30 years after Tiananmen Square made history, U.S. and China still clash over protest

Thirty years after the “June 4th incident,” as the crackdown on Tiananmen Square protests is known in China, that nation and the U.S. remain at odds over what it meant then and what it means now.

In the West, the clash is better known at the “Tiananmen Square Massacre.”

Weeks of protests across the nation, centered in Beijing’s historic public square, were crushed that day when Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping declared martial law and security forces fired on the protesters.

China announced an estimated death toll of about 300 people. Outside estimates put the number as high as 3,000. 

On June 5, the protesters were gone except for “Tank Man” – one man whose brief refusal to allow a line of tanks to pass became an iconic depiction of political resistance. The photo was shot by American photographer Jeff Widener from a sixth-floor balcony of the Beijing Hotel and reverberated around the world.

The crackdown drew international outrage. But this week China Defense Minister Wei Fenghe defended the government’s actions that day, saying military intervention quelled “political turbulence” and led to three decades of “stable development.”

In Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989. (Photo: Jeff Widener/AP)

The 30th anniversary comes against a backdrop of tension over trade talks and tariffs. On Tuesday, the Chinese embassy in Washington lashed out at a statement issued by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo marking the anniversary.

Pompeo lauded the “heroic protest movement of the Chinese people that ended … when the Chinese Communist Party leadership sent tanks into Tiananmen Square to violently repress peaceful demonstrations calling for democracy, human rights and an end to rampant corruption.”

Pompeo urged China to provide a full accounting of victims of the “dark chapter of history,” blasting China’s “one-party state (that) tolerates no dissent and abuses human rights whenever it serves its interests.”

China’s retort accused Pompeo of “prejudice and arrogance” and accused him of interfering in its internal affairs in violation of international law.

“China’s human rights are in the best period ever,” the statement said. “Socialism with Chinese characteristics, a choice of history and the people, has been proved a right path in line with China’s national conditions and supported by the whole population.”

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