Tiananmen at 25: A Symposium at Saint Joseph’s University

Today, April 15, is the 25th anniversary of the death of Hu Yaobang. That’s a name that probably doesn’t ring a bell, unless you’re a China specialist, but Hu’s death in 1989 was the start of something big. A once-powerful government official who was purged in 1987, Hu had advocated for economic and political reforms in the 1980s (he also urged the Chinese to switch from chopsticks to knives and forks). Large numbers of students in Chinese universities also wanted to see the system changed; they were tired of how it favored the sons and daughters of the politically connected, and the restrictions it imposed on student life. Hu’s death gave them an opportunity to assemble and make their opinions known. When Hu Yaobang’s memorial service was held on April 22, Tiananmen Square was filled with 100,000 people who had come to present their grievances to the government. But the leadership wasn’t willing to listen.

That’s how the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, which culminated in the brutal June 4 crackdown, got started. In the 25 years since the Beijing Spring, the Chinese government has worked hard to suppress discussion of the protests and massacre. But this spring, there will be many discussions of Tiananmen Square at conferences and events held beyond the borders of mainland China.

One of those conferences will be held at my own alma mater, Saint Joseph’s University, next Wednesday and Thursday, and I’ll be there to participate in a panel on protest in China since 1989. Other speakers include Carma Hinton (director of the mesmerizing documentary Gate of Heavenly Peace), Jeff Wasserstrom (an expert on student protests in 20th-century China), Rowena He (who teaches a seminar on 1989 at Harvard and just published Tiananmen Exiles), and NPR’s Louisa Lim (author of a new book on Tiananmen, The People’s Republic of Amnesia).

The “Tiananmen at 25” symposium will kick off on Wednesday night with a screening of Gate of Heavenly Peace, and Thursday will be filled with panel discussions and a special session on teaching Tiananmen to high school and college students. All events are free and open to the public, so if you’re in the Philadelphia area, please join us.

Five Tiananmen-related things to check out:

  • The website for The Gate of Heavenly Peace has a thorough chronology of the protests, as well as suggestions for further reading and some excerpts from the film.
  • Frontline produced an episode titled “The Tank Man,” which is available in full at the PBS website.
  • The South China Morning Post is compiling all its Tiananmen anniversary coverage on a dedicated page at its website (requires registration).
  • One of the most readable accounts of the Tiananmen protests and June 4 that I’ve seen is in former Beijing correspondent Jan Wong’s book, Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now.
  • Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn of The New York Times shared a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the protests. If you have a NYT subscription, reading through their archive is fascinating. I found the stories by searching for “Tiananmen Square,” then setting the date range from April 15 through December 31, 1989 (just to make sure I captured everything).

There will be much more written about the 25th anniversary as the spring goes on, and I’ll compile more stories here over the next few months. If you’re on Twitter, use the #TAM25 hashtag to search for tweets, or when you’re adding your own links to the conversation.

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