The Tiananmen Square Massacre

Monday, October 1, 2012
Student protestors in Tianamen Square 1989. (Courtesy photo)

Note: Part #2 of 3. Since Senator Nelson is leaving Washington after this term, we are revisiting a few of the columns we have written about him over the years, ahead of the retirement party McCook is hosting for "Our Ben" on Oct. 13.

Ben Nelson, as a boy in McCook, had always been interested in China, so when he got the chance to join a trade mission to the Orient, he jumped at the opportunity. This was during the time that he was in Lincoln, working in the administration of Governor Jim Exon, as Insurance Director for the State of Nebraska. In the intervening years Ben Nelson has been to China some 12 times, promoting Nebraska products and encouraging freer trade between the United States and China.

One visit to China, in June 1989, stands out in Nelson's mind, because he was in Beijing at the time of the Student Riots, in what has become known, in the West at least, as the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

Student facing down tanks -- symbol of Tianamen Square Protests 1989. (Courtesy photo)

Ben Nelson and a group of Americans had made their way to Beijing in a chartered airplane, for what was planned to be a five-day stay. For two days the journey was normal enough. Members of the Chinese trade delegation arranged for the Americans to see some of the well-known tourist attractions in the vicinity of Beijing, such as the Great Wall of China, and the ancient Capital of China, now known as The Forbidden City. From their rooms at the Shangri La Hotel, across the street from Tiananmen Square, the Americans had a good view of Chinese life going on in the street and the City Square below.

Tiananmen Square, with its hundreds of acres, is probably the largest city square in the world, larger than Red Square, by the Kremlin in Moscow -- larger than the Zocala in Mexico City -- larger than St. Peter's Square in Rome. It was originally constructed in 1420, during the time of Ming Emperors, as a walled complex. It was rebuilt in 1760. It adjoins the Forbidden City, which for many years was off limits for foreigners. Inside the Forbidden City gates are large and small courtyards, and great halls, with throne rooms, carved with dragon figures on colorfully painted ceilings and walls. Roofs are made of porcelain tile adorned with mystical figures.

These great halls are joined by other courtyards, with more halls, joined by yet more courtyards and halls, and a maze of smaller buildings. Eventually you come to a garden area with ancient gnarled trunks of trees, stone grottoes, and a Taoist Temple. In this area the Ming Emperors dallied with their wives and concubines. Walking from one end of the Forbidden City to the other can take an hour or more, with strange and wonderful sights to see at every turn.

Tiananmen Square is a popular meeting place for the citizens of Beijing and pilgrims from the Chinese countryside, as well as visitors from abroad. Normally, it is a popular place for kite flyers. (Kite flying in China is almost a national sport.) Chairman Mao's Tomb is in the Square, and every day, long lines queue up for a glimpse at the final resting place of the country's long time leader.

In April, 1989, students from Universities in Beijing began what was described as a peaceful protest march against the government's attempts to impose martial law. In the beginning, the marching students were content to demonstrate with signs and songs. They handed out flowers and food to the local policemen and soldiers, who in their turn, had no desire to treat the students roughly. Gradually, the peaceful parades turned ugly.

By May 20th the Chinese leadership had had enough. Policemen, joined later by army militia, stepped up the pressure, attempting to control the marchers, who were coming together from all parts of the country, to oppose what they considered the repressive nature of the Communist government. Tens of thousands of belligerent students engaged in a massive hunger strike and began calling for outright democracy and independent trade unions. Their ranks were growing by the day.

The Student Uprising was having an increasingly negative effect on the government of Deng Xiaoping. An upcoming summit meeting, between Deng and the USSR's Mikhail Gorbachev, was designed to end some 30 years of hostilities between the two great Communist Powers, and the Chinese were daily losing face over their inability to control the rebelling, and increasingly warlike students.

Beginning on June 3, the third day of Nelson's visit in Beijing, things changed drastically. The Nelson delegation, and all other foreign visitors were ordered to stay in their hotels. The airports were closed, and there were no commercial flights either in or out of Beijing. Government troops were called in from the countryside, to reclaim Tiananmen Square. This time, backed up by rifles and tanks, they were willing to shoot.

From their vantage point at the Shangri La Hotel, the terrified Americans watched students gather in the Square across the street. The masses of students were joined by aroused citizens from all walks of life, estimated by some to number as many as two million. Dan Rather, from the CBS Network in America, was on hand with his television crew, and was plainly visible to the Americans as he attempted to interview some of the rebelling students. Chinese military men became increasingly hostile, and while Ben Nelson and others of his party watched, the soldiers literally pulled the plug on Dan Rather's cameras and sent the crew scurrying back across the street to the sanctuary of the Shangri La Hotel.

By 10 p.m., the demonstration came to a head, and Chinese troops, backed by tanks, opened fire on the protestors, who lay down before the tanks to block their way into the square. Though the number of casualties suffered in the melee is in dispute, and the Chinese government downplays the incident, it is generally accepted that thousands of people -- students, workers, and soldiers alike were killed, and many more wounded in the carnage. By 5 a.m. June 4, the military succeeded in clearing Tiananmen Square.

Soon after, though commercial air traffic in and out of the city was delayed for some days more, because the Nelson contingent had arrived in their own, chartered plane, they were allowed to leave. They wasted no time in their departure.

So, after weeks of demonstrations leading up to the Massacre, the students left in defeat. But did they lose their battle? Ben Nelson thinks not. In 1989, as for many years before, thousands of bicycles were the chief means of transportation in Beijing, and traffic moved slowly, at a bicycle pace. In the years since, automobiles and light trucks have taken over the streets, and bicycles are relegated to lanes at the side of the streets. And, in all areas of commerce, similar evidence of westernization is increasing. The students definitely succeeded in their efforts toward the economic liberalization of China. Social liberalization has been slower to arrive.

And Ben Nelson? Before leaving on the trade mission to China, Ben had given some thought to running for Governor of Nebraska, with the encouragement of friends in and out of politics, but had not come to any decision. After the trade mission, he made up his mind to throw his hat into the ring. He had seen the dedication that the Chinese students had shown toward a cause that seemed hopeless, and they had made a positive difference. He decided that he, too, could make a difference. As Governor he could (and did) promote better trade relations between Nebraska and China -- the first step in promoting social liberalization within mainland China.

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