On May 4, 1989, approximately 100,000 students and workers marched through Beijing demanding democratic reforms in the government and the removal of the Chinese Communist Party leader, Deng Xiaoping. On May 20, the government declared martial law, and on June 3 and 4, troops were sent into Tiananmen Square, a historic site in the capital city, to stop the protests. The People’s Liberation Army, as the Chinese army is called, crushed the demonstrations, killing hundreds and injuring thousands more. Following the violence, the government arrested, imprisoned, and executed many suspected dissidents.
In the West, the violence at Tiananmen Square was reported as the “Tiananmen Square Massacre.” Images of soldiers in tanks pursuing students with protest signs left little doubt in Americans’ minds about the lack of democracy in China.
While most American observers have condemned the Chinese government’s human rights abuses, some suggest that the government’s crackdowns on dissent are necessary. Author Robert D. Kaplan argues, “Were China to have suddenly become a parliamentary democracy in 1989 at the time of the Tiananmen Square uprising, the average Chinese citizen would likely be worse off today.” By maintaining political stability, Kaplan argues, Chinese leaders were able to encourage economic growth, which will, in his view, eventually pave the way for democratic reforms in China.
In contrast to Kaplan’s rather optimistic view of Tiananmen, notable groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International continue to document the arrests, tortures, and executions that occur routinely in China. In their view, the international community should condemn China’s poor record on human rights and use economic sanctions or other pressures to encourage China to become more democratic.