Professor Masur is on sabbatical this semester. Some of you may be wondering: what exactly does a history professor do while on sabbatical? This is the second entry in what may be a regular series of posts from Professor Masur about how he is spending his time.
During a department meeting last fall, Professor Salerno (our Department Chair) suggested that we give public lectures as a way to reach out to the campus community and give students a chance to learn about history outside of the classroom. It just so happens that I had been mulling the idea of some kind of talk in conjunction with the thirtieth anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations. Because I would be on sabbatical in the spring, I felt that I could take the time to prepare a lecture without, say, worrying about a stack of papers that needed to be graded.
Tiananmen Square made sense as a topic. For our students—most of whom were born at least a decade after the demonstrations—Tiananmen is a bit of a mystery. Many of them are familiar with some of the famous images from the protest, but they may not have a deeper understanding of the origins, historical significance, or current relevance of the demonstrations. And even those of us who were alive at the time may be interested in revisiting those dramatic days of 1989.
The talk took place last week, well in advance of the anniversary of the demonstrations. The timing more necessity than choice—the calendar will be pretty full in March and April (including with talks from Professor Dubrulle and Professor Perrone), so it made sense to do the talk earlier in the semester. Nevertheless, we had a good turnout—to borrow a phrase from Sean Spicer, it was “the largest audience ever” to witness a talk at Saint Anselm. (Don’t believe anyone who says otherwise, even if they have data to support their claims. Haters.)
What did the lucky attendees learn, other than that I have some trouble operating PowerPoint? For those who could not attend, here is a brief overview:
First, I provided a summary of the demonstrations. The protests began in mid-April after the sudden death of Hu Yaobang, former General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party who had lost his position because of his moderate views. In subsequent weeks, additional students, workers, and local residents joined the demonstrations, and they began calling for various political and economic reforms. Hardline Party leaders felt threatened and, after some deliberation, declared martial law in May. In early June, troops from the People’s Liberation Army violently suppressed the protests, killing and injuring an unknown number of demonstrators and bystanders.
Second, I explained the motives of the protesters. Although the demonstrations were ostensibly about honoring Hu Yaobang, the student protesters used the initial demonstrations as a way to criticize other CCP leaders, such as Deng Xiaoping. Many of the demonstrators simply rebelled against the suffocating control of the Party. And as the demonstrations grew, it became clear that the demonstrators were motivated by growing disappointment with political and economic conditions in China. Economic liberalization had brought prosperity but had stalled. Inflation cut into economic gains, and some workers were in danger of losing their job security. It had also led to endemic corruption, with high-ranking Party members profiting enormously from economic reforms. There was a general feeling of “malaise” among many Chinese in the late 1980s that fueled the protests.
Deng Xiaoping (L) and Hu Yaobang (R). Image source.
Third, I explained why these demonstrations were so threatening to hardliners in the Party. For one thing, Deng Xiaoping may have been feeling vulnerable because his popularity was already in decline. He had also been the victim of political attacks during the Cultural Revolution, which may have made him leery of the student demonstrators. The growing participation of workers in the movement was especially alarming. Workers were theoretically the base of the Communist Party—their discontent undermined the Party’s credibility. Plus worker unrest could threaten China’s economic growth. Finally, the demonstrations unfolded at a critical time. Several Eastern European countries had just experienced serious domestic challenges to Communist rule, which served as sort of a cautionary tale to hardliners in China. And Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to China in the middle of the crisis guaranteed that the world’s attention would be on Beijing. All of these factors led Deng Xiaoping and other hardliners to declare martial law and forcefully end the protests in early June.
The last part of the talk described China’s efforts to erase the memory of Tiananmen Square. This spring, we will undoubtedly see numerous examples of the Chinese Communist Party censoring references to the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. This effort has been going on for years, and with some success: in People’s Republic of Amnesia, Louisa Lim describes her surprise to find that many current college students in Beijing are unfamiliar with the famous “Tank Man” image. She also describes the Party’s strategy of using economic growth and stirring up nationalism to legitimize Communist rule and preclude opposition.
Flag-raising at Tiananmen Square, 2017. Image source.
I ended the talk with a slight note of optimism. In spite of the Party’s efforts, information about Tiananmen does break through the wall of censorship. Every year, images circulate on social media—even in China—that draw attention to the events of 1989. Chinese censors will certainly be active this spring, but it is just as certain that Chinese citizens will continue to find ways to remember Tiananmen.
Covertly remembering June 4, 1989 (89/6/4) at Tiananmen Square, 2014. Image source.