How Has China Changed Since the Tiananmen Square Massacre?
Is broad and clean
And you can’t tell
Where the dead have been
And you can’t tell
What happened then
And you can’t speak
(From “Tiananmen” by James Fenton)
In the spring of 1989, the Western world looked on China with admiration and hope. The admiration was for the millions of Chinese university students and other citizens who dared to question the country’s corrupt authoritarian Communist government. The hope was that these protests would bring real political reform to China.
“China in the late 1980s was in the midst of social, political and cultural ferment, a world that was heady with possibilities,” Ilaria Maria Sala, an exchange student in Beijing at the time, wrote for Quartz last month.
The possibilities appeared endless. China’s longtime dictator, Chairman Mao Zedong had died in 1976. Deng Xiaoping had dismantled the policies of Mao’s disastrous Cultural Revolution. Reformists led by Deng launched wide-ranging programs to transform the Chinese economy. They began moving some economic sectors, most notably agriculture, away from the collectivist, Communist model and toward privatization. “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white: As long as it catches mice, it’s a good cat,” Deng often said to justify his adoption of certain capitalist-leaning policies.
In 1978, he opened the Chinese economy up to the world.
The result of these reforms was stunning. Throughout the 1980s, China underwent astounding economic growth, and millions of Chinese were lifted out of extreme poverty. Censorship policies were also dramatically relaxed. Books, both Chinese and Western, that had been banned under Mao began to be circulated and taught throughout China. “The bookshops were full of translations from every language,” Sala wrote. “Magazines and newspapers were at their most interesting, with long investigative pieces” and the “literary world was challenged with new thinking every week.”
The people of China suddenly had some exposure to Western standards of living and ideas. And they were hungry for more. Sala wrote: “Anyone from abroad, no matter how young and inexperienced, was seen as being able to provide information from a still-inaccessible wider world.”
By spring 1989, millions of Chinese had learned enough to know that China still needed more reforms to become as free and prosperous as the West. Princeton University professor of East Asian studies Perry Link, who lived in Beijing at the time, explained the ambition: “Deng Xiaoping, introducing the reform and opening up era, had famously said: Cross the river by feeling the stones. But Deng never told what the other side of the river was like. But there was a river, a sense of going somewhere.”
University students took the lead in calling not just for further reform of economic policies, but also political change.
The students saw that communism and Mao’s related ideas had proved to be abysmal failures. They believed the Chinese Communist Party (ccp) should stop governing China dictatorially. They believed the people of China should have a say in how their lives were run, through individual rights, democracy and freedom.
On April 15, 1989, Hu Yaobang, a high-ranking ccp official who had encouraged democratic reforms, died. Tens of thousands of Chinese University students gathered in the ancient Tiananmen Square in Beijing, using Hu’s funeral as a chance to rally together in their calls for reforms and freedom. Over the next several weeks, the students and other individuals seeking change continued to assemble in the square. Artists among them built a towering plaster statue in the square’s northern end called “Goddess of Democracy.” The 33-foot-tall structure became the focal point for the movement.
Initially, the government only issued stern warnings to the growing crowds. But the students’ impassioned idealism was intense and contagious. The demonstrations began to spread to other Chinese cities, and took root in Shanghai, Nanjing, Chengdu and some 400 others. More and more people were joining in because they believed life for them and their children could be better than it was. They knew the ccp that controlled the country was self-serving. These people wanted opportunity, and a chance to live stable lives, without government bureaucrats growing fat off of their labor. The protests were infused with the hope that China could become a democracy and a land of opportunity and prosperity.
Change seemed imminent.
A few ccp leaders thought the government should negotiate with the protesters and make some significant changes. But the hard-liners, including Chinese Premier Li Peng, were terrified of where it might lead if the government started to give in. They feared that their power could come to an end and that they might personally suffer violence if a revolution were to break out. So the government determined to forcibly suppress the protests.
In the middle of May, the ccp declared martial law in Beijing. The government stationed troops from the People’s Liberation Army (pla) around the city. But due to protesters flooding the streets, the soldiers couldn’t reach the heart of the movement in Tiananmen Square.
On the evening of June 3, tanks and soldiers were given a new order: Advance to Tiananmen Square regardless of who or what may be in your path, and clear the square by early on June 4.
Jiang Lin was a 33-year-old lieutenant in the pla at the time. After keeping quiet about the carnage she witnessed in Tiananmen Square that night, she broke her silence last month in an interview with the New York Times. “How could fate suddenly turn so that you could use tanks and machine guns against ordinary people?” she asked. “The People’s Liberation Army is the people’s military and it should not enter the city or fire on civilians.”
Jiang said many in the Army opposed the government’s plan to use force. But the ccp leaders ignored these objections and reiterated the orders. And throughout the night of June 3 and 4, pla soldiers shot their way toward Tiananmen Square, mowing down any who stood up to them.
Describing the slaughter of innocent Chinese people that she witnessed that night, Jiang said: “It felt like watching my own mother being raped. It was unbearable. … The pain has eaten at me for 30 years.” Jiang left China last month just before her Times interview was published.
By June 5, the military had total control of Tiananmen Square and all of Beijing. And the Chinese Communist Party immediately went into damage control mode, airbrushing the entire event. They said the protesters had attacked the Army, provoking a reaction. They downplayed the number that had protested and said the death toll was minimal—just a couple of hundred.
But a British diplomatic cable written that day reveals the massacre’s true scope, and confirms the testimony of Jiang and numerous other eye witnesses. “Minimum estimate of civilian dead 10,000,” the cable states, citing a highly placed Chinese government source. The cable was written by Sir Alan Donald, Britain’s ambassador to China at the time, and was only declassified in December of 2017. This figure is in line with United States intelligence estimates about the number killed.
Sir Alan included some grim details about the massacre. He wrote that a few waves of troops were sent into the square unarmed to break up the groups of demonstrators. Then a military company called the 27 Army of Shanxi Province—selected because its soldiers were from outside of Beijing and wouldn’t have known any of the protesters—was ordered to attack both the protesters and those unarmed troops: “The 27 Army’s apcs opened fire on the crowd—both civilians and soldiers—before running over them,” he wrote. “Students understood they were given one hour to leave square, but after five minutes apcs attacked. Students linked arms but were mown down. apcs then ran over the bodies time and time again … and remains [were] collected by bulldozer. Remains incinerated and then hosed down drains.”
Sir Alan also gave horrific details about wounded female students who pleaded for their lives but were bayoneted to death. He wrote about a young mother who was shot as she tried to help her wounded 3-year-old daughter.
He added: “One thousand survivors were told they could escape via Zhengyi Lu [a pedestrian avenue], but were then mown down by specially prepared M/G [machine gun] positions.”
While visiting Tiananmen Square in the summer of 2017, with children playing in the sun and thousands of people posing for photos and sipping iced tea and lemonade, it was hard to envision the kind of brutality that had taken place there back in 1989. And that is precisely how the Chinese Communist Party wants the situation to remain. From the beginning, the ccp downplayed the significance of the event. And in the 30 years since, it has tried to scrub the massacre—and the people’s hunger for democracy that led up to it—from history.
Some Chinese people refuse to forget. In the early days of the Internet, they began using the code date “May 35th“ to talk to each other about what happened on June 4th. By this method, they were originally able to keep discussions from being flagged by China’s armies of censors. Now, however, even “May 35th” is banned from all online discourse within the Great Firewall of China. Tools to find and erase content regarding the massacre have achieved remarkable levels of accuracy. And anyone who brings up the Tiananmen Square massacre can be punished and even incarcerated.
The ccp’s crackdown on discussing the topic has been remarkably successful. And as the years go by, fewer Chinese are aware of the massacre and fewer are concerned about the ccp’s brutality. Rather than loathe the government for its slaughter and cover-up, most of the people of China today embrace the ccp. “While 6/4 may still resonate with journalists and China watchers, the vast majority of the Chinese public has moved on,” wrote Christopher K. Colley, assistant professor of Security Studies at the National Defense College of the United Arab Emirates, in the Diplomat last month.
Colley says the tendency of Western media to focus on Chinese dissidents such as Jiang Lin obscures the view of how politically unified post-6/4 China has become. “By focusing on fringe dissidents, this discussion on China’s rise risks missing the forest for the trees,” he wrote. “By cherry-picking individual Chinese dissidents who espouse Western democratic norms, we are neglecting the fact that most Chinese actually support the Chinese Communist Party.”
He continues: “The real story of 6/4 anniversaries today is … that times in China have never been better, thus providing a weak incentive for Chinese to resurrect the ghosts of 6/4. Whether the West likes it or not, the ccp has delivered to the Chinese people in a way that most would have thought impossible on June 5, 1989.”
Colley’s analysis is confirmed by Boston University’s Joseph Fewsmith, who says 85 percent of Chinese are “relatively or extremely satisfied with the central government.” It is further confirmed by political scientist Bruce Dickson who recently conducted face-to-face interviews with around 4,000 Chinese individuals in 50 cities, concluding that the ccp “enjoys a surprisingly high level of popular support.”
The Chinese people’s approval of the ccp is especially significant in light of how powerful China’s current leader has become. In early 2012, Xi Jinping was basically unknown in Chinese politics. But he assumed the office of general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in November of that year. In the time since, he has adopted a strongman approach indicating that there is little he wouldn’t do to preserve and expand his power. Most notably, Xi has rewritten the rules to erase presidential term limits, meaning he is free to rule China for as long as he lives.
On this 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the world should remember that the same Chinese Communist Party that authored that savagery is still in power. It has never apologized nor expressed remorse for the brutality it authored that night. In fact, Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Wei Fenghe said over the weekend that the crackdown was justified. “That incident was a political turbulence,” he said, “and the central government took measures to stop the turbulence, which is a correct policy.”
Under Xi, the ccp continues to justify its brutality, tighten its hold on China, and violently stamp out internal dissent. And rather than fearing this totalitarianism, a strong majority of China’s 1.4 billion people stand behind him and the ccp.
The world should be sobered to see Xi Jinping’s China armed to the hilt, and increasingly determined not just to dominate the Chinese people but also to project power beyond China’s borders. We should remember what the ccp is willing to do to its own people to keep power, and realize how much more it would do to outsiders who threaten it. We should understand that the threat Xi poses to global stability is significantly intensified by the Chinese people’s support of him. The people increasingly share in his vision of a China-dominated world—a world that could suffer Tiananmen Square-style crackdowns on any who dare to challenge the leadership.
The Trumpet watches Xi’s tightening grip on power because Bible prophecy reveals that as the U.S.’s influence in global affairs declines, two main powers will emerge in its place: one will be a European entity functioning in the tradition of the Holy Roman Empire, and the other will be an Asian bloc called in Revelation 16:12 “the kings of the east.”
Trumpet editor in chief Gerald Flurry has pointed to scriptures in Ezekiel 38 to explain that this Asian bloc will be headed by Russia, with China in a secondary leadership position. Revelation 9:16 says this Asiatic power will field an army of 200 million men. With 85 percent of China’s 1.4 billion people supportive of Xi, it is easy to see how such a massive army could soon emerge. And this will not be a force of hesitant conscripts, but of zealous troops driven by the leadership’s vision.
The Bible makes plain—in such chapters as Jeremiah 50 and 51, Daniel 11 and 12, Revelation 16 and Matthew 24—that a clash between this European power and this 200 million-man Asian military will contribute to the most violent conflict in human history. It will be many times more violent than what the Chinese who yearned for democracy suffered 30 years ago today.
The significance of Xi’s growing power and China’s increasing support for him and the ccp is revealed in these scriptures. These trends also indicate just how near this future clash between the Europeans and Asians may be.
This points to a dark and unprecedentedly violent time in the near term, but the Bible shows that the time of darkness will be closely followed by the brightest imaginable future. Our free booklet Russia and China in Prophecy explains:
Are you awake to what is really happening in this world? Think about this: The soldiers of Europe, Russia and China today are some of the same soldiers that will march from Megiddo to Jerusalem to be destroyed by Jesus Christ Himself!
That is how close we are getting to the end of this age of man! Are you ready for what is about to occur?
Revelation 19 describes Christ’s triumph over the evil forces of man. This victory ushers in the World Tomorrow, when Jesus Christ will rule this Earth with His saints! For 1,000 years, the world will blossom in abundant peace and prosperity!
Seeing the global war that looms on the horizon and the “abundant peace and prosperity” that lies beyond it should stir us to get to know God and to work to escape the coming destruction. The Bible makes clear that individuals and families can be protected from the global suffering. To understand these prophecies, the hope that is interwoven in them, and how to avoid the fast-approaching devastation, read Russia and China in Prophecy and “There Is a Way of Escape.”