Thirty years ago, late in the evening on June 3rd, 1989, Chinese troops began opening fire on students and other protesters who for several weeks had occupied Tianenmen Square in central Beijing. The protests had begun following the death in April of Hu Yaobang, a moderate and reformist high-ranking official of the Communist Party. Students gathered in large numbers, staging a hunger strike at one stage. They were demanding democracy, accountability, freedom of the press, and free speech. They were intelligent, educated and civilized, and conducted their protest with some humour and decorum. They erected their own makeshift version of the Statue of Liberty, calling it their "Goddess of Democracy," and pointing out that she needed two hands to hold up her torch in China.
The authorities were divided on how to handle events. Some, like Zhao Ziyang, the Party General Secretary, urged conciliation, but hardliners such as Premier Li Peng wanted the demonstrations to be broken up and suppressed. The tide turned in favour of the hardliners with a People's Daily editorial on April 26th, one that branded the students as anti-party and anti-government. Although intended to scare them into disbanding, in fact it stiffened their determination.
The problem was that China has liberalized its economy under the Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping, abandoning collective farms and allowing private businesses to flourish. But the ruling Communist Party, even though it had effectively abandoned Communism, was not prepared to loosen its grip on power. The student demands would have diluted and threatened that power.
I have seen documents about that time that show that the party elite was nervous of what was happening in Russia. They thought Russia's mistake had been to implement glasnost before perestroika, liberalizing free speech and criticism before economic reforms had taken place. They were determined not to make the same mistake, and risk being swept away by events that undermined their hold on power.
The troops were sent in with tanks, under orders to "use any measures" to suppress the protest. This was taken to justify lethal force, so the soldiers fired directly on the unarmed students as they advanced into the occupied square. The numbers killed are disputed, since the authorities banned all reporting of their action. It was certainly hundreds killed, and some reports suggest that over a thousand died in the massacre. The square was cleared, but next day came the most iconic photo of the event, when a lone protester confronted a line of tanks, barring their advance for half an hour. He climbed up onto the front one and addressed the soldiers. His subsequent fate is unknown.
In the aftermath, rigorous censorship was reasserted, and the Party's monopoly of power was strengthened. The economic reforms continued, however, and people in Chine are free today to do many things, but not to criticize the Party or the government. Since the Party no longer practises Communism, it holds power for its own sake, as a self-perpetuating ruling elite backed by military force. What Deng called "Socialism with Chinese characteristics" is not socialism at all, which is just as well, because even though they are denied freedom of thought, freedom of speech and freedom of religion, they are allowed to prosper, which is more than Communism's captives elsewhere were allowed to do.