Twenty-five years ago, a million people gathered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to ask for democracy. The Communist Party crushed hundreds with tanks. Has prosperity helped China to move on?
Bigger than 70 football pitches, Tiananmen Square is an intimidatingly vast symbol of Chinese power at the heart of Beijing. Huge screens flash government slogans in imposing Mandarin characters. Yet for all the square’s impression of confidence, visitors will be most struck this week by the anxiety shown by the large number of guards patrolling it.
It is a quarter of a century since the Tiananmen Square massacre, a bloody military crackdown that brought a brutal end to China’s largest ever political protest, and the authorities are determined to stop any commemorations taking place. Human rights groups say at least 50 leading activists have already been detained.
It began in April 1989, when students gathered at Tiananmen to pay their respects following the death of the reformer, Hu Yaobang. They were dismayed that the leading figure against corruption was gone, and the gathering soon grew into a protest which thousands then joined.
By June, around a million people from across China had travelled to Tiananmen, turning it into a carnival of songs and dance with calls for democracy and change. Art students erected a 32-foot statue of the goddess Liberty. The government, fearing it was losing its grip on power, sent the military to disperse the crowd. But the protesters refused to leave.
Fearful party elders then declared martial law and ordered the army to suppress the ‘counter-revolutionary riot’. Tanks rolled in and nervous troops fired into the packed crowd. The day after, Tiananmen was empty and the protest crushed. Some estimate that thousands were killed.
The 25 years since have been China’s most stable and prosperous period for a century. Economic reforms have increased the average city-dweller’s income eight times.
But many of the Tiananmen protesters’ grievances linger. Government corruption is greater than ever. And a newly prosperous middle class demands greater rights and a higher quality of life. For all China’s growth, aren’t the demands of Tiananmen just as relevant today?
Some say that China’s government has brought wealth and that the country’s youth do not care about the struggles of the past. Never in history have so many prospered so rapidly. While China still has to deal with issues like pollution and inequality, the country is now unrecognisably better off than it was.
Yet others believe economic growth has only increased the people’s underlying thirst for democracy, and with rising anger on social media, the government can no longer ignore calls for change. Extra police are patrolling Tiananmen this week because the government knows just how close it came to losing power, and how easily it could happen again.
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Lecturer: Abdulkhaliq Mohamed Sheikh Osman- Birmingham UK