Tiananmen Square is located in the heart of Beijing, and the National Mall is located in the center of Washington DC–both as capitals. People argue that Tiananmen Square’s design is largely influenced by the National Mall. The Monument to the People’s Heroes stands right in the center just like the Washington Monument. Mao Zedong Memorial in the south has an architectural style much like the Lincoln Memorial. The historical, perhaps the most iconic Chinese structure to Westerners, Tiananmen gate lies to the north much like where the White House is. Finally, the Great Hall of the People is located right next to the square and serves as the country’s parliament. There are not many trees planted around the square, unlike the National Mall, but this gives people more of a sense of broadness.
One of the biggest differences, however, is that the National Mall has witnessed countless demonstrations while not so many for Tiananmen Square–except for the infamous pro-democracy protests of 1989 which many people of the West know.
Recently, I began to see a striking resemblance of January 6th in DC to the Tiananmen Square Protest. Sure, the two events are quite different in ideals and scale, but I think that both governments started to slip toward authoritarianism after those incidents respectively–which should be alarming to Americans.
What happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989?
The first impression June 4th has on the American public is merely the “Tank Man” image, but the story was way more complicated than that.
The first three decades after the Communist Party rose to power was disastrous. People were forced to worship their chairman, starved, deprived of rights and a college education, and persecuted for betraying the Mao doctrine. China went on a completely different path after Mao’s death in 1976. The economy soared and skyscrapers rose at an unbelievable pace; China seemed to be ready to integrate itself back into the world. Of course, people started to seek fundamental changes in political structure as corruption worsened.
After Mao’s death, officials sought to create a system that balanced power and prevented any individual from becoming too powerful. Determined by the new Constitution in 1982, discrete government powers were divided into the hands of the General Secretary, the Military Chairman, and the Premier.
In April 1989, former General Secretary Hu Yaobang–a liberal–passed away, and college students around the country began speaking up for freedom of press and against corruption; many on Tiananmen Squarewere peaceful, however some violence broke out in other cities. In China, “liberal” is considered right-wing and stands for the idea of pro-liberty–both to the economy and individuals. On the other hand, being “conservative” is left-wing and maintains the authoritarian structure of the Communist Party–contrary to widely accepted ideologies in the West.
Political struggle was intense behind the curtain. General Secretary Zhao Ziyang was also a liberal who sympathized with the protesters and wished to communicate with the students regarding their demands. However, conservative military chairman Deng Xiaoping was the de-facto supreme leader, and he, along with Premier Li Peng, sought harsh resolutions. Since some students were not willing to leave the Square, Li ordered state-run media to denounce the protesters as the “very few with ulterior motives” who attempted to start civil unrest.
Hundreds of thousands of student protesters, holding pro-liberty banners, went on a strike and marched in the streets of Beijing in response. In May, students on the Square started a hunger strike during Soviet leader Gorbachev’s visit so that the Chinese had to hold a welcome ceremony at the airport instead of at the Square where they normally would. The government tried to negotiate with some of the student leaders so they could temporarily leave the Square, but these attempts turned out to be futile. As protests swept the entire country in support of the hunger strike, Zhao walked to the Square and gave a famous speech to the students. He pleaded that they end the hunger strike, live a healthy life, and stay positive toward political reforms in the future–that was his last public appearance.
All of these events greatly angered the conservatives–so much so that Deng and Li were determined that implementing martial law was the only option. Zhao soon lost power in the government and was under house arrest till his death in 2005. The now fully-conservative government labeled the protesters as “insurrectionists” and “domestic terrorists” who sought to overthrow the government; soon, hundreds of thousands of military personnel were summoned into Beijing.
The infamous Tiananmen Square Massacre took place in the early morning of June 4th, 1989 with unknown casualties–though estimation suggested a death toll of anywhere between 180 to 10,000. The military drove away crowds with tanks and machine guns, and the protesters fought back with barely sticks and stones.
This resulted in numerous restrictions in China. Speech and press were further restricted, and the police forces nationwide received more funds to prevent similar protests in the future. Thousands of “riot” suspects were arrested and sentenced for years–many others fled to Hong Kong or foreign consulates to seek political asylum.
In many ways, June 4th is a historical turning point for China. The freest period in Chinese modern history was over. A mere handful of people have protested in the name of democracy since then.
However, Americans might never anticipate the public opinion on Tiananmen among the Chinese themselves. As a result of government censorship, many Chinese have no knowledge of June 4. The vast majority of those that do know supported the government’s decision against the protests. They think that the demands from the protesters were too radical, naive, and unrealistic–”a complete reform cannot succeed overnight.” They consider that the “rioters” occupied the heart of the capital, and many more cities, for months, preached anti-government ideas, and committed violence against the authorities–”this is by definition an insurrection and the government had every reason to hold those rioters accountable.”
Some striking similarities between June 4th and January 6th
You might argue that the essence of the two incidents are completely different. One took place in a constitutional republic while the other took place in an authoritarian and socialist regime, and the protesters had completely incomparable purposes. I debated a Democrat on this very issue, and this was exactly what he believed–this ultimately motivated me to write this article. Of course, I don’t support the violence and destruction that took place inside the Capitol building that was meant to obstruct a democratic process. I also don’t think the acts of some students in China were proper either. Nevertheless, I hope you see some striking resemblance regarding the two events–especially the way in which the Chinese and American authorities and societies responded.
Supporters of President Trump believed that the election of 2020 was being held unfairly. You don’t have to agree with that, but it is reasonable to compare them to the Chinese students who were disappointed by their political situation and fought for change in the name of democracy and anti-corruption, in which a lot of Chinese back in the days might disagree as well.
Politically, Trump is somehow comparable to General Secretary Zhao–who was also the de jure leader of the country, supported by the protesters, but was heavily disadvantaged by the institution. Zhao was under house arrest until he died, and Trump was wrongfully kicked off from all internet platforms and impeached for a second time. It is still debated whether he directly incited violence or not, but protests were largely peaceful–of course, like all controversial demonstrations in the world, some violence was inevitable.
Most importantly, the media of both countries portrayed the incidents as an “insurrection” and labeled people as domestic terrorists so that they faced jail time and long-term disadvantages in society. The Chinese government stigmatizes all peaceful protests in this way–with the protests in Hong Kong as a more recent example. Protesters in China had to flee their country as political refugees, just like how US media encouraged people to report those who had entered the Capitol building to the FBI so they would be prosecuted. I don’t think that is right.
Here, I don’t have the audacity to publicly dissent against the mainstream narrative on January 6th as I may face consequences like getting called an alt-right affiliate or being expelled from school. I also cannot write anything Tiananmen related as a college student in China because I, along with my beloved family, will certainly face harsh punishments in jail.
Another interesting way of seeing this situation is that Americans see Tiananmen as clear evidence of human rights abuse while the Chinese portray January 6th as a failing of American democracy. In the US, you can sympathize with Tiananmen protesters, and in China you can sympathize with January 6th protesters. However, for the exact same reasons, you somehow cannot do it vice versa.
There is one major difference
As mentioned, the freest period in modern Chinese history ended after 1989, and the autocratic one-party system was greatly strengthened. However, Americans already have a long history of practicing democracy and freedom of expression and thus don’t have to fall into the same situation if they hold on strong to their principles. Americans should reject any encroachments on personal liberty under this administration, prevent at all costs June-4th-like tragedies from happening, and oppose any stigmatization of free expressions such as being conservative.
Last but not least, the British would certainly call George Washington an insurrection leader, but the American people nowadays are more than thankful for what he did. Liberty is always worth fighting for, no matter where, when, or how strong the enemies are.