In China, there are three taboo topics that are commonly referred to as the “Three T’s Of China”, Tiananmen Square, Taiwan, and Tibet. Due to the controversial and divisive nature of these topics, censorship and general social pressure thanks to the Chinese Communist Party, these topics are rarely discussed in public discourse let alone common conversation. In this series we’ll look at the “Three T’s” from a perspective of how they came to impact liberty.
Tiananmen Square, a landmark in China, is home to where the 1989 protests took place which also became the flash point for a larger shift in perspective regarding how the world perceived China and the Communist government. The “1989 Tiananmen Square Protests”, or as the Chinese called it, the “June Fourth Incident”, was an event started by college students where they organized protests leading up to June 4th, 1989, following a series of reforms and policies implemented by the Chinese government in the post-Mao Zedong era policies. With the rapid changes taking place in China’s economy, the students’ protests were a reflection of the concerns and societal anxiety for the future of China. The protests culminated into the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, where students demanded a more democratic China, including moves to push for greater accountability, freedom of the press, and freedom of speech. At the peak of the protests, the square was filled with over a million protestors with millions more across the nation in 80 Chinese cities protesting as well.
As is usual in protest suppression, the Chinese officials initially sent in officers to clear the square of protestors in an effort to suppress the growing numbers. When this didn’t work, stronger measures were implemented with the spraying of water hoses to knock down protestors. This caused a layer of ice to form on the square ground which caused protestors and officers to fall down quite frequently during the struggle. When the water hoses proved to be ineffective, the People’s Liberation Army (China’s Army) was ordered to march into the square with tanks to disperse the crowd and to use force if necessary. This lead to the infamous “Tank Man” photo, taken of a man standing in front of the army tanks during their march into the square.
The protests escalated to the point where lethal force was used by the People’s Liberation Army and protestors were killed in the square. With protestors blocking the movements of the tanks and troops moving into the square, the Chinese government resorted to clearing our protestors by whatever means necessary. The official civilian death toll has been disputed between a couple hundred to upwards of 10,000 among reporters, diplomats, witnesses, and the Chinese government.
This was a huge event watched by the world and was really one of the first major displays of an authoritarian regime suppressing its citizens on a large scale. Most, if not all, the western world denounced the protests, while Asian countries remained silent during the protests in order to avoid diplomatic problems with China. Authoritarian countries like Cuba, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and other similar nations denounced the protests while supporting the Chinese government’s actions.
This incident brought to light the power of a tyrannical government acting in its own “interests” to “preserve stability.” It exposed China’s rampant authoritarianism to the world on a scale they couldn’t suppress outside their borders. Within the border, however, massive moves to censor the event at Tiananmen Square were moving quickly and harshly. Within a year of the protests, on June 4th, 1989, 12% of all newspapers, 8% of publishers, 13% of social science periodicals, and 150 films were banned or shut down as projects. The government also confiscated 32 million books and 2.4 million video and audio cassettes. Today, any mention of the protests in media or on the internet is censored or blocked from access for those in China.
It is important to see Tiananmen as a reminder of the slippery slope of rampant statism; that the state can and will do whatever it takes to secure its interests at the expense of the people’s freedoms and even their lives. While Tiananmen has been censored and treated as taboo in Chinese society, it rings loudly in China’s recent past, which could either (hopefully) lead them down an unlikely path to liberty, or the more likely path, to stronger and stronger measures to keep the populace suppressed and controlled.
Read more from Amos Joseph at Think Liberty here.