Jeffrey Wasserstrom: The Anniversary of Tiananmen Square
[Jeffrey Wasserstrom's China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know was published in April by Oxford University Press.]
The Chinese protest surge that ended in bloodshed exactly 21 years ago today near central Beijing's Tiananmen Square continues to exert a powerful hold on Western thinking about China. The very term"Tiananmen" has taken on a powerful and protean life of its own in the realm of political analogy: Last July, for example, commentators wondered whether Tehran had experienced a"Tiananmen" moment when post election protests erupted into violence in the Iranian capital, and the specter of a"Thai Tiananmen" was raised this year when thousands of anti-government protestors clashed with the military in central Bangkok. In spite of this notoriety and the fact that major events in the original Tiananmen played out on television screens around the world, much has been forgotten — and misremembered — about the demonstrations that took place in April and May of that year and the brutal crackdown that culminated in the June 4th massacre.
China's 1989 is typically described as a student movement, and rallies by educated youths did start things off. When crowds a million strong thronged Beijing's streets, however, only a minority of demonstrators belonged to this social group — as had to be the case since there were far fewer than a million college students in the entire country. When soldiers killed hundreds of protesters and onlookers in the capital late on June 3 and early on June 4, more of the dead were workers than educated youths. The iconic figure of the struggle — the unidentified man who stood before the tanks — though often described as a"student" in the Western press, was probably a worker.
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