The History Behind The Great Leap

The Great Leap by Lauren Yee follows Manford Lum, who makes a place for himself as part of the University of San Francisco basketball team traveling to Beijing for a “friendship” game. The Great Leap is inspired by Lauren Yee’s father’s experiences traveling to China to take part in these friendship games. 

Set in 1989 against the rising demonstrations for political and economic reform in Tiananmen Square, The Great Leap explores the intersection of cultural identity and politics through basketball.

Tiananmen Square 

Originally built in 1651, Tiananmen Square is known for being the center for the 1989 protests. On April 17, 1989, many students and protestors gathered at the square to mourn the death of Hu Yaobang, a political leader who was viewed as a martyr for the political liberalization of China. The students protested at this gathering for democracy, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press. These protests spread and expanded in other parts of China in the weeks following Hu Yaobang’s death.

On May 13, protestors launched a hunger strike. The Chinese government became increasingly uncomfortable as the protests grew, particularly after they disrupted a visit by Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union on May 15. By the end of May, protests and vigils became daily events at Tiananmen Square.

The government initially sent stern warnings to the protestors, but an increase in Western coverage caused the government to intensify their next steps. Though moderate government officials such as Zhao Zhiyang advocated for negotiations with the protestors, hard-liners (led by Chinese premier Li Peng and supported by former leader of the People’s Republic of China Deng Xiaoping) insisted on forcibly suppressing the protests. The government declared martial law on May 20, 1989, sending 250,000 troops to Beijing.

The Tiananmen Square “June Fourth Incident” happened at 1 A.M., as army officials fired live rounds into the crowds, and tried to crush those in their way. Once the officials reached the square, a number of protestors decided to leave rather than face confrontation.

The “Tank Man”

The image of the “Tank Man” is one of the most iconic images to emerge from Tiananmen Square. The moment was documented on film at the time, and the “Tank Man” successfully slowed the army and delayed the protests by standing in front of the lead tank, and waving his right hand, signifying them to stop. While the tank tried to maneuver around him, the man repeatedly stepped into the tank’s path to prevent it from moving forward. The “Tank Man” was removed by force by two men (possible government officials), and the tanks continued on their way.

That summer, a British newspaper identified the “Tank Man” as Wang Weilin, a 19 year-old student who was arrested for “political hooliganism.” As of 2020, all “Tank Man” photos are banned from public view by the Chinese government.

Tiananmen Square Aftermath

The Chinese government continues to heavily censor any talk of the event. As James Griffiths notes in his 2019 CNN article  “the events of June 4 have been wiped from the history books in China and any discussion of the crackdown is strictly censored and controlled. Tiananmen is a prime target of the Great Firewall, China’s sprawling online censorship program.” As for the United States, they announced the cease of commercial and government-to-government relationships with China in 1989.

Though the event and any mention of it has been censored by the Chinese government, the world still remembers what happened on June 4, and how the actions of Chinese citizens and the government’s reactions have influenced the course of history (See coverage of Tiananmen Square and its aftermath in The New York Times and Time Magazine).

Author’s Note: I don’t present myself as an expert in this field and the history behind The Great Leap. I am a student exploring these themes, and it’s important to address that the information presented in this post is just a sliver of the politics, history, and culture of the time period. Please check out the sources below for more information about Tiananmen Square, U.S.-China relations, and the rich history of basketball in China.

This post was curated by Marieska Luzada, Press and Digital Marketing Intern.