Anthony Alexander LOH

Soldiers stand before the southern Gate of Tiananmen Square, early in the morning. Each morning, tourists from all over China visit the heart of Beijing to see the national flag raised.

Events in Tiananmen Square, at the heart of Beijing, have shaped modern China, and the People’s Republic of China’s sixtieth anniversary celebrations in October 2009 will again bring the world’s attention to the largest public open space in the world. The student protests of 1989, which took place there and elsewhere in China, significantly influenced China’s diplomatic relations with the United States and other nations and continue to symbolize the Chinese government’s determination to control the pace and focus of social change.

Tiananmen Square 天安门广场 is located in the center of Beijing, the capital city of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Originally designed and built in 1651, the square was enlarged fourfold in 1958 to cover 100 acres, making it the biggest public square in the world. It is best known in the West for the “Tiananmen Incident” (Guang chang shi wei) of 1989.

The square is named for the Tiananmen Gate (Gate of Heavenly Peace), which is on the northern side of the square. Outside the gate are two marble pillars called the huabiao. The huabiao are said to date back to the sage kings of Yao and Shun in China’s mythical times. Originally wooden, they served as the notice boards, or “wood of direct speech” (feibang zhi mu), which stood just outside the court for the purpose of soliciting public criticism. They were replaced during the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) by stone pillars, eventually becoming elaborately sculpted columns in traditional Chinese architectural style and a common sight on the grounds of imperial palaces. But they still symbolize people’s right to speak up against official injustice.

The Presence of Mao

The posthumous presence of Mao Zedong (1893–1976) is visually and physically prominent at the square. The official portrait of the former chairman of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has hung on Tiananmen Gate since 1949. It is flanked by two slogans: “Long Live The Unity of the Peoples of the World!” and “Long Live The People’s Republic of China!” Mao is also the only permanent resident of the square: In a mausoleum on the south side, the body of Mao lies in a crypt covered in a crystalline sarcophagus surrounded by flowers. The body is retired after public viewing hours to an earthquake-proof chamber deep in the bowels of the square. An Ancestral Hall of the Revolution contains relics of other first-generation revolutionary leaders like Liu Shaoqi (1898–1974), Zhu De (1886–1976), and Zhou Enlai (1898–1976).

In the center of the square, a marble obelisk known as the Monument to the People’s Heroes commemorates those who died for change and revolution in China from 1840 on. Every morning at daybreak a ceremonial guard facing it hoists the five-star red flag of the PRC. To the east, the Museum of History and the Revolution has more often than not been “closed to the public” due to the constant vacillation of party policy and the rewriting of Chinese history. Instead, it has been used for exhibiting official and avant-garde artwork, contemporary fashion shows, and so forth. To its west is the Great Hall of the People, which, with its ten thousand seats, is the annual meeting site of the National People’s Congress. All major plenums of the CCP and government are held there as well.

The Tiananmen Incident

On 15 April 1989, students gathered in Tiananmen Square to mourn the death of reformist CCP general secretary Hu Yaobang. When government officials refused their petitions at the Great Hall of the People, the students clashed with police. The party mouthpiece, People’s Daily, published an editorial on 26 April accusing a “handful of plotters” of creating “turmoil” with the object of overthrowing the regime. The next day, 200,000 students from over forty universities marched to the square in protest. Hundreds, then thousands, of Beijing University students began a hunger strike on 13 May around the Monument to the People’s Heroes. Premier Li Peng (b. 1928) and moderate officials affiliated with General Secretary Zhao Ziyang (b. 1919), who was later dismissed, failed to defuse the situation before the arrival of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (b. 1931) for a summit with Deng Xiaoping (1904–1997), China’s paramount leader. The welcoming ceremony at the square for Gorbachev was abandoned: Chinese president Yang Shangkun (b. 1907) later gave Beijing’s loss of face and international prestige as one reason for the crackdown. On 20 May, martial law was declared, but for two weeks the students, now joined by workers, reporters, army personnel, and civil servants—numbering at one point over 2 million—blocked the advance of 150,000 troops toward the city. On 3–4 June, army tanks rolled in, clearing the square and killing an undisclosed number of civilians.

The term “pro-democracy” would oversimplify description of a student-led movement that made a complex set of demands, which included dialogue with the government, crackdown on official corruption, vague political reforms, greater funding for education, a freer press, and so forth. The students used the word “democracy,” but they were short on specifics. They stressed the need to improve the existing system, not to overthrow it. Many acknowledged party leadership and believed that an American-type democracy was unsuitable for China. It may also be argued that they were not sufficiently versed in liberal democratic traditions to represent their interests and aspirations. They did, however, think that by playing to the international news media (over one thousand foreign journalists had converged in Beijing for the Deng-Gorbachev summit), they could gain Western sympathy and thereby advance their cause. This partly explains why, on 30 May, students unveiled the ten-meter-high Goddess of Democracy statue in the square. Ironically, Deng himself had been misled by Premier Li to believe that the demonstrators wanted to overthrow the party government.

This was not the first time Chinese students demonstrated against government policies in the twentieth century, but it was certainly one of the biggest demonstrations and the focus of huge international media attention. The Tiananmen Square protests represented a debate between young, liberal, and progressive-minded students and an older generation of political leaders attempting to maintain control even while considerable economic and social transitions were underway. There were repercussions within the government itself: Some leaders took a more sympathetic approach; others were committed to a strong and swift response, including military action against the students.

In the aftermath of the 1989 incident, the CCP organized Young Pioneers parades to show that the “revolutionary successors to the Communist enterprise” had taken back the square from protestors.

Today Tiananmen Square remains a source of tension for Chinese officials, with a considerable police presence, as it is thought to be a focal point for some activist groups. Security concerns often focus on such events as the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests in June 2009. Western media companies were, after lengthy discussion with Chinese Olympics officials, allowed to broadcast live from the Square during the 2008 Olympic Games. The Square remains, nonetheless, a major tourist attraction and venue for public events. Kite flying is common during the day. Tens of thousands celebrate Labor Day (1 May) and National Day (1 October) with fireworks and floats, and flood into the Square for the early morning flag-raising ceremony, arriving at 3:30 a.m. to get a good spot. This ceremony is similar in pomp and popularity to the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace in London. The sixtieth anniversary of the PRC on 1 October 2009 will again draw the world’s attention to the Square.

Further Reading

Fewsmith, J. (2001). China since Tiananmen: The politics of transition. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Liu, M. (1989). Beijing spring: Loss of the Mandate of Heaven. In David C. Turnley (Ed.), Beijing Spring, New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 25–43.

Ming Pao News reporters and photographers. (1989). June Four: A chronicle of the Chinese democratic uprising, Zi Jin & Qin Zhou (Trans.). Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press.

Nathan, A. J., & Link, P. (Eds.). (2001). The Tiananmen papers. New York: Public Affairs.

Spence, J. D. (Ed.). (1990). The gate and the square. In Children of the dragon, Human Rights in China. New York: Collier, 16–37.

Unger, J. (Ed.). (1991). The pro-democracy protests in China: Reports from the provinces. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Wu, Hung. (1991, Summer). Tiananmen square: A political history of monuments. Representations 35, 84–117.

Source: Loh, Anthony Alexander. (2009). Tiananmen Square. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2269–2271. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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