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Demonstrations end in flames in the shadow of the US Capitol
Tiananmen 1989
20 Years Later:
A Perspective
Protests end in flames in the shadow of the USA Capitol
» Tiananmen in history
» About Tiananmen Square
» Who protested and why?
» Comments on Tiananmen
» Massacre in the square?
» Why was Taiwan silent?
» Tiananmen Uprising Quiz

Neither the USA nor China has much experience handling large unsanctioned demonstrations.

Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s riots were put down in USA cities, including the capital, with troops and tanks.

Tiananmen in History
Tiananmen Square has been the site of demonstrations peaceful and violent for at least 150 years. Protests in Tiananmen in the early 1900s led to the fall of the last Imperial Dynasty (Ching or Qing).
The square was also where Mao Zedong proclaimed to the world that "The Chinese people have stood up" and announced the formation of the People's Republic on October 1, 1949.

BEIJING June 4, 1989 — It was early Summer in the capital city. Tens of thousands of ordinary citizens, many with their entire families, squatted on vacant public buildings and land and set up a makeshift village, at the foot of the seat of power, and in the shadow of important monuments.

They demanded an audience with their government and the passage of certain legislation.  To the heads of government and the press, they were agitators with a political agenda that threatened to disrupt and endanger the nation.

After their demands were rejected, the protesters did not leave their encampments.  The head of government, refusing to meet with them, called on the national army to disperse the crowds.  Soldiers charged with bayonets while tanks and tear gas chased crowds and leveled tents and shacks.  Fires burned the camps to the ground.

In the aftermath, scores were dead, including at least two infants suffocated in the gas attack.  The total number killed remains unknown.

THE INCIDENT described above occurred in Washington, DC, on July 28, 1932.

The military commanders who executed the removal of the “Bonus Expeditionary Force,” as the protesters called themselves, were three of the United States’ greatest heroes:  Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower, and George Patton.  Eisenhower later became one of the most popular USA Presidents and defined an era that emphasized order and conformity.

There were no television cameras and satellites to relay images of what happened in the USA capital that summer day.

A few newspapers condemned President Hoover’s response but the event was quickly put to rest. Since then, there have been no anniversary remembrances and there is no monument in Washington, DC, to the victims.

Most Americans have never heard of the Bonus Army and its fate.

Neither the USA nor China has much experience handling large unsanctioned demonstrations.  Riots are rare in both countries but when they occur they are often put down with brute force.

When Chicago police fought protesters at the Democratic Party national convention in 1968, crowds chanted “the whole world is watching.”  The young protesters believed television would shame the authorities by broadcasting their actions.

But two years later students were gunned down during protests at Kent State University in Ohio.

Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s riots were put down in USA cities, including the capital, with troops and tanks.

It had been almost twenty years since that era, and almost two generations since the 1932 suppression in the USA capital, when world audiences watched the protests in Tiananmen Square unfold on television in the Summer of 1989.

Western media, frustrated by Russian restrictions on covering the "glasnost" movement in the Soviet Union, diverted all attention to the growing crowds in Tiananmen, assisted by an almost uncontrolled flow of information via fax machines, email, and even cell phones.

The ensuing media blitz created the allure of a Chinese "Woodstock" complete with rock music, motorcycle riders (the "Flying Tigers," Beijing's "Hell's Angels" who patrolled the square), and a heady dose of "flower power."

When the Chinese government decided to order the army to end the demonstrations and dispel the crowds, which it believed were out of control, most viewers were horrified.

The prize winning Associated Press photograph of a lone Chinese man standing down a tank in the square has come to define China for many Americans.  What an awful place, they believe, to send in tanks when all the people want is change.

Of course, the question is how would the government of the USA or any other government respond if over one million people were camped out at the very seat of power, demanding an overthrow of the leadership?

In Washington, DC, such an event is an impossibility.  Marches on the USA capitol must be approved and coordinated in advance with the assistance of Congress, several police forces (city, Park Service, Capitol Police, Secret Service) with preparations for toilets, parking, crowd and traffic control in place.

If a spontaneous protest on the scale of Tiananmen ever did occur in Washington, DC, it would be dealt with no differently and probably much more swiftly.

This June marks the twentieth (20) anniversary of the end of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations.  Anniversaries are important in the USA where each decade is marked as though it was a distinct era.

Each year at the anniversary of the riots, the American press prepares special reports in every major newspaper, television news show, and news web site to mark the occasion.

When this article was first posted, on the tenth anniversary in 1999, the USA press was certain that remembrance would spark several news stories in China. But the anniversary passed, in China at least, largely without notice.

In Tiananmen Square that year, a man tossed leaflets about corruption and was detained, another displayed slogans on an umbrella.  The square itself was under extensive renovation in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic and closed to the public.

In the years since June 1989 China has changed enormously.

Since that time the USA and the world have witnessed several genocides (Rwanda and Bosnia for example).

Yet Americans are peculiarly fixated on what happened in Tiananmen Square that summer in 1989.

It is time to stop dwelling on this one particular event in modern Chinese history.  We must look at our own past, see our own experiences, and not pass judgement blindly.

In the words of the memorial to the Kent State massacre, we should "Inquire, Learn, Reflect"

©Ben Calmes for Sinomania!, 1999-2007.
All rights reserved.

» The Tiananmen Papers

Related Links
» Political Economist Jude Wanniski on Tiananmen
» Ameriroots On Tiananmen and Waco
» China Politics & Government

About Tiananmen Square
Tiananmen Square is the largest public square on earth. It can be seen from space and is nearly a mile square in size.
Since 1989 it has become a magnet for China's disaffected who gather there, alone or in small groups, to protest and even commit suicide.
The square is surrounded by buildings and compounds that house the most important offices of China's government.
See a 360° View of the Square with the author.
Tiananmen Square Facts and Figures.

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