The Widening Gyre

It is well-known outside China that, on 4 June 1989, tanks and soldiers of the Chinese military moved in to crush the student-led protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The protest leaders were arrested and scores of protesters – possibly numbering in the thousands – were killed as clashes developed around the city. It may be less well-known, however, that on or around the same day, similar demonstrations were taking place in cities across China – and that these protests were put down with the same brutality as those in Beijing.

Just as the protests across China were suppressed, so was a blanketing suppression enacted against the media present in the cities where demonstrations were held. The Chinese government has since attempted to erase from history all traces of what happened on 4 June 1989 and the days following the massacres, though not all voices in Beijing and around China at that time could be muted or controlled. The foreign media was not fully silenced, even in Beijing, with the image of the ‘tank man’ being captured by both both Reuters and Associated Press photojournalists and gaining fame as a symbol of the demonstrations, and stories of what happened in Beijing were filed with news agencies across the world. In other Chinese cities, however, where foreign media was largely absent, it was left to individuals to report on what they had seen.

The savagery of the soldiers in Chengdu, Sichuan Province was witnessed by Karl Hutterer, a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Professor Hutterer subsequently wrote a letter to the New York Times, detailing the actions of the security forces, and the methods they employed to suppress demonstrations on 4 June and 5 June 1989 in Chengdu. Professor Hutterer witnessed the use of truncheons, knives and electric cattle prods by the security forces, who turned on the unarmed demonstrators with a viciousness that left an estimated 300 to 400 people dead and many more injured.

As in Beijing, the victims in Chengdu were not only student protesters, but included many citizens who had joined the demonstrations or had been caught up in the sudden violence. The total number of deaths and injuries in the demonstrations will likely never be known, and the persistence of the Chinese government in their efforts to erase history, and their willingness to continue to harass those who speak out about the protests, should not be underestimated.

The Chinese government continues to harass the Tiananmen Mothers (天安门母亲) and their founder Ding Zilin (丁子霖), who lost her 17 year old son on the night of 3 June or early morning of 4 June 1989. For demanding that the mothers and family members of the victims be able to grieve in public; for demanding that those protesters still imprisoned are released; and for lighting a memorial on Chang’an Avenue – which sunders Tiananmen Square from Tiananmen itself – amongst other apparent offences, Ding has been previously detained; placed under house arrest; faces constant surveillance; and both Ding and her husband were forced into early retirement. Ding is for many a symbol of defiance, and she continues to champion human rights in China and seek that those responsible for the 4 June 1989 massacres are held accountable.

The letter from Karl Hutterer, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, to the New York Times can be seen in full below. His final question remains as ever unanswered.

To many people, the appalling recent events in China were something that happened primarily in Beijing. It may be little understood just how geographically widespread the democracy movement and its brutal suppression were, and how broad the movement’s support was through all segments of Chinese society.

I have just returned from Chengdu city, Sichuan Province, where I was personally witness to the viciousness with which army and police proceeded against entirely unarmed demonstrators. The security forces in Chengdu undertook two major actions against the demonstrators, one on the night of Sunday, June 4, the other on the following night of Monday, June 5.

Unlike Beijing, there was little gunfire (although some people were shot); the troops used tear gas and concussion grenades to control the crowds and attacked with truncheons, knives and electric cattle prods. Many people were killed and more wounded. The clear object of the intervention was not simply to control the demonstrators: even after having fallen to the ground, victims continued to be beaten and were stomped on by troops; hospitals were ordered not to accept wounded students (at least in one hospital some employees were arrested for defying the order), and on the second night of the attack the police prevented ambulances from functioning.

Reliable estimates of civilian casualties were difficult to come by but by the time I left on Wednesday, June 7, there was a consensus that from 300 to 400 people had been killed and upward of 1,000 wounded. A doctor from one hospital reported a personal count of 27 deaths in that medical facility. There are several major hospitals in Chengdu and undoubtedly a number of people never made it to any of them.

It is also important to know that among the wounded and dead were not only students but also many others. I was told, but could not confirm independently, that among the victims were children and a woman in her 70’s. Conversation with people in the streets during Monday, the day intervening between the two major nighttime assaults, showed that the movement had fundamentally changed from being primarily based on students to one that had extremely broad popular support from people in all walks of life. Words fail to describe the popular outrage not only about the fact of suppression itself but its extreme brutality.

The United States Government has chosen to take a cautiously critical approach to the situation. To those of us who have witnessed the events and who have seen the despair in the eyes of Chinese citizens and heard the grief in their voices, this may fall short of the mark.

In spite of such official caution, it is nevertheless likely, and probably inevitable, that United States-China relations are on a downward spiral. At this time, just as important as official statements and sanctions are our individual actions. I appeal to all with interests in China, academics, private citizens and corporations, to suspend all activities that might be of direct or indirect benefit or interest to the Chinese Government. How could we possibly deal with a Government that murders its unarmed children?

KARL L. HUTTERER, Professor of Anthropology University of Michigan Ann Arbor, Mich., June 10, 1989

 

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