On 3rd June 1989 Chinese troops were sent in to clear a student encampment in Tiananmen Square. As they broke through the barriers containing around 10,000 students and workers, the words “zhendan, zhendan” (“live fire, live fire) began echoing in the night. Most of the young people gathered there were unfamiliar with “the regular put-put of automatic gunfire. By the end of the night, none could mistake it.”

As the assault was joined by tanks to crush the democracy movement, students led by Chai Ling, a student of child psychology and one of the original hunger strikers, gathered around the monument to Mao Tse Tung and used their only weapon: words. They took an oath: “I promise to use my young life to protect Tiananmen Square. Our heads may be cut off, our blood may flow, but the People’s Square must not be lost.”

Chai Ling was one of the lucky ones who escaped with her life that night. She now teaches in America. Reaction to the massacre in the west was, as we might expect, one of outrage. Australian PM Bob Hawke wept openly at a memorial service. The French Foreign Minister, Roland Dumas, said he was “dismayed by the bloody repression” of “an unarmed crowd of demonstrators.” President Bush denounced China for using military force against its own people and implied that the action could damage relations between Washington and Beijing. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain said she was ”appalled by the indiscriminate shooting of unarmed people.’’ Privately both Bush and Thatcher let the Chinese government know that they considered it an ‘internal matter’.

The western media conveyed both the inspirational nature of the events and the outrage felt by most people at the use of the military to prevent student protest. There are though three important elements to the story that most western commentators skirt over. The students were campaigning for democracy, not for capitalism. Student marchers sang the communist anthem, the Internationale. They attacked the ruling autocracy saying: “These people are not communists. They are just feudal old guys who are afraid of the people and despise us.” They wanted the Communist Party to replace its leadership and listen to the people. They did not want to replace the party. The second element is that it was not confined to Tiananmen Square and the students in Beijing. It extended across China. And finally, it extended beyond the universities to include millions of workers. Without them the movement would have been crushed within days. Instead it grew over six months until that fateful end on 3rd and 4th June.

We might compare the events of April, May and June 1989 with events taking place today. In campuses throughout the world students are finding their voice and using it to protest the genocide in Gaza. US President Biden is no longer horrified by the use of violence to disperse peaceful protest. Instead he accuses the protesters of antisemitism and says: “Threatening people, intimidating people, instilling fear in people is not a peaceful protest.” UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has called on Vice Chancellors to take “a robust approach to unacceptable behaviour” in dealing with student protest camps. A robust approach we have seen already as police dismantled the Oxford peace camp.

Students and young people are often at the forefront of movements for change. This was true in 1968 as students across the world agitated for change and occupied buildings; it was true when four students were shot dead at Kent State University in 1970 protesting against the Vietnam War; it was true in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and it remains true in 2024, as students are met with state violence and intimidation as they campaign for Palestine to finally be free of the yoke of oppression applied by Israel.

We remember the brave students who gave their lives in 1989. And we honour their memory by supporting the students’ action and encouraging every young person to join the various peace camps that have grown up in the last few weeks. As black activist and educator Mary McLeod Bethune wrote in 1955: “We have a powerful potential in our youth, and we must have the courage to change old ideas and practices so that we may direct their power toward good ends.” That remains true today. 

If you value freedom and democracy, peace and justice for all, America is a bigger threat than China, and Britain is a willing accomplice. If you want to celebrate the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square, the most fitting tribute is to continue to campaign for Palestine. 

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