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Special Exhibit
Communism in China


By 1988, with Zhao Ziyang continuing "liberation of thought," new and daring political commentary began appearing in newspapers, journals and books across China. The unexpected death of Hu Yaobang in April 1989 sparked an equally unexpected outpouring of emotion as thousands, later tens of thousands, of youngsters demonstrated in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, first to commemorate Hu Yaobang's liberating ideals, then to complain about the Party's corruption and inattention to the plight of workers, peasants and students, and ultimately to demand democratic change in China.

At its high point, the student-led crowds in Tiananmen Square as of May 13, 1989, numbered 1.5 million. And demonstrations had spread to China's other major cities. The CCP Politburo was paralyzed by its inability to reach a consensus. General Secretary Zhao Ziyang and his allies felt validated by the support of the demonstrators. The hardline Premier Li Peng, backed by old-guard elders (who suspected that the demonstrators were egged on by Zhao in a Cultural Revolution-like tactic against the Party apparatchiks), declared it "counter-revolutionary turmoil." Party members received no instructions on how to deal with the demonstrations – leaving tens of thousands of cadres and government functionaries feeling free to join the demonstrations, often under the banners of their work units.

But the nationwide scope and massive scale of the demonstrations finally convinced Deng that the Party's rule was in jeopardy. On May 19, Zhao Ziyang and his allies were purged from the leadership and Deng issued secret orders to the Army for 400,000 troops to encircle Beijing. The next day, martial law was declared and Party cadres finally understood that the demonstrations were anathema. But the students did not. They continued their occupation of Tiananmen Square, their demands for democracy and reforms becoming more insistent. On May 29, art students assembled a large white statue of plaster, foam board and wood in the square – a "Goddess of Democracy" modeled on the Statue of Liberty and staring square in the eye the portrait of Mao Zedong on Tianan Gate.

New divisions of People's Liberation Army infantrymen continued to amass in the city's suburbs. As the Goddess of Democracy statue was unveiled, reports rippled through the student crowds that leaders of new independent trade unions were being arrested. Unarmed columns of soldiers appeared in downtown streets, jostling with students and demonstrators, fights broke out. On the evening of June 3, the soldiers reappeared, this time armed and firing their weapons. 6

The U.S. Embassy in Beijing estimated that about 750 civilians were killed in Tiananmen that evening, several thousand were arrested, some eventually executed. CNN and others have placed the total number of dead in the thousands. It was a convincing demonstration that the communist regime was absolutely committed to the perseveration of absolute authority over China, even in an era of increasing global freedom and democracy. It was also a demonstration of Mao Zedong's dictum, "Every Communist must grasp the truth, 'Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." 7