How the U.S. Responded to China’s Massacre at Tiananmen Square 30 Years Ago On This Date
How do you feel about America's response to China's massacre of Tiananmen Square protesters?
by Causes | 6.4.19
In the spring of 1989, pro-democracy protesters in China held demonstrations in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to call on the Communist Party to reform and give the Chinese people political freedom. On June 4, the Chinese government launched a violent crackdown to end the protests that shocked the world.
The protests were set off by the death of Hu Yaobang, a former Communist Party leader who pursued market-oriented economic reforms to the benefit of China’s economy but was forced out by Party elders who blamed him for a wave of protests in 1987. On April 21, a day before Yaobang’s funeral, 100,000 students marched on Tiananmen Square calling for freedom of the speech, freedom of the press, and greater government accountability.
The demonstrations resonated with the Chinese public ― at their peak more than 1 million people were in the Square and protests spread to cities around China. They also exposed divisions within the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership, with hardliners who viewed the protests as a “counter-revolutionary” threat that had to be extinguished clashing with reform-minded members sought additional dialogue.
Following a political purge that put the balance of power in the Politburo in favor of the hardliners, the Chinese government declared martial law in late May and mobilized as many as 250,000 troops to Beijing. Early on the morning of June 4, 1989, People’s Liberation Army pushed through Beijing to the Square, using tanks and machine guns to drive out the protesters and those who got in the PLA’s way. The exact number of people killed in the crackdown is unknown because of the Chinese government’s censorship, but the death toll has been estimated between several hundred to 1,000.
How did the U.S. respond?
On the morning of June 5th, President George H.W. Bush held a press conference condemning the Chinese government for “brutally suppressing popular and peaceful demonstrations in China,” and praising the Tiananmen protesters:
“The demonstrators in Tiananmen Square were advocating basic human rights, including the freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of association. These are goals we support arround the world. These are freedoms that are enshrined in both the U.S. Constitution and the Chinese Constitution. Throughout the world we stand with those who seek greater freedom and democracy. This is the strongly felt view of my administration, of our Congress, and most important, the American people.”
In the press conference, Bush announced that all arms sales to the People’s Liberation Army would stop along with all visits from Chinese military officials. He also announced that Chinese students in the U.S. would receive sympathetic reviews of requests to stay in America, and offered humanitarian and medical assistance through the Red Cross.
Bush also alluded to the example of the "Tank Man" as an example of how "the forces of democracy are going to overcome these unfortunate events in Tiananmen Square." The Tank Man was an unknown protester who stood alone against a column of PLA tanks leaving the Square on June 5th, an act of defiance that became the enduring symbol of the protests:
The Bush administration and Congress would later impose some trade-related sanctions on China, despite the president’s reluctance to take actions that would hurt the Chinese people economically.
What has happened since?
The pro-democracy movement in China has largely been stifled since the crackdown at Tiananmen Square in 1989, and the event itself is one of the most censored in China. The Communist Party prohibits the event’s discussion in media reporting and educational materials, internet searches for the topic are blocked, and security forces are mobilized annually on June 4 to prevent public remembrances.
To mark the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on China to end its persecution of human rights activists and Uighur Muslims, in addition to making a full accounting of what transpired on June 4, 1989:
“We urge the Chinese government to make a full, public accounting of those killed or missing to give comfort to the many victims of this dark chapter of history. Such a step would begin to demonstrate the Communist Party’s willingness to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms. We call on China to release all those held for seeking to exercise these rights and freedoms, halt the use of arbitrary detention, and reverse counterproductive policies that conflate terrorism with religious and political expression.”
The Chinese Embassy in Washington D.C. called Pompeo's comments "an affront to the Chinese people and a serious violation of international law and basic norms governing international relations." The Chinese Embassy spokesperson added:
"The Chinese government and people reached the verdict on the political incident of the late 1980s long ago. Over the past four decades of reform and opening-up, China has enjoyed rapid economic and social development, continuous progress in democracy and the rule of law, flourishing culture and significantly improved standards of living. China's human rights are in the best period ever. Socialism with Chinese characteristics, a choice of history and the people, has been proved a right path in line with China's national conditions and supported by the whole population. China is firmly committed to the path of peaceful development and to the development of human rights in China and the whole world, and has made significant contribution to the international human rights governance. This is a fact that is recognized by all unbiased people."
This post has been updated to include the Chinese Embassy's response to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's comments.
— Eric Revell
(Photo Credit: capelle79 via Flickr / Creative Commons)
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