Last week, I discussed the prelude to the Tiananmen Square uprising and the ruthless government crackdown on June 4, 1989. The slaughter of students and their supporters who gathered in Beijing in the spring of 1989 and occupied Tiananmen Square for seven weeks made the world recoil in horror and isolated China. Deng Xiaoping with the support of other Chinese Communist Party leaders ordered the violent crackdown, worried because the protests had spread to 400 cities throughout the country. In their view, this was a matter of regime survival and therefore a price that had to be paid. Deng’s camp also believed that Party Secretary General Zhao Ziyang was somehow involved in instigating the protests and intended to use this popular movement to sideline them and adopt political reforms they feared would precipitate the party’s demise.
Philip Cunningham’s superb first-hand account of the 1989 student democracy movement, titled “Tiananmen Moon,” has been reissued by Rowman & Littlefield to commemorate the 25th anniversary. Cunningham was a student in Beijing at that time and presents a riveting and moving insider’s perspective on the protest movement. He also worked with international news media so comes to the subject from different angles. Clearly events were fast moving and there was more chaos than coherence as students voiced their various grievances and demands for reform. Fernando Mezzetti, who covered the protests for the Italian newspaper La Stampa, is dismissive of the students, pointing out they adopted party structures and seemed more Maoist than democratic. Cunningham argues it was more complicated as the students were improvising. It was a messy situation as those unfamiliar with the workings of democracy embraced the idea even as they were uncertain how to achieve it in practice. Perhaps they were naive, but Cunningham’s nuanced perspective, benefitting from his fluency in Chinese and close connections with fellow students of a similar age, helps us understand events from their perspective. He details the growing rifts between student factions and the suspicions and intrigue between them. Cunningham also conveys the sincerity and passion of the hunger strikers, the confusion, courage and fear of the student leaders and a vague sense of shadowy forces manipulating events on the chessboard of Tiananmen Square.