The Gate of Heavenly Peace
Sometimes to bring about a change and create history, all that is needed is a spark – a spark motivating you to attain what you deserve as a human, to fight against the tyranny of those in power, to unearth freedom from within the sludge of oppression, a spark motivating you to tear down that wall blocking your path to reality, to make the doers accountable for their doings, to lift that shroud of obliviousness under which your countrymen are trapped, and finally motivating you to achieve that dream of democracy.
The Tank Man.
Illustrated by Achintya Vajpeyi
That one spark entails chaos, pandemonium, disturbance and perturbation. That one spark may bring with itself sleepless nights, distress of the highest order and both physical and mental torture. This is the price that one has to pay for that one spark.
However, its domino effect is what supersedes all. That one spark is the incipient of amends, the incipient of revolutionizing the antiquated country and the incipient of achieving that great task which Abraham Lincoln once talked about.
It cannot be denied that sometimes this price is costlier than the result one had hoped for, which is what happened in this case.
On the 15th of April in the year 1989, ousted General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, Hu Yaobang died at the age of 73. Hu had become the symbol of democratic reform and had worked to move China into a more open political system. From the very next day, mourners, including mainly the students, gathered at the Tiananmen Square. In the next few days, demonstrations spread to various cities and universities nationwide. Students, workers and officials, all participated in these demonstrations crying for freedom and a solution to the plight of the nation under the spell of a multitude of economic problems.
On the 26th of April, an inflammatory editorial under the heading The Necessity for a Clear Stand Against Turmoil was published by the state-run newspaper, People’s Daily closely mirroring the views of Deng Xiaoping– China’s unofficial leader. It accused the protestors of rejecting the Communist Party. On the 4th of May, hundreds and thousands of students held democracy demonstrations. This action coincides with another march at the Square in 1919 that swept the country and energised nationalists, opposing the government’s acceptance of the Treaty of Versailles that ceded parts of China to Japan and 70 years later, there they were.
After realising that these protests were not impactful enough, the demonstrators began with the hunger strike. Due to the increased tensions, the Chinese had to cancel the plan to welcome Mikhail Gorbachev- the Soviet leader, who arrived in Beijing for the first Sino-Soviet summit in 30 years. This had to be held in the Square but the momentum of the protests could not have been ignored by the authorities. The first and the final unsuccessful appeal for a compromise was made by Zhao Ziyang, the incumbent General Secretary of the Communist party, Li Peng, China’s premier at the time and Zhao’s hard line rival, and Wen Jiabao, the future premier of China.
On the very next day, Martial Law was declared in several districts in Beijing and the troops moved towards the city centre. From 24th May till 1st June, the protests continued with no visible security. In the meantime, at the Government headquarters a new offensive is planned to end the demonstrations, which was approved on the 2nd of June. The offensive was to put down the so-called counter-revolutionary riot by force. As one can imagine, what followed next was a night of bloodshed. In the evening on the 3rd of June, thousands of PLA soldiers begin moving towards the centre of Beijing. People flood on to the streets to try to block them, setting up barricades along routes to the Tiananmen Square.
As the army tried to break through in armoured personnel carriers, some troops open fired with guns, killing and injuring many unarmed citizens. The protesters had erected a Goddess of Democracy, a 30 foot statue made from Styrofoam and plaster. Tanks crushed her down, just like the hope within the hearts of each citizen residing in that nation.
In a day, the Square was cleared, so were the aspirations of thousands of Chinese youths; so was the will of a million families and so was the freedom of the billion generations yet to come. Ironically, the word Tiananmen stands for gate of heavenly peace. The gunfire continued throughout the next day and the government hailed the military intervention as a great victory.
This is the sort of suppression that the citizens of China encountered when they demanded economic liberalisation. This is the sort of oppression that their youth faced when they demanded political democracy. This is the sort of cruelty that the masses there went through when they demanded freedom of speech and association. This is the sort of injustice that the families there suffered through when they demanded the rule of law. This is the sort of despotism that the working class there confronted when they demanded price stability and social security.
Amidst the horrors of death and the flood of blood and tears; a man, still unknown, stood unarmed before a column of tanks as they moved along Chang’an Avenue towards Tiananmen Square. This act of defiance represented the true image of the incident. Despite the tyranny of the government, the people did not lose their courage and faced the adversary right in its face without any defence, except their valour and will power. He came to be known as the Tank man.
If you are truly shaken by the aforementioned incidents, what is to follow is even more infuriating.
The authorities in China carried out mass arrests and executions in the aftermath of this incident. Media- both foreign and domestic- faced heightened restrictions as well as severe punishments. Open discussion on this incident is forbidden. The government cut off satellite transmissions and employed an extensive censorship apparatus. The impact of such suppression is anything but staggering. According to Louisa Lim’s The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited, only 15 out of 100 Beijing University students could recognize the photo of the Tank Man. Approximately two million online censors still rigorously block any sort of information about the protests. Any phrase bearing any remote resemblance to the incident has been censored. Many number combinations like 6-4, 64, 63+1, etcetera, too have been included in the list of censored phrases, which has approximately 262 Tiananmen-related phrases. However, the list is not exhaustive as China Digital Times relies on trial-and-error and crowdsourcing to detect blocked search terms. If you type any such phrase on the Sino Weibo, China’s most popular microblog, it would display-
“According to relevant laws, regulations and policies, search results for ‘……..’ cannot be displayed.”
However, lies written in ink cannot alter the facts written in blood.
China had to eventually face the backlash from the international community. Its foreign loans were suspended, its tourism revenue decreased, foreign direct investment commitments were cancelled, and arms embargoes were enforced on the nation. Many top leaders like Zhao were forced to step down from their positions. The governments that followed have been acting out of fear of a repetition of such protests. Party officials are eager to appeal to the masses through the recently introduced anti-corruption campaign and economic reform package by President Xi Jinping. These steps are part of an effort to achieve political legitimacy through performance. The hindrances are still prevalent and thus cannot be overlooked but the incident surely did leave an impactful dent.
Nevertheless, hundred yards north of the square, beyond the Tiananmen gate, sits a golden lion with folded ears and gauged out eyes. Built several 100 years ago by one of the Qing emperors; it seems to instruct you not to see what you are not supposed to see and not to hear what you are not supposed to hear.
This is the heart wrenching reality of the Forbidden Kingdom.
Intrigued by the Indian political system, Muskaan is a MUN enthusiast, an avid debater, a dilettante baker, a history buff and a tireless blabber. A staunch believer in the principle that life is as difficult as you make it, she is the sort of person who prides herself in being an optimist. Aspiring to be Sheldon Cooper, she possess the potential of making a world record in babbling about various television series all day long.
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