On 8 January 1976, Zhou Enlai died. He had been Chinese premier and was viewed by the Chinese people as a true idealist and “man of the people”, a public servant at odds with the violent radicals who had imposed the reign of terror known as the “Cultural Revolution”. In a spontaneous outpouring of mourning, hundreds of thousands of people began building a memorial altar to Zhou, with wreaths of white flowers, white paper chrysanthemums, and short poems called xiaozibao, which extolled the virtues of the fallen premier.
The memorial activities stretched on for days and weeks, and into the spring. At times, over a million people were gathered, exchanging memories of Zhou Enlai, praising a more civil kind of Communist China, and —unavoidably— reminding each other that Zhou was not one of the “Gang of Four” radicals who were sowing chaos and violence across China, imposing the harsh, irrational conditions of “reform” known as the Cultural Revolution. The Zhou memorial became a place for dissident poets to gather, and for groups of Chinese citizens to voice their grievances in writing or in conversation, calling for government reforms.
By the account of Shen Tong, one of the leaders of the 1989 Tiananmen student movement, the gatherings would start early in the day and stretch late into the night. People would copy down the writings of the poets who offerred xiaozibao in honor of Zhou’s legacy. With Tiananmen Square, the largest public square in the world, milling with people talking politics and public service, until 11pm, there was a real spirit of civic reform brewing. By early April, the regime had seen enough.
The Gang of Four was becoming concerned that the pro-Zhou activities were really a “counterrevolutionary” conspiracy, aimed at bringing down Communism in China altogether. An announcement was made that all citizens must vacate the square. On 4 April 1976, the Beijing mayor requested over the loudspeakers that all people vacate Tiananmen Square or “suffer the consequences”. The People’s Militia moved in and rimmed the square, barring entry or exit. Some families were able to flee, as soldiers stood aside. By morning, the memorials to Zhou had been completely dismantled, the hand-crafted paper flowers, the poetry, the portraits of Zhou, the wreaths and other tokens of popular affection.
When the people of Beijing found the Square empty and their voices silenced in this way, there was unrest. Some describe what took place as rioting, others as gatherings or protests. The military cracked down, arrested thousands of demonstrators, and by most accounts, many were killed. (There is no known definitive accounting for those who died in that first Tiananmen Square crackdown.)
That crackdown, and the deaths and displacements suffered by countless families across China as a result of the Cultural Revolution, took root in the minds of a generation. Politically aware young people who understood the arbitrary nature of the regime’s loyalties (to individuals, to ideals, to the people) retained a high degree of skepticism about the nature of power as concentrated in the hands of party officials.
Whether they were the top of the regime or the low-level work unit managers, arbitrary punishments or demands of factional support were commonplace: people were living under the constant pressure of political propaganda and threats and examples of severe retribution for disobedience. It was those pressures, along with the sustained devaluation of human life and personal abilities or tastes that created an environment where the old guard were viewed as a danger to the future wellbeing of China.
The pro-democracy activists who gathered in Tiananmen Square in 1989 understood the history of the 1976 repression and the crimes of the Cultural Revolution, though such topics were and still are taboo in mainland China. The tension between leaders who believed in their own inherent right to conceal past crimes and to use public ignorance to continue their reign and the knowledge that could not be erased from the minds of those who had lived real repression was what put the government so at odds with the student movement.
Though many of the demands of the 1989 student movement were met, in part due to historical (economic and political) imperative, real democratization of government has not occurred. The crackdown in 1976, like the Cultural Revolution before it (on a far more massive and tragic scale) and the 1989 massacre after it, was about preventing democratization even in the slightest degree. That legacy continues to this day, as the regime continues to bar any mention of the events of June 1989.
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Originally published 5 June 2009, at CafeSentido.com