February 11, 2020  (Web Review)

Tiananmen: The People Versus the Party

(2019) 110 min. DVD: $24.99 ($54.99 w/PPR). PBS Video (www.education.shop.pbs.org). SDH captioned. ISBN: 978-1-5317-1076-7.

Reviewer rating: 3.5/4

During the 1980s, as economic reforms were introduced in China, many young Chinese hoped that democracy would soon follow. Scholars have long noted that China’s Communist government is obsessed with its survival and stability, but as democratic reforms swept through Europe in 1989 many believed that the winds of change would reach China. Filmmaker Ian MacMillan’s PBS-aired documentary recounts the tragic events of 1989 in Tiananmen Square. The square has always served as a symbolic gathering place for Beijing’s important public events, so perhaps it was inevitable that students were drawn there to mourn the death of a democratic reform advocate in China’s government. The demonstrations led to appeals that were later hardened into demands for freedom of speech and the press. At first, the atmosphere was a festive celebration of modernity, individuality, and an embrace of China’s new prosperity in which students sought dialogue, not revolution. Although the government didn’t welcome international coverage of “China’s Woodstock,” they vaguely promised reform and a crackdown on corruption. But leaders became alarmed as calls for change spread to other cities and government warnings against further actions fell on deaf ears. Perhaps born of heedless optimism and a belief in strength of numbers, students switched to radical tactics, including a hunger strike. Behind closed doors, leaders waffled between accommodation and confrontation, although an ultimate bloody suppression was probably never in doubt. Local soldiers hesitated to act, so others were brought in from the countryside, and a “cleaning operation” began early on June 4th, killing hundreds, even thousands. Since then, a strict curtain of silence has descended, curtailing all mention of the massacre, particularly on the Internet. Combining archival news footage with interviews of survivors, this timely (think: unrest in Hong Kong) film is highly recommended. Aud: H, C, P. (S. Rees)