Tea Leaf Nation

A Time-Lapse Map of Protests Sweeping China in 1989

The 'Beijing Spring' was never just about Beijing.

Twenty-five years ago in the southern Chinese province of Hunan, a group of small-town high school students listening to shortwave radio heard news of a deadly crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators nearly 1,000 miles away in the capital of Beijing. Although it was late at night and pouring rain, they grabbed metal washbasins and took to the streets, clanging the pots and shouting, "There's been a massacre!" For the next two days, they demonstrated, with factory workers joining their ranks. They handed out fliers and hung a banner in front of the town cinema showing the official government tally (later revised downwards): "300 dead, 7,000 wounded." 

This anguished scene, captured in the 1991 book The Pro-Democracy Protests in China: Reports from the Provinces, played out in different ways across China in the days leading up to and following the massacre of protesters in central Beijing's Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. Protesters took to the streets in the southern metropolis of Shanghai, the regional capital of Urumqi deep in China's west, and in countless towns in between. In some cities, the marches were massive: They swelled to a reported 400,000 in southern Guangzhou, and in Shanghai, Tianjin, and Nanjing, many tens of thousands marched. Participants wore black armbands, sang dirges, laid wreaths, and built coffins in tribute to those shot by soldiers or run over by tanks in downtown Beijing. Indeed, dozens of protests swept China in the days leading up to, and following, the Tiananmen uprising. The below map shows some of those protests as they occurred, from April 22 to June 8, 1989:

The map assuredly does not contain every protest in China in the time period it covers, but does reflect over 115 distinct data points sourced from The Tiananmen Papers, by the pseudonymous Zhang Liang and edited by scholars Andrew Nathan and Perry Link, one of the few books to catalog the protests based on internal government documents. (The authenticity of those materials cannot be verified because the ruling Communist Party has not made its internal deliberations from that period public.) It says protest activity was recorded in at least 181 cities, including all provincial capitals. Those figures point to something that many forget to this day: What many call China's 1989 "Beijing Spring" was not limited to one city. It was a nationwide movement.

The Tiananmen-inspired, funeral-tinged demonstrations in 181 cities from June 5 to 10, 1989, were the capstone to weeks of protest that had been bubbling across China. Some of the campaigns were inspired by events in Beijing; others were emphatically local, and only coincided with developments in the capital. Many focused on universal complaints, such as corruption and income inequality. Others were triggered by distinct local grievances that student protesters in Beijing had probably never heard of.

The movement flowered prior to mobile phones, Internet, or email, but students across the country developed ingenious ways of sharing information. They created digests of BBC and Voice of America broadcasts and mimeographed them for posting on light poles or to hand out as fliers from rickshaws.

Nevertheless, much of the fine detail of those countless scattered protests remains buried in history. A quarter-century after the fact, there is no comprehensive research illuminating which Chinese cities and towns saw protests and their scale or focus. “No one in China has been able to map it out,” Jonathan Unger, a professor at the Australian National University, told Foreign Policy via Skype from Canberra. “I think it will be lost to history.”

Some memories will prove hard to erase. Deborah Pellow, a professor of anthropology at Syracuse University, was in Shanghai that year and recalls that demonstrations there started quickly after news of the death of senior leader Hu Yaobang, who had been sympathetic to earlier student protests in 1987. "I was in bed reading and I heard glass breaking," Pellow told FP via email. It was "to represent the 'breaking' of [then-leader] Deng Xiaoping," whose name is homophonous with "little bottle."

Kristen Parris, a political science professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington, was in Hangzhou, near Shanghai, studying for her Ph.D. in 1989. "I witnessed many demonstrations during that spring in Hangzhou, including many marches and also a sit-in and hunger strike at the city square," Parris told FP via email. She said that for much of May 1989, the demonstrations in Hangzhou were notable for their "collective effervescence." "The carnival feeling, sense of fun, and joy in the air was palpable," she said.

Bethany Allen and Shujie Leng contributed research. Map via Emma Carew Grovum. 

Image: Emma Carew Grovum for FP

Tea Leaf Nation

Let's Talk About Tiananmen

Beijing wants us to forget about '6/4.' But we must keep the flame burning.

BEIJING — The violent suppression of protesters around central Beijing's Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, ordered by the ruling Communist Party, is one of the most crucial moments in modern Chinese history. It has been almost 25 years since what many here call the "6/4 incident," which may have killed anywhere from a few hundred to thousands of people -- the exact figure cannot be determined because of official censorship -- but China's central authorities still have not reflected on this expression of violence, one which mobilized tanks and guns. Instead, the government has expended vast sums on what it calls "stability maintenance" to stifle the voice of the people, all the while refusing to publish the names of those killed, missing, or detained after 6/4. Meanwhile, the families of 6/4 victims continue to be harassed by secret police. Through it all, many Chinese people have chosen to remain silent. That has to change. 

Even today, the 6/4 incident is the great forbidden zone in Chinese discourse. In 2012 and then 2013, as the June 4 anniversary approached, authorities issued orders prohibiting Chinese media from discussing it. On June 1, 2012, Chinese propaganda authorities -- collectively called the "Ministry of Truth" by Chinese netizens in a nod to George Orwell -- issued a directive reading in part, "Please delete information referring to 6/4 anywhere on the Internet." On May 27, 2013, the Ministry of Truth issued this directive: "Please block the following keywords from searches on Chinese Weibos [microblogging sites]: 'Tiananmen,' '89,' '64,' 'June 4,' 'Li Peng Beijing' [then-premier Li is believed to be one of the main architects of the 6/4 crackdown], and 'demonstrate.'" 

One could argue that Chinese don't want to look to the past anyway, they want to look forward -- but the facts don't support that argument. Over the past 20 years, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau, and other parts of Greater China have consistently paid annual tribute to the 6/4 incident. To stop related information from filtering into the mainland, the Ministry of Truth issued a June 2, 2012, order that "every Weibo [platform] must, starting at 16:00 today and lasting until 24:00 on June 5, refrain from sharing any video or picture originating with IP addresses in Hong Kong, Macau, or Taiwan." 

Here on the mainland, mainstream Chinese society largely keeps a hushed silence around the anniversary, one aided and enforced by propaganda authorities. As a result, public comments about 6/4 from well-known Chinese are exceedingly rare. Here's a revealing exception that proves the rule: In July 2013, Jack Ma (or Ma Yun in Chinese), the founder and executive chairman of massive web platform Alibaba, and one of the most successful and admired businessmen in all of China, reportedly said that Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader in 1989, made "the most correct decision" with regard to the Tiananmen protest. (Ma later claimed that his remarks were misinterpreted). The implications of Ma's statement received strong criticism from some netizens both at home and abroad, showing that the power of Chinese civil society is growing, even in a time of hardship. 

After this outcry, on July 17, 2013, the Ministry of Truth responded predictably, issuing this directive: "Please clean up all comments that maliciously attack Ma Yun's views on the 6/4 question, and directly close all hostile accounts!" (Disclosure: I used to work for Tencent, an Internet company that competes in some respect with Ma's.) 

This incident illuminates the authorities' continued unwillingness to allow any discussion of 6/4, even if, as in Ma's case, the speech is arguably pro-party. The censorship is so tight around 6/4 because any public mention of the incident might start a discussion among the people, and the government would no longer be able to hide the truth. 

But we don't have to keep silent. I think that the demonstrations at the end of the 1980s were a laudable attempt by Chinese people to seek democracy. Chinese who love democracy, freedom, and human rights should carry on the courageous work that those protesters started.

Specifically, we can lobby the governments, legislatures, NGOs, and academics of democratic countries to put human rights first when dealing with China. More mainland Chinese could also try to attend the annual vigils and other commemorative activities in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau, and help build museums and monuments to 6/4. We can also try harder -- in the Internet, in our media, and in the academy -- to find ways around the censorship that seeks to stifle discussion of 6/4. We must work harder to demand responsibility for the massacre, speed up the release of prisoners of conscience, put an end to one-party rule, and establish a democratic China. This is the best way to memorialize those pioneers who shed blood and sweat to fight for democracy and freedom.

Translated by David Wertime. 

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