Every so often we come across an event in the RedState Department of History which staff were alive to see happen the first time around.

One of those events happened thirty years ago this week, and has had a profound impact on the world in which we live today.

Amid all the furor surrounding our current trade war with China, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the people who govern China are not nice. It’s especially easy to forget if you happen to be a member of the mass media.

Thirty years ago this week, hundreds of thousands of students were in active protest all over China with the largest protest taking place in Tiananmen Square.

On this date just thirty years ago, the Chinese government authorized the use of force to remove protesting students from the square, in a showdown between freedom and tyranny which was broadcast  around the world.

The genesis of the 1989 protests came three years earlier, when professor Fang Lihzi returned to China from a time at Princeton University, and began openly discussing freedom and separation of powers with students. This led to widespread protests against the repressive Chinese government, and general secretary Hu Yaobang was blamed for not taking a hard enough line against the protests. He was forced to resign in 1987.

In April 1989, Hu died of a heart attack, and more student uproar ensued. Many students blamed Hu’s death on his forced resignation, and more protests erupted all over the country.

Within days, thousands of student protestors lined the square and soon had presented a list of demands to the government:

  • Affirm Hu Yaobang’s views on democracy and freedom as correct.
  • Admit that the campaigns against spiritual pollution and bourgeois liberalization had been wrong.
  • Publish information on the income of state leaders and their family members.
  • Allow privately run newspapers and stop press censorship.
  • Increase funding for education and raise intellectuals’ pay.
  • End restrictions on demonstrations in Beijing.
  • Provide objective coverage of students in official media.

On April 26 an editorial was printed calling for order. It had the opposite of the intended effect. Before long the protests had swelled in size to hundreds of thousands of students, not only in the square but all across the country.

A month of relative peace ensued after the government backed off from its April 26 position. However, a lack of progress in dialogue with the government led protest leaders to call a hunger strike for May 13, which was two days before a state visit from Soviet dictator Mikhail Gorbachev. By then, more than 300,000 people populated the square.

Gorbachev was kept well away from the protests but momentum continued to grow among the protestors. Deng Xiaoping declared martial law on May 17.

The new General Secretary, Ziao Ziyang, had urged conciliation toward the students. He went to the square on May 19 and gave a speech to the crowd in which he said:

Students, we came too late. We are sorry. You talk about us, criticize us, it is all necessary. The reason that I came here is not to ask you to forgive us. All I want to say is that students are getting very weak, it is the 7th day since you went on hunger strike, you can’t continue like this. […] You are still young, there are still many days yet to come, you must live healthy, and see the day when China accomplishes the four modernizations. You are not like us, we are already old, it doesn’t matter to us any more.  

It was at this time that students from Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts got to work. Over a four-day span, they constructed a 33-foot tall statue from foam and papier-mache over a metal framework. Called “The Goddess of Democracy,” the statue served as a visible symbol of what the students wished to achieve.

Similar in appearance to the Statue of Liberty (though not an exact likeness, which was seen as pro-American), the Goddess drew worldwide attention, though the statue itself would not stand for long.

On June 4, the Chinese military acted in the finest tradition of progressives and leftists the world over, and cleared Tiananmen Square and the surrounding areas by force. Over 200 people were believed to have been killed in the process, and the statue was toppled. The next morning, Associated Press photographer Jeff Widener took a picture of a lone student blocking a group of Chinese tanks in the square. The photo, named “Tank Man“, is one of the most iconic photos of the 20th Century.

And, in its way, the Goddess of Democracy lives on as well. A replica of the statue is the centerpiece of the Victims of Communism Memorial in Washington, D.C. The work of sculptor Thomas Marsh, it is inscribed:

To the more than one hundred million victims of communism and to those who love liberty
To the freedom and independence of all captive nations and peoples

Enjoy today’s open thread!