On This Day: Anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre

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The massacre of June 4, 1989, in and around Tiananmen square, remain forever etched in the memory of those who witnessed them, as well as those who observed from afar on broadcast television. Foreign media covered the crisis in virtual real-time, providing western audiences with never-before-seen images of Chinese students and working class confronting their leaders with demands for democratic reform.

Today, the massacre has become an allegory for many of the brutality of the Chinese government towards its own people. A warning to foreigners that China is not what it seems, and an ominous sign of possible futures for the people of Hong Kong and Taiwan. To commemorate the anniversary of the massacre, we’ve put together six of the best works available in English to better understand the events the led up to that fateful day, and the key decision-makers within the Party apparatus who chose to walk a path of no return, and crush the student protesters and their allies among the working classes of the city.

The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited

by Louisa Lim

Ask a majority of citizens of the People’s Republic today about the events at Tiananmen Square in 1989, and you’ll most likely receive blank looks, or a polite inquiry about your holiday in Beijing. The massacre that unfolded in and around the square in the city’s heart on June 4 of that year is largely unknown to the country’s citizens today. How is this so?

Lim’s book provides a stunning account to the lengths China’s rulers have gone to in the years since the massacre to expunge it from the historical record, and from the collective memory of China’s citizens. Through interviews with witnesses to the slaughter, and participants in the student-led pro-democracy movement whose occupation of the square throughout the spring of 1989 provoked the central government’s use of military force to clear the square, Lim uncovers previously untold stories of that fateful day, both in Beijing and in other cities around China. The People’s Republic of Amnesia not only reveals eye-opening new details of the massacre, but also continues the flame of memory for an historical event that has profoundly shaped the course of Chinese political and social discourse in the years since.

Neither Gods nor Emperors: Students and the Struggle for Democracy in China

by Craig Calhoun

Calhoun, a Founding Director at the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University, was a witness both to the pro-democracy movement that unfolded in Beijing during the spring of 1989, and to the massacre itself on June 4 of that year. Neither Gods nor Emperors situates the students at the center of the events that played out in Beijing, and restores to them the autonomy that has been stripped from them by competing narratives of the pro-democracy movement. Calhoun divides his book into two sections; the first is Calhoun’s firsthand account of what he witnessed himself, and the second is a sociological analysis of the student protestors, and the actions of the central government. Calhoun provides important historical context to the students’ motivations, which enables western readers to sharply distinguish the events in Beijing from similar pro-democracy movements that were spreading through East and Central Europe at the same time.

Almost a Revolution: The Story of a Chinese Student’s Journey from Boyhood to Leadership in Tiananmen Square

by Tong Shen

The author was among the group of student leaders who led the pro-democracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square, in one way or another (the issue of who was actually in charge at any given time is itself a topic of serious debate). Shen’s book not only provides a valuable historical record of the students’ day-to-day decisions and deliberations in the run up to the massacre, but also their interactions and “dialogues” with the central government, which ultimately collapsed catastrophically amidst mutual miscomprehension. Beyond the inevitable focus on Tiananmen, the book provides a personal account of Shen’s life leading up to his participation in the pro-democracy movement, which itself forms an eye-opening record of a young man’s political birth and maturation in the 1980s during China’s first decade of rapid economic modernization.

The Tiananmen Papers : The Chinese Leadership’s Decision to Use Force Against Their Own People – In Their Own Words

by Orville Schell, Zhang Liang

Zhang Liang is the pseudonym of the high-ranking member of the Chinese Communist Party who allegedly leaked the documents contained in this book. It’s impossible to verify the documents’ independently, but it appears the weight of evidence indicates them to be genuine. As such, this treasure trove of documents represents an astounding insight into not only the thinking of the Politburo during the unfolding crisis, but also the factional rivalries and personal enmities that played out at the same time, ultimately steering the Party towards making its fateful decision to crush any and all resistance in Tiananmen. On the side of the hard-liners, such as Li Peng and Deng Xiaoping, we see their demands for a military solution to the problem, while on the side of the more liberal reformers, such as the ill-fated Zhao Ziyang (more on him below), we see a desire to contemplate a different China; one that sadly died along with many thousands of protestors in and around the square.

Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang

by Zhao Ziyang

As noted above, Zhao Ziyang was a reform-minded member of the Politburo, and the General Secretary of the Communist Party from 1987 up to the events of June 1989. Zhao’s willingness to contemplate Western-style reforms and a more democratic system of governance for China, and his resistance to the use of the military to put an end to the student demonstrations that had convulsed cities across the country during the spring of 1989, meant that he was removed permanently from the public eye after the massacre. Held for the rest of his life under house arrest, Zhao represents the China that could have been. Now, after his death, we have access to his secret recordings in which he details the events that led up to the decision by the Politburo to crush the student demonstrators in Tiananmen. For anyone wanting to understand the inner-workings of the Chinese government, this eye witness account from one of the key players, and highest office holders, during the first days of June 1989, Prisoner of the State provides unparalleled insight to the personalities, and political machinations, at the very heart of China’s government.

Bullets and Opium: Real-Life Stories of China After the Tiananmen Square Massacre

by Liao Yiwu

Liao’s account of the on-going persecution of survivors of the massacre long after 1989 is a testament to the author’s own heroic efforts to locate and interview survivors, often under the eyes of China’s sprawling surveillance state, as well as the perseverance in the face of immense suffering of the survivors themselves. Accounts of the Tiananmen massacre tend to portray the demonstrators who occupied the square as being largely composed of students; much less attention is paid to the efforts of working-class native Beijingers who sought to protect the demonstrators in the face of the army’s onslaught, and who paid for such heroism with their lives in large numbers. Bullets and Opium is a harrowing account not only of the massacre itself, but of the on-going mental trauma, and state-ordered persecution, suffered by those who were willing to sacrifice everything (and they had almost nothing) to stand shoulder to shoulder with the students at the barricades to the square.

And that concludes our recommendations for the best books on the Tiananmen square massacre. Six works from diverse authors ranging from eye witnesses to the shocking events as they unfolded, to some of the highest-ranking members of the Chinese government at the time. Do you think we’ve missed a classic book on the subject from our collection? Let us know in the comments below.

Alternatively, check out our On This Day page for further curated recommendations for books on people and events of historical importance. See you next time!

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