Deng Xiaoping And Tiananmen Square


After spending so much time on Wealth And Power (the best book on the modern political history of China I’ve ever read), I’m ready to move on, but alack, in looking back over Deng Xiaoping’s tenure as China’s leader, we now arrive at the Tiananmen Square demonstrations of 1989.

Tiananmen Square has an ancient history, beginning with the “Tiananmen” Gate (which basically translates into the gate “of heavenly peace.”).  This was an imposing gate near the site where the Emperor would emerge, from time to time, from the Forbidden City in which he lived.  Not only were the government ministries located near Tiananmen Gate, but the area was where decrees from the central adminstration were handed down.  The locale was also where criminals convicted of capital crimes would receive their sentence.  Additionally, here is where the names would be posted of those who successfully passed the extremely difficult Civil Service Exams which were, for centuries, vitally important for men of ambition to pass.

It was not until about a century ago that Tiananmen became major locale for political demonstrations.  In 1919, in what are known as the May Fourth demonstrations, Chinese gathered at Tiananmen to protest the Versailles Treaty‘s clause allowing Japan to inherit Germany’s “concessions” in China (special lands, prerogatives, privileges obtained during the Imperialist era).

Several decades later, during the rule of Chairman Mao Zedong (who adored mass demonstrations), Tiananmen was given a major facelift, becoming for Mao, declare our authors, “the most central symbol of his new revolutionary Central Kingdom.”   

Students had been being rowdy for a few years leading up to the Tiananmen demonstrations of 1989, with unrest occurring at many campuses across China in late 1986.  The trigger for the Tiananmen protests was the death of Hu Yaobang, who had recently been purged from the Party by Deng Xiaoping for– you might can guess it– being too lenient on dissenters.  Again, we must keep in mind… Deng Xiaoping would entertain many ideas when it came to improving China’s wealth and power, but loosening the grip on the nation of the Communist Party was most definitely NOT on the table.

Demonstrators started gathering at Tiananmen, dropping funeral wreaths at the Monument To The People’s Heroes in April 1989.  By the end of May, they had still not left.  Our authors tell us that mass aid was being funnelled to the demonstrators via Hong Kong.  My own suspicion is that pro-Western individuals and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), and perhaps even Western governments themselves (I’d be surprised if the CIA was not involved), supported demonstrators in this manner.  But that’s my own conjecture.

On 4 June, Deng Xiaoping’s authorized armed forces to clean-up of Tiananmen Square.  According to our authors, “untold hundreds, perhaps thousands, were killed or wounded on that hellish night.”  Besides protestors and other civilians, some soldiers enforcing the crackdown were also killed– how or by whom, our authors do not tell us– probably because no one in the West knows or will ever know the specifics of that night.  One fact I found interesting was that NONE of the deaths actually occurred *in* Tiananmen Square, but in the outlying areas.  I was surprised to read this.  Not meaning to be flip about such a tragedy, but I had always pictured a more centralized massacre.

The highest political casualty of the Tiananmen demonstrations (not counting Deng Xiaoping’s own plunge in popularity) was Zhao Ziyang, a man near the apex of the Chinese government.  He made the mistake (at least careerwise, though arguably not as a human being) of aligning himself with the demonstrators, who were largely students.  The day after Zhao Ziyang put in an appearance at Tiananmen to show his sympathy with the demonstrators, Deng Xiaoping removed from power, and he was promptly locked in his Bejing home.  Never receiving a trial or any other form of punishment, Zhao Ziyang was forced to remain there for the rest of his life.  Thus, write our authors, “Zhao spent the last sixteen years of his life under de facto house arrest.”

 After the Tiananmen demonstrations of 1989, Deng Xiaoping instituted a new patriotic educational campaign— lasting from kindergarten to college– in an effort, in our authors’ words, to “inculcate the next generation of potentially insubordinate students against the heresies of ‘wholesale Westernization’. ”  Also, the new education stressed national pride and China’s “century of humiliation” under Western Imperialists.


Other HAMMERING SHIELD posts on the politics of modern China…

Third Generation Rulers & Recent Dissidents In China

Deng Xiaoping’s Counter-Capitalist Revolution In China 

Permanent Revolution: The Rise And The Ruthlessness Of Chairman Mao

China Under Chiang Kai-Shek

China Goes Red: The Forgotten Chen Duxiu And The Founding Of China’s Communist Party

China’s May Fourth Incident (and another reason why the Treaty Of Versailles sucked)

Liang Qichao, Yan fu, and China’s Post WWI Disenchantment With The West 

The Transition Of China From Dynasty Rule To Republic, 1912

China Stumbles:  Opium Wars and the Tiaping And Boxer Rebellions

China In The 19th And 20th Centuries:  The Time Of Writhing

China Today:  Post-Confucian, Post-Maoist, and Post-Communist 




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