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Tiananmen Square Massacre, part 2

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Press of soldiers surrounds student protestors, Tiananmen Square, 1989.

Girl with camera struggles with PLA soldiers.

Jeff Widener / Associated Press. Used with permission.
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Protesters torch a tank

Jeff Widener / Associated Press

Showdown, Zhao Ziyang vs. Li Peng:

General Secretary Zhao returned from North Korea to find China transfixed by the crisis. He still felt that the students were no real threat to the government, though, and sought to defuse the situation, urging Deng Xiaoping to recant the inflammatory editorial.

Li Peng, however, argued that to step back now would be a fatal show of weakness by the Party leadership.

Meanwhile, students from other cities poured into Beijing to join the protests. More ominously for the government, other groups also joined in: housewives, workers, doctors, and even sailors from the Chinese Navy! The protests also spread to other cities - Shanghai, Urumqi, Xi'an, Tianjin... almost 250 in all.

By May 4, the number of protesters in Beijing had topped 100,000 again. On May 13, the students took their next fateful step. They announced a hunger strike, with the goal of getting the government to retract the April 26 editorial.

Over a thousand students took part in the hunger strike, which engendered wide-spread sympathy for them among the general populace.

The government met in an emergency Standing Committee session the following day. Zhao urged his fellow leaders to accede to the students' demand and withdraw the editorial. Li Peng urged a crack-down.

The Standing Committee was deadlocked, so the decision was passed to Deng Xiaoping. The next morning, he announced that he was placing Beijing under martial law. Zhao was fired and placed under house arrest; hard-liner Jiang Zemin succeeded him as General Secretary; and fire-brand Li Peng was placed in control of the military forces in Beijing.

In the midst of the turmoil, Soviet Premier and fellow reformer Mikhail Gorbachev arrived in China for talks with Zhao on May 16.

Due to Gorbachev's presence, a large contingent of foreign journalists and photographers also descended on the tense Chinese capital. Their reports fueled international concern and calls for restraint, as well as sympathetic protests in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and ex-patriot Chinese communities in Western nations.

This international outcry placed even more pressure on the Chinese Communist Party leadership.

Early in the morning on May 19, the deposed Zhao made an extraordinary appearance in Tiananmen Square. Speaking through a bullhorn, he told the protesters: "Students, we came too late. We are sorry. You talk about us, criticize us, it is all necessary. The reason that I came here is not to ask you to forgive us. All I want to say is that students are getting very weak, it is the 7th day since you went on hunger strike, you can't continue like this... You are still young, there are still many days yet to come, you must live healthy, and see the day when China accomplishes the four modernizations. You are not like us, we are already old, it doesn't matter to us any more." It was the last time he was ever seen in public.

Perhaps in response to Zhao's appeal, during the last week of May tensions eased a bit, and many of the student protesters from Beijing grew weary of the protest and left the square. However, reinforcements from the provinces continued to pour into the city. Hard-line student leaders called for the protest to continue until June 20, when a meeting of the National People's Congress was scheduled to take place.

On May 30, the students set up a large sculpture called the "Goddess of Democracy" in Tiananmen Square. Modeled after the Statue of Liberty, it became one of the enduring symbols of the protest.

Hearing the calls for a prolonged protest, on June 2 the Communist Party Elders met with the remaining members of the Politburo Standing Committee. They agreed to bring in the People's Liberation Army (PLA) to clear the protesters out of Tiananmen Square by force.

The Tiananmen Square Massacre:

The morning of June 3, 1989, the 27th and 28th divisions of the People's Liberation Army moved into Tiananmen Square on foot and in tanks, firing tear gas to disperse the demonstrators. They had been ordered not to shoot the protesters; indeed, most of them did not carry firearms.

The leadership selected these divisions because they were from distant provinces; local PLA troops were considered untrustworthy as potential supporters of the protests.

Not only the student protesters, but tens of thousands of workers and ordinary citizens of Beijing joined together to repel the Army. They used burned-out buses to create barricades, threw rocks and bricks at the soldiers, and even burned some tank crews alive inside their tanks. Thus, the first casualties of the Tiananmen Square Incident were actually soldiers.

The student protest leadership now faced a difficult decision. Should they evacuate the Square before further blood could be shed, or hold their ground? In the end, many of them decided to remain.

That night, around 10:30 pm, the PLA returned to the area around Tiananmen with rifles, bayonets fixed. The tanks rumbled down the street, firing indiscriminately.

Students shouted "Why are you killing us?" to the soldiers, many of whom were about the same age as the protesters. Rickshaw drivers and bicyclists darted through the melee, rescuing the wounded and taking them to hospitals. In the chaos, a number of non-protesters were killed as well.

Contrary to popular belief, the bulk of the violence took place in the neighborhoods all around Tiananmen Square, rather than in the Square itself.

Throughout the night of June 3 and early hours of June 4, the troops beat, bayoneted, and shot protesters. Tanks drove straight into crowds, crushing people and bicycles under their treads. By 6 a.m. on June 4th, 1989, the streets around Tiananmen Square had been cleared.

"Tank Man" or the "Unknown Rebel":

The city lapsed into shock during June 4, with just the occasional volley of gunfire breaking the stillness. Parents of missing students pushed their way to the protest area, seeking their sons and daughters, only to be warned off and then shot in the back as they fled from the soldiers. Doctors and ambulance drivers who tried to enter the area to help the wounded were also shot down in cold blood by the PLA.

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