Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Teaching Tiananmen Square

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the end of the Tiananmen Square Protests, commonly referred to as the Tiananmen Square Massacre. In April 1989, the student-led pro-democracy protests began after liberal reformer Hu Yaobang's death (Hu had been deposed after losing a power struggle with hardliners in the Communist Party). Over two months, more than a million protesters flocked to the square. A statue of the "Goddess of Democracy" was erected by the protesters. The protests were relatively peaceful, but that changed on the evening of June 3rd, when Chinese government leaders sent the military (some estimates put the number at 300,000 soldiers) into Tiananmen Square. One of the most profound images of the massacre include the infamous picture titled the "Tank Man," which was taken on June 5th and became an international symbol for the rebellion. There is no accurate estimate of how many protesters died that day (one widely used estimate is 186 deaths, while others argue it could be in the thousands). There is no mention of the event in Chinese textbooks, but one museum in Hong Kong is trying to preserve the historical record of the event for the Chinese people.

The Chinese government's overwhelming military response to the protests and widescale censorship of the event matched with large scale economic reforms have suppressed any subsequent social protest movements. Today, protest and dissent continue to be repressed in China. This anniversary puts an international spotlight on a nation that has over 1,000 political prisoners (including the routine censorship and sometimes imprisonment of artist Ai Weiwei), tight security this week in Tiananmen Square to prevent any commemorations of the 1989 protest, as well as censorship of websites about the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

The Tiananmen Square Protests should be a central part of any unit on modern Asian in world history courses. Using the below list of primary and secondary sources, teachers should consider having students answer the following inquiry questions: "Should the Tiananmen Square Protests be remembered as a justified social movement for democratic reform or the military defending the nation against violent counter-revolutionary elements?"

Primary Sources:

The National Security Archive: Documents from Tiananmen Square Protests

Chinese Government Position: It is Necessary to Take a Clear-Cut Stand Against Disturbances

Tiananmen Square Protesters Position: Tiananmen Square Declaration of Human Rights

Interview with Student Leader and Protester Chai Ling

The Atlantic Monthly: Images of Tiananmen Square Protests

New York Times: Archival News Records of Tiananmen Square Protests

TIME Magazine: News Archives of Tiananmen Square

Modern History Sourcebook: China Since World War II

Primary Sources: Tiananmen Square Protests

Secondary Sources:

PBS Frontline: Tank Man

The Gate of Heavenly Peace Film

Moving the Mountain Film

BBC: The Lost Voices of Tiananmen

History Channel: Tiananmen Square Declassified

Lesson Plans on Tiananmen Square:

Indiana University East Asian Studies Center

National Consortium for Teaching About Asia

The China Project

CNN International

PBS Frontline

Civic Voices

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