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Momentous events of 1989

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Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 10:13 UK time, Monday, 1 June 2009

This week 20 years ago, Communism in Europe and China was at a crossroads.

On 4 June 1989, the Polish Solidarity movement won that country's first free election, on the same day as Chinese combat troops crushed the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square.

The World TonightWithin months of Solidarity's victory in Poland, the Berlin Wall had gone, Czechoslovakia had had its peaceful "Velvet" Revolution and the Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu had been violently overthrown. This was followed within a couple of years by the break-up of the Soviet Union itself.

In sharp contrast, the suppression of the pro-democracy movement in China was followed within a few years by the launch of radical economic reforms and rapid growth that have led to China's emergence as a world power, under the leadership of the Communist Party.

A key personality in all these events was the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.

When Mr Gorbachev decided not to use force to overturn Solidarity's victory and it entered government in Poland, opponents of communism in the rest of eastern Europe took note, and one by one the existing regimes gave way to multi-party democracies.

Mikhail GorbachevOpponents of the Soviet Communist Party inside the Soviet Union also took note. In Ukraine and Lithuania, nationalists and democrats realised they could break away from Moscow and within two and a half years, the USSR itself had disappeared from the map.

In China too, Mr Gorbachev was a catalyst to events.

It was his visit - the visit of a communist leader who espoused reform and openness - to Beijing in April 1989 that helped bring students protesters out into Tiananmen Square. Those students stayed after Mr Gorbachev left, and were only cleared by force on the night of 3/4 June.

Twenty years ago, few Poles would have imagined their country would be a major player in a European Union of 400 million citizens. And few Chinese would have imagined that their country, with the Communist Party still at the helm, would have experienced more dynamic economic growth than the countries that shrugged off communism.

This week, The World Tonight will have special reports from Beijing, talking to veterans of Tiananmen as well as a special programme from the Polish city of Gdansk where Solidarity was born.

We'll be assessing how and why these momentous events happened and what they mean for the world today.

Alistair Burnett is the editor of The World Tonight.


  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 2.

    Yet another topic aimed at drawing attention away from the current economic trouble and political scandals. Never mind the economic crisis, the bancrupcy of GM sending waves of redundancies across Europe, never mind the scandal with the expenses. What is important is that the capitalism won 20 years ago. I bet that all the GM workers who would lose their jobs and thus the means to pay their mortgages, would feel much better now, secure in the knowledge that the USSR is no longer.

  • Comment number 3.

    The events at Tiananmen Square directly facilitated the creation of the China of today. Out of these tragic events came change. When the PLA turned on the people the basic relationship between the government and the governed changed. As captialism engages the corrupt form of Chinese bureaucracy the secrets and power of the ruling class become more exposed. Bloggers and the internet have created discussions about events that in the past have been unknown to others because of distance and communications. As China struggles to become more open the underlying governmental organization will need to change. For all of the faults and abuses, China of today provides greater opportunities for citizens than in any time in history. It is difficult for the West to be critical of China since the economic crisis, because this too was a result of corrupt business and government. I would think that the lesson to be learned is that as the West engaged the East as an economic partner, the West became more like the East rather than the other way around. One day a statue will be erected in Tiananmen Square recognizing those events as the beginning of a new China. China still has the issue of becoming a full partner in the modern world and only when it can separate itself from Iran, North Korea and Burma will it be accepted as a nation of equal status in the world. When China becomes a partner in cleaning up the environment and finds alternatives to building one coal-fired electric plant a week, then China will be seen as a responsible nation. China has great potential and that potential resides in the Chinese people who have been restrained from reaching their potential because of governmental controls. A fair and transparent justice system, enforcement of basic human rights and less governmental corruption are all needed. The Chinese people have always civilized their rulers and it will happen with the Communist as it has happened to all before them. The Chinese people are not to be confused with the Chinese government and the people will prevail, in time.

  • Comment number 4.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 5.

    It is not a complete perspective of the downfall of communism .The story begins when Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on 27 December,1979.The war was devastating for both USSR and Afghanistan.Soviet suffered huge losses with economic downfall while Afghanistan bore human tragedy in blood and five million people as refugees.It was Afghan resistence that finally brought Soviet Union to its knees.The Afghan syndrom as it is called is a major factor for the demise of Soviet Union and its system.After withdrawl from Afghanistan in April 1989 Soviet Union went through drastic changes that ultimately resulted in its break up.Pillars of Soviet empire were raised on military might,KGB and Communist party,while the Afghan war broke these myths.

  • Comment number 6.

    (Comment posted on Robin Lustig's blog - repeated here as all of the comments on this subject on his blog have now vanished even though they were posted and were visible.)

    "20 years ago"

    I carefully read the editorial contribution above and I am left wondering what is has to do with 'News"? One might have more profitably looked at say 120 years ago and the similarities and differences between the 1870's recession and the present difficulties.

    The only rational explanations I can arrive at are:

    1. elderly journalists like to feel that the rest of us are interested in appreciating the breadth or historical events that they have witnessed at our expense and

    2. there is nothing of interest in the 'real' news and

    3. it is the start of the silly season that is generally filled with retrospectives and other inexpensive quasi-journalistic compilations from the archive.

    Might I humbly suggest that the listeners to the World Tonight will be more interested in the news than retrospectives. Might I further add that a consideration of the benefits of bankruptcy against bailouts as a method for dealing with busted bushinesses might be a better replacement topic. There are plenty of present day problems that actually matter so please fewer archival stories!

  • Comment number 7.

    Isenhorn, "USSR is no longer", but Russia bought 38% shares in Opel, as I understand. Not going to operate the company, no way, our in-put is only money (state Sberbank). It's for Magna who's got automobile experience, to develop or save, whatever it will be, the business.
    But I thought it might contribute positively, to jobs' preservation in European countries.

  • Comment number 8.

    Whilst agreeing with #2 and finding the BBC blog trivia bag ever brimming with superlatives from history I rather doubt that the BBC pen-picture is actually anything like the real events that changed history. Sure these incidents played their part but didn't the Soviet ruling classes already know the Cold War was over? And didn't the Chinese already have an inkling that cheap production costs would entice jobs away from US and Europe to them?

    Or do journalists only ever play out history through the "dramas" because that is where the footage is? How much of what we have been told of Russia, China, and other communist regimes is or was hyperbole rather than where real change originated e.g. Gorbachev's succession to power. Hopefully when the history books are written more carefully in about fifty years time something like the truth will appear. As Churchill said "truth is precious, so precious she will never be seen without a bodyguard of lies".

  • Comment number 9.

    Dissolution of USSR: one of very few examples where a government gave up power; one of the very few examples of a bloodless revolution.

  • Comment number 10.

    Richard_SM, yes, who would think? We definitely even inside don't understand how it happened. Must be there are some turning points in history that work by themselves, LOL. Like a hurricane, a swirl, all compliments, various factors, not competing, but complimenting the main picture. And, for one thing, communist party definitely out-lived itself. It became simply boring and, like yawning conditions, like "come on, give me a break!" I was passing exams before perestroyka, that always included a couple from the serie "History of the Comm. party of the USSR" or some Lenin's works' study. You bombast some trivial boring "correct" things to the teacher who takes the exam, understand every word you say is totally nuts; he also makes a serious face, asks the "correct questions" but you see it bores him immensely, in other word you know you are lying, the tutor knows he is lying, it's all a joke the whole enterprise. When an ideology reaches this pathetic state that even the ones who are to preach it are sceptical, to say it the min., about it, you can't exactly get either inspired or interested or scared by it. It becomes an empty thing.

  • Comment number 11.

  • Comment number 12.

    In 1989(ish) Nelson Mandela was freed after 27 years of captivity

    On 2 February 1990, State President F.W. de Klerk reversed the ban on the ANC and other anti-apartheid organisations, and announced that Mandela would shortly be released from prison.

  • Comment number 13.

    The Chinese Government website, Global Times, has published an amazing balanced and open commentary on the events of June 4, 1989 in Beijing and their aftermath and development in China. I would like to send a pdf of it to you, but I cannot find an email access point, so go to Global Times and read the commentary. It is, I think, significant.

  • Comment number 14.

    It would seem that the contrast between Tiananmen Square and the vote against communism in Poland occuringf on the same day would be a popular news story. And yet, the world press ignores the anniversary of the election in Poland. The observation that the election in Poland started the fall of communism in Eastern Europe is, of course, quite accurate. So why is there so little coverage of the anniversary?

  • Comment number 15.

    Well the sikhs will be marking the 25th anniversary this week of the Indian governments genocide of the Sikhs after Operation Bluestar in June 1984 with a march in London.These events were much more horrific than that of the events of Tiananmen Square ,which by the were evil,but we will see that the level of anti-china broadcasting by the BBC was due to political reasons by the absence of any such level of material on the Sikh genocide this week.


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