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LETTER: Let’s not forget what students stood and died for in Tiananmen Square

In this now-iconic June 5, 1989 file photo, a man stands alone to block a line of tanks heading east on Beijing's Changan Blvd. from Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
In this now-iconic June 5, 1989 file photo, a man stands alone to block a line of tanks heading east on Beijing’s Changan Boulevard from Tiananmen Square in Beijing. — FREDERIC J. BROWN/POSTMEDIA

On June 4, 1989 — 30 years ago this week — the Tiananmen Square massacre occurred.

Throughout the 1980s there had been growing dissatisfaction with China’s one child policy and the economic reforms that had disproportionately benefitted some people over others.

In early April 1989, then leader of the former Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev visited China, and political reforms that had been recently permitting more freedom in the Soviet Union motivated a reform movement among Chinese students.

On April 18, 1989, Hu Yaobang — a former Communist Party leader — died. Hu had advocated a more open political system and had become a symbol of democratic reform. That day, thousands of mourning students marched through Beijing to Tiananmen Square, calling for democratic reform.

An official death toll has never been released and unofficial death tolls range from several hundred to several thousand. It’s estimated that approximately 10,000 people were imprisoned.

Over the next several weeks, hundreds of thousands of people joined the students in the square to protest against China’s communist rulers. The student-led protests advocated freedom of speech, freedom of the press and more government and economic policy transparency. Approximately one million people participated in the pro-democracy demonstration in Tiananmen Square, and by May 1989, support for the demonstration had spread to over 100 Chinese cities.

A May 19, 1989 rally at Tiananmen Square attracted about 1.2 million people and Chinese Premier Li Peng imposed martial law. On June 1, 1989, China halted live American news telecasts in Beijing and reporters were prohibited from photographing or videotaping any of the demonstrations or Chinese troops.

On June 4, 1989 Chinese troops fired upon civilians and students at Tiananmen Square, ending the demonstrations. An official death toll has never been released and unofficial death tolls range from several hundred to several thousand. It’s estimated that approximately 10,000 people were imprisoned. Ever since, demonstrators and journalists have been barred from the square and the Chinese government blocks foreign news sites and Twitter.

There was moderate condemnation of the Chinese government’s crackdown on the protests among Western democracies; despite some tepid criticism, the American government of then President George H.W. Bush never strongly condemned the actions of the Chinese government, and along with virtually every other Western democracy including Canada, maintains most favoured nation status with China.

In 1992, Bill Clinton campaigned to be tougher on China’s human rights abuses. However, as U.S president, Clinton increased trade with China and never met openly with Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama. U.S. presidents George W. Bush, Barrack Obama and Donald Trump also maintained relations with the Chinese government. From 1993 to 2003, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien insisted, along with his successors, that engagement would improve human rights in China.

After 30 years of engagement with China, there has been little improvement in the human rights of their citizens. However, many Western leaders praise China’s economic reforms for having lifted about 400 million Chinese out of poverty.

But although there has been modernization and industrial development in China, most of the wealth has been accumulated by a small percentage of people and most Chinese still live below or at the poverty line. Chinese cities are also the most industrially polluted in the world and the Chinese Communist government is plagued with corruption. China has lax environmental laws, very low wages and no unions, which makes it very attractive for global corporate investment.

Since 1998, an estimated 5.9 million manufacturing jobs have been lost in the U.S. alone. According to Statistics Canada, 519,000 Canadian manufacturing jobs were lost from 2003 to 2013. This results in the U.S. and Canada having to import more from China than they export, so both countries lose more jobs to China than they gain in trade with China.

The Communist Government of China legally represses public discussions and demonstrations commemorating the Tiananmen Square protest and has censored information on the subject from publications, documentaries, history books and the internet.

However, among many people in the world who remember June 4th, 1989 and the tens of thousands of brave young Chinese students who protested, suffered imprisonment and death, the seeds of democracy that they set will grow and someday prevail over Chinese leaders’ tyranny and Western leaders’ apathy.

John Ryall
Mount Pearl

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