Professor Masur revisits Tiannamen Square massacre 30 years later

David Micali, Crier Staff

Students and faculty gathered at the Jean Student Center during Common Hour to hear Professor Matthew Masur of the History Department talk about the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

On Feb. 11, Professor Masur began the talk by asking students what they thought of when they heard “Tiananmen.” The students responded, “Forbidden City,” “massacre,” and yes, “Tank Man.” The photograph of an unknown man staring down four Type 59 tanks, blocking their path with his body is iconic and has come to represent the incident. Though the photograph might be known the world over, the context of it is less known. Professor Masur showed the audience a video of the same moment. The video shows at least eleven tanks rolling down Chang’an Avenue on June 5, 1989, trying to enter Tiananmen Square. A man in a white shirt carrying what looks like plastic shopping bags runs in front of the tanks, stopping them. The lead tank tries to move around the man, causing the man to move in front of it. Automatic gunfire can be heard echoing in the background. The man climbs on top of the lead tank and appears to be talking to the driver before he is escorted out of the way.

According to Professor Masur, this was the end of the Tiananmen Square protests. The protests began on April 15, 1989 with the death of reformer and high-ranking member of the Communist Party Hu Yaobang. As an act of mourning, students from local universities entered Tiananmen Square, located in Beijing. Professor Masur noted how there is a tradition in Communist China where one “mourns the dead to criticize the living.” By the end of April, the “mourning” had become a protest.

According to Professor Masur, the “old guard” of the Communist Party looked at these protests with worry. On April 26, The People’s Daily, a state-run newspaper, ran a front-page editorial characterizing the protest as a “planned political conspiracy.” Although the protest began with students, workers quickly joined. This worried the “old guard” for three reasons. First, if they were protesting, they were not working. Second, workers in China made up a larger portion of the population than students. Finally, the Communist Party was supposed to be for the worker and here it was that the worker was protesting the communists. It was not just the addition of workers to the protests that worried the “old guard.” Also, events outside of China were shaping the world. In Eastern Europe, communism was on the verge of collapse and Polish workers were challenging communist rule which worried China. Additionally, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was visiting Beijing. Travelling with Gorbachev was the international press which shined a spotlight on the protests making them international news. For these reasons, Deng Xiaoping and his party voted to enact martial law. On June 3, 1989, armed troops entered Tiananmen Square.  

What occurred next has been shrouded in mystery. One doctor at Beijing Tongren Hospital told The New York Times that “we’re doctors, but we’ve never seen such a tragedy.” On June 6, The Times reported “at the morgue, ‘they piled up the corpses like dead fish.’” According to the Communist Party, 300 people died in Tiananmen Square, though many believe that the real number is significantly higher.

Since those days, Chinese sensors have forbidden searches for words like “June 4,” the day of the massacre, and “Tiananmen.” According to Professor Masur, an American professor found that 85% of students in China could not identify the famous Tank Man photograph. This is not to say that Chinese people do not know of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. In China, there are subtle ways to protest and avoid the government sensors. For example, the A. A. Milne character Winnie the Pooh has become a way to mock current Chinese President Xi Jinping. Instead of searching for June 4, people in China search for May 35. Professor Masur showed a photograph that circulated on Chinese social media of a girl with her back turned to the camera holding plastic shopping bags in an imitation of Tank Man. Next to her, in a stroller, was a Winnie the Pooh stuffed animal. Additionally, every year there is a large commemoration in Hong Kong, which was a British colony in 1989 and has more freedoms than mainland China. Many expect a large event for the 30th anniversary of the massacre coming up this June.   

Professor Masur and the History Department “thought it would be a good idea to be more active,” and more events will happen as the semester continues.