The Explainer: Tiananmen Remembered

That was from the documentary “Tank Man” which you can find online and I hope you’ll watch the whole thing.

It has entered Chinese remembrance as SIX FOUR, for on that date, June 4, 1989, China was confronted by People Power –and crushed it. The government of the People’s Republic of China calls it the Tiananmen Square Incident. The rest of the world recalls it as the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

Tonight, we go back in time to revisit SIX FOUR. I’m Manolo Quezon. The Explainer.




Tiananmen Square, in the minds of Chinese of all ages in 1989, had featured in great demonstrations before: on FIVE FOUR 1919, when students protested their government’s signing the Versailles Treaty ending World War I, and FOUR FIVE 1976, when citizens angry over the official clampdown on signs of mourning for the death of Zhou Enlai, used the Qingming Festival to demonstrate grief over Zhou’s death anyway.

But foremost in the popular imagination were scenes like this, from the late 1960s to the early 1970s. Take a look:


That was Mao Zedong in one of the great outpourings of youthful exuberance he led starting in 1966, and called The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

In its simplest terms, this was an effort, led by Mao, to reclaim leadership and dominance of the Communist Party, by purging what he called the Four Olds:

Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas. This allowed Mao to smash all resistance to his radical reassumption of leadership he felt was being exercised by capitalist-minded bureaucrats.

The Cultural Revolution was ruthless, widespread, and left nothing untouched.

Take a look at this clip, from a documentary:


The youth, mobilized as Red Guards, were Mao’s stormtroopers in destroying all dissent; officials had no choice but to submit, cooperate, and be more Maoist than Mao if they were to survive.

But Mao’s health was deteriorating and by 1971-72, and two factions basically emerged to fight over the future of Communism. One group came to be known as “The Gang of Four.”

They represented themselves as the true guardians of authentic Maoism, and their leader was Mao’s wife, the former actress Jiang Qing.

Here’s part of a Philippine propaganda film showing Madame Imelda Romualdez Marcos visiting Mao in September, 1974.

Pay attention to the lady you always see prominently with Mrs. Marcos –that’s Jiang Qing, or Mrs. Mao.


By 1975, the excesses of the Cultural Revolution began to be tempered. Deng Xiaoping had been recalled; and in that year, Zhou Enlai, already dying of bladder cancer, announced the “Four Modernizations” in Agriculture, Industry, Technology and Defense.


The objective then, became, as it remains, to make China a Great Power by the 21st Century.

But Mao’s allies were alarmed by the Four Modernizations and tried to disgrace Deng Xiaoping again; when Zhou Enlai died in January, 1976, they seemed poised to win the showdown. But Mao Zedong himself was already at his deathbed.

After Mao died on September 9, 1976 by October 6, the Gang of Four had been placed under arrest. But if, essentially, a coup, with the People’s Liberation Army supporting Deng Xioping and others opposed to Jiang Qing, had neutralized the Gang of Four, it still took time to consolidate power.

And so, the show trial of the Gang of Four began in 1981. Chinese citizens saw Communist justice on trial, where the accused were presumed guilty and the purpose of a trial was to secure a confession. Let’s watch.


With the Gang of Four safely out of the way, Deng Xioaping and the new leaders tried to undo the catastrophic damage of the Cultural Revolution.

But the youth had had a taste of power, and of freedom; and public expectations were now high.

When we return, how it all came to a head in 1989.




That was another scene from the documentary, “Tank Man.” There are times when great defeats result in even greater moral victories. Even at the moment the People’s Liberation Army had retaken Tiananmen Square from the people, one person, daring to stop a tank, became an enduring symbol of resistance.

You’ll remember from the start of tonight’s show, that in 1976, when Zhou Enlai died, people upset over the Gang of Four trying to downplay his death, reclaimed Tiananmen Square.

This was proclaimed by the Gang of Four’s opponents as a victory for Socialism.

And so, in 1989, when another respected Chinese official died, citizens decided to do something similar.

On April 15, 1989, Hu Yaobang died. He’d been, as Chinese officials go, pretty outspoken in questioning the Communist Party’s monopoly on power.

His relative frankness tapped into an undercurrent of disatissfaction with the ruling party.

Since 1978, Deng Xiaping had begun a period of economic reform to accomplish the Four Modernizations. But students and intellectuals began to ask if the political system, too, shouldn’t be modernized as well.

So when Huy Yaobang died, people decided to show their sympathy; the night before his funeral, a thousand citizens gathered on Tiananmen Square. This began seven weeks of trouble for the Communist Party.

The Party tried to use the usual means of control, to signal the appropriate party line. The People’s Daily called the student gatherings “turmoil.”

This clip from the documentary “China: Born under the Red Flag,” shows us how this had the opposite effect the government intended, let’s watch.


This was in early to mid May, 1989, and the students occupied the square, launched a hunger strike, and officialdom didn’t know what to do.

We don’t really know how the Chinese government resolved this dilemma; a book, titled “The Tiananmen Papers,” supposedly reproduced classified documents detailing a showdown between democratically-oriented reformers and hard-line Communists.

We do know some leaders lost power; others compromised to keep it; and that a hard-line position was agreed on, to prevent a possible civil war, and uphold one party government.

Now take a deep breath, and imagine yourself switching on your TV on the night of June 4, 1989, and watching this BBC report unfold on your screen:


It was only on June 5, when the clearing of the square had been completed, that foreign journalists filmed the most famous scene from the whole event. Watch:


In 1992, Deng Xioping was able to restore the capitalist momentum by going on a tour of Southern China, and whether he really said it or not, the name of the game became his famous quote: “To get rich is glorious.”

And this became the government deal: we repressed you today, but you will be so rich tomorrow, you won’t challenge our rule or demand any political freedom.

Still, every anniversary of SIX FOUR, as this Wired story shows, the Chinese government makes sure the Chinese aren’t reminded of the event. Going into the twentieth anniversary, YouTube, Twitter, and cable broadcasts were censored, to prevent any discussion.

And as this  AFP video of umbrellas blocking video-taking in Tiananmen Square showed, the government also sent a reminder to locals and foreigners alike, that they call the shots.



Let me close with a clip, courtest of the South China Morning Post, of the rally in Hong Kong, twenty years to the day since SIX FOUR [South China Morning Post video of June 4, 2009 rally:


Later tonight, on the Explainer Dialogues, we’ll ponder this question. China’s leaders believed their duty was to protect Communist rule at all costs; but in the two decades since then, they have labored mightily to bring wealth to the Chinese People. Does this mean, then, that development trumps democracy?

See you later.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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