Tuesday 17 September 2019

Tank Man remembered - 30 years since Tiananmen Square massacre

Refusing to move: Iconic image of a protester standing his ground. Photo: AP
Refusing to move: Iconic image of a protester standing his ground. Photo: AP

Joe Sommerlad

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in Beijing.

Remembered in China more euphemistically as the June 4 incident, the events of that day in early summer 1989 are among the bloodiest in modern political history.

Hundreds of civilians were killed by the 200,000-strong People's Liberation Army in a brutal crackdown on student pro-democracy protesters that sent shockwaves around the world.

The military had been called in after Deng Xiaoping's governing Communist Party of China (CPC) declared martial law in the capital, seeking to end six weeks of nationwide demonstrations.

One million Chinese youth had occupied the famous landmark to stage hunger strikes and call for an end to state corruption, and for greater transparency and increased civil liberties following the death of reform-minded party leader Hu Yaobang on April 15.

The demonstrations in Tiananmen Square were proving an embarrassment to the Chinese government ahead of the visit of Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev, whose arrival would pull China into the global media spotlight, hence the sudden urgency to clear the streets.

After initially trying to use non-violent methods to disperse the demonstrators and then telling them they had one hour in which to leave, members of the 27th Group Army opened fire on the crowd with automatic rifles just five minutes later. Snipers rained down bullets from rooftops, troops bayoneted the injured and armoured personnel carriers rolled in, many of which ran over students who had linked arms to form human chains.

The bodies were cleared away by bulldozers for incineration and blood was hosed into the gutters. The wounded were raced to hospital in bicycle rickshaws.

While the CPC insisted the massacre was necessary to avoid a "counter-revolutionary riot", then US president George HW Bush denounced the violence.

Tiananmen Square is most commonly remembered for the ​Tank Man, one of the most iconic protest images ever recorded: a lone man holding two shopping bags standing immovable in the path of four tanks.

He has been identified as 19-year-old archaeology student Wang Weilin, but his fate remains unknown. Some believe he escaped to Taiwan. (© Independent News Service)

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