The Butcher of Beijing Takes Final Bow
Nobody would dispute that some modern Chinese trade practices and civil rights abuses remain problematic on the world landscape. China has become a major topic of discussion here in the U.S., is probably now on the minds of most of us. But news of the death of the former Premier of China, Li Peng (better known in history books as the “Butcher of Beijing” for his role in the 1989 mass slaying of civilians and student protestors in Beijing – and especially in Tiananmen Square – should perhaps whisper something to us as we stare into the faces of Chinese negotiators now – things are a hell of a lot better in the world’s most populous country than they were 30 years ago (as much as ongoing Chinese business practices and trade practices keep us awake at night).
Many of us are too young to remember or weren’t alive yet when Tiananmen Square happened. Here are a few facts about the physical site in question – Tiananmen (Bing’s definition) is “a square in the center of Beijing adjacent to the Forbidden City, the largest public open space in the world.”. And large Tiananmen Square truly is – it’s a whopping 4,736,121 square feet in fact. In girth, this space is the equivalent of 82.2 American football fields (the space is also the equivalent of 82.2 soccer fields). Basketball fan? Tiananmen Square is equal to about 1,050.6 basketball courts. Here are a couple more anecdotes about its size – Tiananmen Square is the equivalent of 25.3 average-sized Walmart Supercenters; your typical city block is considered 100,000 square feet (give or take – 100,000 square feet would be assumed by city engineers most places if they were performing a rough estimate). This means that Tiananmen is equal in size to 47.4 average city blocks. In other words, this is a massive area, the biggest gathering place in the world, capable of welcoming many people – one online evaluation of Tiananmen Square’s human capacity is between 500,000 and 1 million head; my own calculations make even the high end of that range look modest – Tiananmen Square should handily accommodate more than 3 million people (in this instance, the overwhelming size of the location undoubtedly worsened the tragedy – had the area where protestors congregated held fewer, a good many lives would likely have been saved). At the pinnacle of the two-month protest movement, it’s believed that there were 1 million people gathered together in the square (most of them students – and most among the protestors there in support of political reforms – demanding a democratic government, calling out loudly for things that we in this country take for granted – like freedom of speech and freedom of the press).
The protests had commenced in April of 1989 – after Hu Yaobang, considered perhaps the most progressive reformer within China’s central government, died in a Beijing hospital of respiratory failure. Yaobang’s death was the catalyst for the Tiananmen Square protests that would end tragically two months later when government forces, operating under martial law, opened fire on protestors and other civilians in the streets of Beijing, the effort reaching its worst when automatic weapons and military tanks were turned aggressively on those congregated in Tiananmen Square. The date was June 4, 1989. The number of fatalities? It’s difficult to say; the official Chinese Government death toll for the massacre in the square was under 250 (a figure that most believe can’t be trusted). Historians seem to place the true number of fatalities in the incident at between one and four thousand (with many more individuals injured). It’s been speculated (and with some credibility) that the number of Tiananmen dead was closer to ten thousand. History knows this much – on June 4, 1989, many people, people who were unarmed, who were non-violent, died ignominiously. Hu Yaobang (whose death started the protests) was a successful and respected member of the communist regime, but it’s undoubtedly his indirect influence on the Tiananmen Square massacre for which he’s most noted today (and that connection will ensure that he remains a figure of historical significance when many of his colleagues, peers, compatriots will be forgotten). Tiananmen Square was among the more significant historical events of the second half of the last century. It is perhaps the most significant non-war-related event of the twentieth century, period.
What about the infamous Butcher of Beijing (who just passed on at age 90). Not all experts believe that Li Peng was the real mastermind of the Tiananmen crackdown, that he was instead merely the puppet of other government voices that were pulling strings behind the scenes. Others insist that he is plenty brutal enough to have thought this up all be himself. Confirming it either way is difficult. In truth, Li Peng was never Saddam Hussein, a brutal thug, a dictator who rose to power through his country’s military – Li Peng was an engineer, somebody learned and sophisticated, also a party loyalist.
We should give China some credit. The country has come a long way in 30 years. Yes, it clearly has a distance to go – but it’s going. Steadily. And in spite of the persistent distrust by business entities throughout the world in the practices of Chinese conglomerates, particularly as it relates to their disdain for patent and copyright laws. There also remains a distrust by the American consumer in the quality and durability of Chinese-manufactured products. Yet with a little imagination it isn’t too difficult to see China, as it evolves, mirroring Japan and South Korea, both of which have found their footing and earned gradual respect. It’s also increasingly difficult to envision a duplication in today’s China of its most-notorious (and dubious) 20-century event. That’s a good thing.