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We Must Remember the Tiananmen Square Massacre


Credit: Jacques Langevin/Sygma/Getty Images

June 4th, 2021 marks the 32nd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre – and the first year since the 1989 massacre where no formal commemoration event will be held as per government-sponsored censorship rules. Following a tumultuous year of pandemic restrictions, civil and political unrest, and government censorship, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has deemed vigils to commemorate the deaths of up to several thousand peaceful protesters an “unauthorized political act.” Some of the most notable vigils in Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan were restricted and, in Hong Kong, the national security law was invoked warning people to stay away.


While censorship of sensitive words, photos, numbers, and symbols that reference the massacre has always been the case in the PRC, the government suppression of voices has recently expanded into Hong Kong. Since 1990, Hong Kong has held two vigils every year to remember the bloodshed of peaceful protests at Tiananmen. The past two years, however, have seen increased government suppression: those taking part or promoting vigils could face more than 5 years in jail, activists have been silenced through enforced “holidays,” online events have been shut down, and tighter security has been applied to the Beijing square.


To understand the significance of seeking accountability for the Tiananmen Massacre, it is important to address the events that led up to the massacre. While China’s rapid economic success after the end of the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s death in 1976 introduced foreign ideas of western democracy and liberalism, it also provided opportunities for corruption within the government. In the 1980s, then Secretary-General Hu Yaobang implemented many reforms that overturned several Mao-era policies. He opened up the country to new ideas including those of free-market capitalism and was sympathetic to student’s demands for democratic reform. However, the government's lack of transparency and suppression of the press, in addition to rising inflation, cultivated dissatisfaction among youths, causing widespread and small-scale pro-democratic protests to erupt as early as 1986. This eventually led to Hu’s forced resignation as many other party leaders blamed him for encouraging social instability due to his ‘liberal’ views.


In April 1989, Hu Yaobang's death sparked a large-scale pro-democracy movement with calls for better education, freedom of the press, and the right to protest. Tens of thousands of students arrived at Tiananmen Square on the day of his funeral. In the following weeks, the number of protestors grew to be more than 300,000, many of which were university students that came from different cities. Some began hunger strikes as a means of gaining worldwide attention and sympathy to pressure the Chinese government into meeting their demands. The protests divided the Chinese Communist Party internally into those who wanted to reach a consensus with the students and those who wanted to enact martial law to disperse them.

On May 20, martial law was declared and the military was mobilized into the square. On June 1, Premier Li Peng issued a report justifying the strong military action against the students, claiming that American forces were involved in the student movement and attempting to overthrow the Communist Party. On the night of June 3rd, the military opened fire on the protestors. The violence lasted well into the next day, as troops used tear gas and machine guns to try and disperse the protest.


Tanks in Beijing on June 5, 1989, the day after the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Credit: Jeff Widener/AP