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Tracing History: April, Part 2

Natalie Petit

“History is not the past but a map of the past, drawn from a particular point of view,

to be useful to the modern traveler.” – Henry Glassie, US Historian

Welcome to a new TalkDiplomacy series that aims to trace the roots of current events, issues, triumphs and failures to important historical happenings. Twice a month, readers will receive a snapshot of several influential events that occurred during the corresponding time period in modern history, and an analysis of how these decisions, actions, and ideas have shaped the course of events leading up to present day. A special emphasis is placed on events that influenced current-day diplomacy all over the world.

13 minute read


April 21st, 1989: Thousands of students begin protesting in Beijing's Tiananmen Square

April 22nd, 1970: The first Earth Day is celebrated

April 26th, 1986: Worst nuclear disaster in history occurs at Chernobyl power station

April 21st, 1989 (or April 22nd)

Thousands of students begin protesting in Beijing's Tiananmen Square

History Alone, unarmed, and looking stoically at a line of tanks poised in front of him, the anonymous figure known only as “Tank Man,” captured in this iconic photograph, is a tangible symbol of the peaceful protests that were met with violence at Tiananmen Square in Beijing in June 1989. Chinese students calling for greater political openness, such as relaxed restrictions on speech, and economic reforms to increase the standard of living gathered in the square beginning in April 1989. China had recently experienced a decade of unprecedented growth and liberalization, sparking demands for further reforms and increased individual liberties. Communist Party leaders were divided between those who welcomed and encouraged reform and hard-liners who viewed the rapid increase in freedom as a threat to government control.

The funeral of Hu Yaobang, a prominent politician whose liberal leanings had resulted in his forced resignation several years earlier, roused many of his supporters to demonstrate in favor of pro-democratic reform. In the following weeks, up to one million students protested in Tiananmen Square. At first, the government did not respond directly, but when hard-liner politicians fearing anarchy won the debate as to how to handle the protests, martial law was declared in Beijing in late May after a month of unrest. The tragic culmination of the tension occurred in the early hours of June 4th.

Thousands of troops and hundreds of military vehicles arrived in the city center to regain control and forcibly remove the protesters. No warning was given before the students were fired upon and crushed by rolling tanks. Estimates of the number of civilians killed in Tiananmen Square range from 241 (the official government count) to several thousand. A newly declassified cable from the British Ambassador to China at the time claims that up to 10,000 people died. Suspected “counterrevolutionaries” not killed in the crackdown were detained, imprisoned, or executed in the following weeks, effectively silencing all public dissent.

Present Labelled a “massacre” by Western states but wholly downplayed by the Chinese government, the events at Tiananmen Square continue to hold significance as an example of horrific government repression. However, there is no discussion or reflection on these events in China itself. Information on the taboo topic cannot be found online in China, and it also cannot be covered by the media. Today’s students learn very little about the incident, and what they do learn is heavily censored. The response is indicative of what Washington Post reporter Yuhua Wang claims is a more repressive post-1989 regime. However, rather than increasing government support, the suppression has created quiet but resentful “silent dissidents.” Throughout history, there are examples of the same type of volatile situation, and such sentiments often boil over.

Understanding China’s internal dynamics can assist governments in defining interstate relations with the country. Wilson Center Global Fellow Zheng Wang describes the “unusual” choice made after Tiananmen Square by the Communist Party government. Rather than continuing to balance all types of reform at an even, slow pace, leaders chose to shift toward an extremely liberal economic policy, while political reform swung to a more conservative end of the spectrum. In this “1989 choice,” the government separated issues so that different agendas could be prioritized without being hindered by an overarching reform strategy.

This explains the unbelievably fast growth in China’s economy (China’s GDP may pass the US’s by 2030, according to some reports) despite continued, repressive government control. In fact, some experts suggest that this impressive change may be because of such authoritarianism, a notion that is not compatible with Western views. Many political and economic undercurrents today can be linked back to Tiananmen, and the US and other nations should connect these historical dots in order to better understand China’s future trajectory.


Sources, and to learn more about…

The Tiananmen Square massacre, start with this 2021 BBC article, this overview of the events by Amnesty International, the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on the subject, and these primary source articles from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.

April 22nd, 1970

The first Earth Day is celebrated

History Recognized as the largest secular observance in the world, Earth Day is celebrated by more than a billion people each April 22nd. Over fifty years ago, Earth Day began as a means to bring awareness to alarming environmental trends in the United States. Senator Gaylord Nelson, hoping to channel the energy of anti-war protests taking place at universities across the country into a new campaign – one that would spark student consciousness about increasing levels of air and water pollution, habitat deterioration, and toxic waste – organized a series of “teach-ins,” which are extended discussions and lectures held by faculty. Soon, the idea grew to encompass a nationwide awareness campaign. The movement was unique in several ways. First, it garnered almost immediate support, with numerous activist groups organizing demonstrations and 20 million Americans joining to advocate for environmental issues. Second, support crossed political and socioeconomic divides and united people for a common goal. Third, by the end of 1970, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created and several monumental environmental protection laws were passed, spurred by the sense of urgency Earth Day produced.

Twenty years later, in 1990, Earth Day became a global phenomenon. Over 200 million people in 141 countries participated in activities and demonstrations. These efforts resulted in numerous positive developments, most notably the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. According to the UN, the conference's main objective was to create “a new blueprint for international action on environmental and development issues that would help guide international cooperation and development policy in the twenty-first century.” Over the years, the holiday has served as an outlet for global citizens to showcase the urgency of climate reforms and remind governments of the widespread public support for policies that safeguard the future of our planet.

Present While bringing awareness to the issues plaguing our environment is half the battle, the other half requires tangible action that addresses the problems. Among the most pressing of these issues is the emission of greenhouse gases such as hydrochlorofluorocarbons that deplete the planet’s ozone layer and contribute greatly to global warming. Many of the international agreements that are in place today – like the Paris Agreement, Kyoto Protocol, and European Union Emissions Trading System – attempt to abate rising temperatures by setting limits on emissions. Currently, the goal is to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5°C. To put this in perspective, the average global temperature has risen by slightly more than 1°C since 1880, with most of the increase occurring since 1975, indicating an accelerating rate of change.

While the goals of these global agreements are honorable, their effectiveness is debatable. Signatories’ implementation and adherence to the terms vary, despite success requiring mutual participation in such arrangements. Generally, most countries agree that we are facing an urgent environmental crisis. However, opinions diverge on which nations are most responsible, which countries face the worst consequences and whether extra assistance should be provided, and what targets should be set to make a difference in curtailing global warming. These are massively complex questions that are constrained by geopolitical, economic, and cultural concerns. As discussed in a previous Tracing History article, environmental diplomacy can – and should – play a large role in addressing these issues. A balance must be struck between governments’ domestic considerations and a need to make sacrifices for the future of our planet. Encouragingly, there have been significant improvements in recent decades; realistically, much more must be done.


Sources, and to learn more about…

The origins of Earth Day and current efforts, check out (and test your own environmental literacy here!).

Greenhouse gas emissions, start with this EPA overview.

Successes and failures of global climate agreements, read this comprehensive review by Lindsay Maizland for the Council on Foreign Relations.

April 26th, 1986

Worst nuclear disaster in history occurs at Chernobyl power station

History Located about 130 kilometers north of Kyiv, Ukraine, the Chernobyl Power Complex was the site of the most serious nuclear catastrophe to date in terms of death toll, cost, and radiation released by the explosion, which was several times more than that released by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. According to official records of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), thirty-one people died as a direct result of the accident, either from injuries or acute radiation sickness. However, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of residents of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia have been affected by radiation that escaped and seeped into the environment, even hundreds of kilometers from the reactor site. Being exposed to high levels of radiation is known to damage human DNA and can lead to cancer in the long term. It took years to clean up the site, and the plant and nearest town, Pripyat, part of the “Chernobyl Exclusion Zone” that extends 30 kilometers around the site, are now abandoned.

In April 1986, operators conducted a routine electrical systems test on one of the reactors. Due to a series of mistakes made by the workers, including dropping power output to nearly zero and turning off safety control mechanisms, as well as a functional oversight in the design of the reactors and a sudden power surge at an unfortunate time, the uranium fuel in the reactor became unstable and overheated, causing it to melt and explode in the early morning hours. Toxic fumes and smoke from the fires spread quickly, and radioactive elements were pumped into the atmosphere for weeks after the incident. Alarmingly, residents of Pripyat were not evacuated until 36 hours post-explosion, and many were already reporting nausea and headaches, indicating the effects of radiation sickness were already materializing.

Ukraine was part of the USSR at the time, and details have emerged about how Soviet authorities engaged in a cover-up campaign of the accident and ensuing effects. The world learned about the incident from Swedish scientists who discovered high levels of radiation around a nuclear plant of their own, though it was being emitted a thousand kilometers away.

Present Major improvements in nuclear reactor design and safety mechanisms resulted from the lessons learned at Chernobyl. The disaster had substantial geopolitical consequences, too. Former Soviet President Gorbachev believed that the incident was “perhaps the main cause of the Soviet Union’s collapse,” even more significant than his famous perestroika (reconstruction) movement. He had also unveiled the policy of glasnost, or “openness,” just before the accident, and he claimed that “the experience made starkly apparent how important it was to continue the policy” (Gorbachev, 2006). Less than five years later, the USSR broke apart.

Important debates on the use of nuclear technology, in both military and non-military contexts, can also be traced back to the Chernobyl accident. Gorbachev was an advocate for denuclearization, and he says Chernobyl further opened his eyes to “the horrible potential consequences of nuclear technology.” Many nuclear energy advocates argue it is a solution to climate change based on its zero-emission clean energy status. Some anti-nuclear activists counter this with economic data suggesting that money tied up in nuclear investments detracts from investments in “future-proof” sustainable technologies. These arguments are only the tip of the nuclear debate iceberg. Are the risks associated with nuclear energy worthwhile? Chernobyl illuminates the “uncontrollability” of potential nuclear mistakes (van de Rakt, 2021). On the other hand, do the “pros” of reliable, carbon-free power outweigh the smaller chance of serious “cons” like another catastrophe? Nuclear energy, and of course, nuclear weapons, will continue to be a source of heated debate for the foreseeable future.


Sources, and to learn more about…

The toll of the disaster, read Richard Gray’s 2019 article for BBC.

Mikhail Gorbachev’s reflections on Chernobyl, read his 2006 article for Project Syndicate.

The debate over nuclear energy, start with EnergySage’s analysis of pros and cons, and Eva van de Rakt’s 2021 interview for Germany’s Heinrich Böll Foundation, a public policy think tank.


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