With the death of Hu Yaobang on April 15, 1989, the People’s Republic of China was sent into an emotional tailspin. A former General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and popular member of the National People’s Congress, Hu represented the way of reform for many younger Chinese. Just hours after his passing was announced, students gathered in Tiananmen Square to mourn the loss of the influential politician — and, eventually, launched a series of protests which grabbed the attention of the world.
Hu joined the Communist Party in his teens, working his way up through the political apparatus during the turmoil surrounding World War II and the post-war revolution against Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist Party. Working alongside Deng Xiaoping during the late 1950s and early 1960s, Hu gained a reputation for pragmatism and relative economic progressiveness.
In 1966, when Mao Zedong returned to power after the disastrous Great Leap Forward eight years before, the Cultural Revolution threatened the lives of Deng, Hu and other “enemies” of Chinese ideals. For a decade, the Party apparatus seemed to act as a carousel under the fitful Chairman Mao: Hu was thrown out and reinstated, then dismissed once again.
After Mao died in 1976, China went through a whirlwind transition steeped with political intrigue. Through deft strategic positioning, Deng managed to regain leadership of the Communist Party from Hua Guofeng, Mao’s hand-picked successor, early in 1978. During his four years at the helm, Deng worked to open the Chinese economy to foreign investment, setting the stage for growth witnessed to this day.
When Hu took the reins in 1982, some in the Party hierarchy doubted the intelligence of continuing Deng’s strategy for reform. As he instituted a shift toward a uniquely Chinese form of Socialism — one that allowed limited competition, for example — the Communist establishment cringed. With each passing year, Hu demonstrated his willingness to create a more open culture, giving the people more reason to speak out against the government.
Fed up with a lack of transparency, student groups began demonstrating against Communism in 1987. Sensing the possibility to discredit Hu, a more traditional leadership faction painted the General Secretary as the culprit, citing his policies geared toward reform as unwise. Eager to avoid disgrace, Hu gave way to Zhao Ziyang and retreated into the National People’s Congress hoping to influence his successor, who earnestly pursued further changes along similar lines.
On April 15, 1989, at the age of 73, Hu died of a heart attack. Despite the contentious nature of his tenure as leader, the obituary released by the Party referred to the former General Secretary as a solid soldier in the advance of Communist doctrine. (His wife, Li Zhao, felt the pressures created by the Party had done him in.)
As word spread throughout China, groups of citizens spontaneously appeared in Tiananmen Square to express their condolences. In mourning the former “liberal,” a handful of students put a different spin on Hu’s legacy than the approved Party line. Citing his record for reform and political evolution, the young Chinese called for a re-evaluation of his place in the nation’s history — he had, according to these small gatherings, been a voice for change echoing the protests that occurred two years before.
With each passing day, the number of Chinese citizens gathered near the Monument to the People’s Heroes steadily expanded. At universities all over the country, small collections of students slowly numbered in the hundreds and then thousands. Speeches intended to honor Hu gradually transitioned into indictments of the Communist Party. By the night of April 17th, as many as 5,000 people were in Tiananmen Square shouting for Seven Demands to be fulfilled by the Beijing-based central government.
The changes — as simple as allocating more funds for education and as complex as switching positions on democracy — soon became a rallying cry for students of surrounding colleges. Thousands were in Tiananmen Square, with still more at the Xinhua Gate of the Zhongnanhai government compound, all calling for an opportunity to express ideas freely amongst party leadership by April 20th.
Two days later, rioting broke out several hours after Hu’s funeral. Shaken by the size of the demonstrations and possibility of violence, the People’s Daily published an editorial explaining “It is necessary to take a clear-cut stand against disturbances” in order to apply indirect pressure on the protesters. Seeing through the state’s ploy, the students’ anger become more evident. On April 27th, at least 50,000 people marched to Tiananmen Square, forcing the Party to acknowledge their concerns.
For many, the appeal of demonstrations quickly faded once officials granted leadership a seat at the table. However, a committed few resolved to engage in a hunger strike in anticipation of Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s arrival on May 15, 1989 in order to embarrass the Party. With 300,000 people in the Square two days before the visit, protests once again sprang up across China as a show of solidarity. The movement, floundering just two weeks before, was suddenly an even greater force to be reckoned with than it had ever been.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) began moving toward Tiananmen Square on May 20th. Premier Li Peng, taking over from the disgraced Zhao, declared martial law and ordered a handful of military vehicles to intervene. Initially swamped by the protesters, the PLA mobilized several more units in order to break the deadlock. Once a unified front, the students became disorganized, weakened by a lack of agreed-upon strategy for enacting reform — democratically or otherwise.
By the beginning of June, Party leadership was done being measured in its responses. The end would have to come, and soon, regardless of the damage caused. As far as the Communist government was concerned, those still in Tiananmen Square were terrorists and would therefore have to be dealt with accordingly. On June 2nd, officials decided the only answer would be to authorize the use of all force necessary to clear the crowd.
With hundreds of thousands of PLA soldiers advancing on the city, residents once again offered resistance — this time throwing rocks and starting fires. When the army began shooting, the protesters did not relent. At 1am on June 4, 1989, troops entered Tiananmen Square and offered amnesty to those who would leave before the 6am deadline imposed by Party leadership.
Over the next several days, the protests died down elsewhere, but reports began surfacing of brutality by Chinese soldiers against those demonstrating in the Square. Claims of civilians being shot in the back as they ran from the army were published by foreign news outlets, as well as stories of individuals and vehicles being crushed by advancing tanks. Because of suppression by the state news agency and the sheer confusion of the moment, the truth is still not fully known.
What has endured, however, is the image of a single student standing in front of a convoy of four tanks rolling out of the Square on June 5th. The “Tank Man,” poised in front of the armored vehicles, remains a symbol of defiance for people all over the world — particularly in the West, where the image came to define the Chinese struggle in the face of government oppression.
Also On This Day:
1450 – The French army wins the Battle of Formigny, essentially eliminating English rule in Northern France near the end of the Hundred Years’ War
1452 – Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci is born
1892 – The General Electric Company is formed
1923 – Insulin becomes available as a treatment for people with diabetes
1947 – African-American baseball player Jackie Robinson plays his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball