can remember one of the past sins today of the Communist Party that still rules, but, we cannot offend it next week.

What is the difference between China in 1989 and China now? China in 1989 was not our main trading nation. For Australia, China has had some ideological influence in some sections of the Labor Party. It may be only recently that China has become rich enough to provide full junket aid to our politicians. China is now a major financier, through Treasury bonds to the US, and a major investor in Australia. While 1989 was a media disaster for China, it now probably has an influence over the world’s major media empires (including Google and Murdoch) second only to the US.

All this means that condemnation of the Chinese Communist Party will be short lived if not mute: this is in spite of the fact the Communist Party which unleashed the tanks rules politically unchanged and unchallenged.

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About the Author

Peter Coates has been writing articles on military, security and international relations issues since 2006. In 2014 he completed a Master’s Degree in International Relations, with a high distinction average. His website is Submarine Matters.

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