Dara Birnbaum

Installation view of video piece by Dara Birnbaum showing various monitors suspended from the ceiling via black pipes.
Dara Birnbaum, Tiananmen Square: Break-In Transmission, 1988-90. 5-channel color video, 4 channels stereo sound, surveillance switcher and custom-designed support switcher. Installation at Marian Goodman Gallery, London. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery. © Dara Birnbaum. Photo: Thierry Bal.

Tiananmen Square: Break-In Transmission,

Eyewitness News?

Student-led protests in Tiananmen Square, Beijing on June 4, 1989, called for democracy, free speech and a free press in China. This massive protest was widely covered by international news outlets until the Chinese government cut off media access as the protest turned violent. In this work, Dara Birnbaum zeroes in on the way that the media plays a crucial role in our understanding of the event. With poles suspended from the ceiling to evoke satellite waves and broadcast footage of the event scattered across small monitors, the installation mimics the haphazard and creative ways that information was transmitted in the moment: through television footage, audio clips and even fax machines.

A hidden surveillance switcher, placed within the exhibition space, constantly takes little grabs from the images that you’re watching and reassembles them on a large-screen monitor, as a gesture toward the types of cuts or edits done by TV news. Maybe the same issue emerges again in the work ... about being in control versus being out of control. ABC’s slogan, “Eyewitness News,” implies that you’re seeing what’s happening, whereas in reality everything has been transcribed and translated. When your eyes are focused on what is being presented by a television network, on the news item they’ve selected and edited for viewing, what are you missing or not seeing?”

— Dara Birnbaum, BOMB magazine interview, 2008

Learn more about the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Tiananmen Square Incident, or June Fourth 

With the passing of Chairman Mao on Sept. 9, 1976, and the arrest of the Gang of Four in less than a month, the Cultural Revolution finally came to an end. The “Ten Years of Turbulence,” whose ostensible goal was to rid China of its “feudal” tradition and the “decadent” Western influences, had turned the country upside down and caused immeasurable devastation socially, economically and culturally. When Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1978, he initiated “Reform and Opening-up,” which included such policies as the “Four Modernizations” (agriculture, industry, national defense, science and technology), resumption of contacts with the West, restoration of the university examination system, and “rehabilitations” of those wronged during the Cultural Revolution. In veering away from extreme leftism toward liberalization, the 1980s are rightly referred to as the “New Era” in contemporary Chinese history. 

The opening of China amounted to a balancing act. As new knowledge and values poured in from abroad, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) found it necessary to rein in certain domestic tendencies. The “Anti-Spiritual Pollution” campaign in 1983 and the “Anti-Bourgeois Liberalization” campaign in 1987 represented the tension between reformism and conservatism. From late 1986 through early 1987, student protests erupted in Hefei, Anhui Province, and spread elsewhere, calling for democracy, freedom, human rights, and an end to nepotism and corruption in the government. Hu Yaobang, the reform-minded General Secretary of the CCP, was forced to resign for being too lenient with student protesters. In I989, after Hu’s passing on April 4 was announced on April 15, public mourning took place on the streets of Beijing and other cities. On April 21, 50,000 college students marched to Tiananmen Square, the symbol of the power of the state; in merely a few days, the number grew to 100,000. It became a student movement for political reform, calling for freedom of press, freedom of speech, freedom of protest, anti-corruption, abandoning Anti-Spiritual Pollution and Anti-Bourgeois Liberalization, and a fair reassessment of Hu Yaobang. 

The students received broad support from the public in Beijing and around the country. On April 24, they mounted a strike, which caused 35 universities in Beijing to shut down; universities in other cities followed suit. Before Soviet President Gorbachev was scheduled to arrive in Beijing on May 15 for summit talks, the protesting students started a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square to put pressure on the authorities and win media attention from the world; it went on until May 19. On May 20, Beijing declared martial law, prohibiting demonstrations on the streets and journalists from conducting interviews. In defiance, students resumed the hunger strike, and protesters continued to march. On the night of May 29, students from Central Academy of Fine Arts and five other schools constructed a statue of the Goddess of Democracy and installed it in Tiananmen Square, where it is estimated that a million protesters, mostly students, gathered. 

Escalating tensions came to a head on June 3. In the morning, military police confronted protesting students, workers and residents of Beijing, causing some injuries. Around 10 p.m. that night, tanks and armored vehicles rolled into Tiananmen Square, and soldiers and police stormed the site, even as residents tried to stop them along the way. From 11 p.m. into the wee hours of June 4, shots were fired nonstop into the crowd. By the early morning, the Square was “cleared.” Reporters and Western diplomats estimated that hundreds to thousands of protesters were killed, and many more were injured or arrested.

The bloody crackdown on the student-led pro-democracy movement is known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Tiananmen Square Incident, or June Fourth in Chinese. In its aftermath, the Chinese authorities labeled the movement as a “counter-revolutionary riot,” even as protests erupted around the country and were quickly crushed. In nearby Hong Kong, millions took to the street to mourn the dead and denounce Beijing. The incident was widely condemned by world leaders. The U.S. Congress voted to impose economic sanctions against China; the European Union and the U.S. also proclaimed an embargo on armament sales to China, which remains in place to this day.

Within China, purges were relentless. The student leaders and those intellectuals who were condemned as the “black hand” behind the pro-democracy movement were put on the most wanted list. Some of them escaped from China to the U.S. and Europe, but many others were arrested and sentenced to prison terms. Within the CCP, thousands of Party Members who participated in the demonstrations were disciplined or stripped of their memberships, and local and central government officials were dismissed, including Premier Zhao Ziyang, who was replaced by Jiang Zemin on June 24. What was lauded as the Age of Enlightenment or the Renaissance in the 1980s ended on a sad note. As China adopted a market economy and promoted private entrepreneurship in the 1990s, prospects of political reform were dim. To this day, “June Fourth” remains a political taboo in China, strictly enforced by censorship in print media and the Internet.


Recommended readings

Wang Dan, “30 Years After Tiananmen: The Meaning of June 4th,” Journal of Democracy, 2019.

Randolph Kluver, “Rhetorical Trajectories of Tiananmen Square," Diplomatic History, 2010.

Glenn Tiffert, “30 Years After Tiananmen: Memory in the Era of Xi Jinping,” Journal of Democracy, 2019.

For further reading

Craig Calhoun, Neither Gods nor Emperors, 1994.

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, Student Protests in Twentieth-Century China: The View from Shanghai, 1991.