A Retrospective: Kent State vs.Tiananmen Square

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Wednesday, July 12, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

This past May brought the anniversary of the tragic 1970 shooting at Kent State University in Ohio. And June heralded the anniversary of a 2nd tragic shooting, that of the students in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.

While miles and decades separate these shootings, they still offer comparative insights into how the respective governments performed.

When Kent State took place, the US had been increasingly involved in the Vietnam War since the early 1960s. The dominant “Cold War thinking” held to a faulty domino theory, i.e. if Communism was not stopped in Vietnam, other Southeast Asian nations would soon be toppled. This was opposed by those advocating non-involvement and peace saying: “This is not our war.” The Kent State protest came when then President Nixon who had promised to end the war began expanding it into Cambodia.

Tiananmen Square evolved from reforms that had been developing in China from 1986 on; a more liberal “people power” movement sought restructuring after Mao’s harsh Cultural Revolution. China was opening up but the issue facing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was: Could it control this movement and stay in power?

In 1987, former CCP Chairman Hu Yaobang had been considered too soft in confronting those that were seeking reform and so he was forced to retire. Nonetheless the demands for rule of law, a free press, and other freedoms continued. When Hu died of a “heart attack” in April 1989, the protests renewed with force. Some even suspected foul play in Hu’s death.

In size, the Kent State protest though aligned with nation-wide anti-war protests, was still in itself comparatively small. Involved were some 300 students and demonstrators plus 1000 or more on-lookers.

The National Guard of the State of Ohio was there to maintain order, but when the protestors confronted guardsmen, shots were fired. Four protestors were killed and nine others wounded. Though the guard had live ammunition, it had not been directly authorized to use lethal force. Their response appeared to be driven more by fear and panic, despite the fact that the protestors were unarmed.

US citizens rose in protest; almost all universities shut down and a full inquiry immediately followed. In the coming years, untold books would be written and compensation eventually made to the families of the dead.

In China, the protest at Tiananmen had been on-going on since May 1989 and drew thousands of students as well as workers. A more open and democratic society was still wanted. The government had met with leaders but no solutions had been found. The CCP leadership therefore met in private in early June and decided to call for martial law with military units clearing the square.

On June 4th, military units accompanied by tanks quickly and decisively moved in with guns blazing. The number of deaths is still disputed but it ranges from hundreds to thousands. Untold other numbers were wounded and many were jailed.

With only 4 deaths, Kent State can hardly be called a massacre; on the other hand, with deaths ranging from hundreds to thousands, Tiananmen was truly one.

In the aftermath, the shootings further differed. In the US, some 450 universities and colleges across the nation immediately shut down in sympathy with the victims. I was a doctoral student at Syracuse University at the time and remember it well. In the graduate classes I was taking, we were told to turn in our term papers for the semester and that was it. In the freshman composition, classes, that I was teaching, we were told to give students the grade they had thus far and close the books. Classes would reopen in the summer.

Each incident would have its iconic photo. At Kent State, a disconsolate Mary Ann Vecchio was captured bending over the fallen Jeffrey Miller. At Tiananmen, the well known “Tank Man” stood proud, though his photo actually came from June 5, the follow-up day of the clearing.

I was in Taiwan when Tiananmen happened and had a different experience. While we knew of the protests and deaths, I sharply recall being at a Toastmasters meeting with people fresh out of China. They had not even heard of the protests and deaths at Tiananmen until they arrived in Taiwan. The Chinese government had done its best to hide and cover media coverage of the untold dead and wounded.

Still later in 1994, I had been able to arrange for Wu’erkaixi, one of the student leaders who had escaped, to speak to several of my classes at Chinese Culture University. As he recounted his Tiananmen experiences, it was clear that the protest was simply for greater freedoms and not to overthrow the government. Yet Chinese students had been slaughtered as if they were rebels.The CCP high command had no intent to negotiate.

In the US, as mentioned Kent State would have its full examination and the nation would move on. In China, Tiananmen Square still remains a banned topic of discussion.

There is more. In 1989, people in Hong Kong had naturally been concerned that Tiananmen would negatively affect the upcoming “one country-two systems” that would take place after the 1997 Handover. They were correct.

Not only are vigils and discussion of the Tiananmen massacre still forbidden but Hong Kongers would subsequently have their own experience of broken promises. They had been promised full democracy twenty years after the “1997 Handover;” they got the opposite and experienced additional severe crackdowns following their Umbrella Movement.

Taiwan’s democracy would later experience its own student protests. In 2014, students in the Sunflower Movement took over the Legislature Yuan. Their protest ended peacefully and with a national victory by the students; the dangerous threat of Taiwan having too dependent tiles with China through the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) was halted.

One can only imagine how many deaths there would have been if the Sunflower Movement’s actions had taken place in China.

What might be gleaned from this?

For a one-party state like the CCP, it seems that not only does “political power grow out of the barrel of a gun” but it is also “maintained” by such. Control unfortunately remains of prime importance. It easily trumps improvement of the state, and/or citizen’s lives.

The CCP may promote Marxist socialism as a cover but all protests end with “our way or the highway solutions.”

Thus, with 2024 elections approaching in the US and Taiwan, It benefits involved citizens, to do a clear review of Kent State and Tiananmen. The two still provide ample insights into the types of governmental style and leadership that any citizen desires.