The Tiananmen Square Protests and Massacre of 1989

The Tiananmen Square Protests and Massacre of 1989

December 13, 2021 0 By Anton

“The West knows of only one protestor: “Tank Man”, the man in the iconic photograph who stood in the street, physically blocking the oncoming column of tanks billowing exhaust like gigantic farting beetles. They kept trying to make their way around him, but he kept getting in their way. “You’re steel, and I’m flesh and blood,” he seemed to be saying. “Come get me if you dare!” This moment was preserved for posterity because a foreign reporter happened to capture it on video, but there were countless Tank Men whose deeds were not captured on camera” – Liao Yiwu, “Bullets and Opium

“We occupied the square in front of the Changsha train station, put up our banners, and took turns speaking. The speeches were about the most popular topics of this movement: fighting corruption, stopping official profiteering, changing the political system, amending the constitution, and opposing the system of one-party dictatorship” – Yu Zhijian, one of the “Three Brave Men from Hunan” who defaced Mao’s portrait during the 1989 protests, interviewed in “Bullets and Opium

“Volumes have been written by and about the ‘Tiananmen elite’ […] but who is there to speak for the June Fourth ‘thugs’? They have no place in history, no voice in society. Nobody has come out to defend them. All their suffering has been in vain.” – Wu Wenjian, participant at the 1989 protests and painter of the scenes, interviewed in “Bullets and Opium

During the spring of 1989, driven by both the hope for a better future, and the imminent problem of corruption, students and citizens in Beijing took to the streets demanding democracy, as well as a true fulfilment of the rights promised in the People’s Republic of China’s 1982 constitution: freedom of speech, press, association, demonstration, and criticism of the government. […] Dr. Tong, currently an engineer living in America, was a participant in the protests as a graduate student at a university in Beijing and suffered severe gunshot wounds during the crackdown. During a recent interview, he said: “The students all wanted to make the country better: to get rid of corruption and increase citizens’ freedoms… nearly everyone in the nation supported the movement except those who were benefiting from the corruption.” – Kendall Zhu, China’s Shattered Enlightenment

“The protests were led by students, but the people who defended them were ordinary Beijingers. These were the people who were gunned down, arrested en masse, tortured, jailed, and forced to labor in the country’s infamous laogai gulag.” – Ian Johnson, Introduction to Bullets and Opium

These paragraphs describe the intentions and emotions of the courageous citizens who believed that their country’s government can change for the betterment of the nation and of the individuals living under its patronage.

Chinese demonstrators in Beijing, 1989
Chinese demonstrators in Beijing, 1989

Although the immediate catalyst for the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 was the death of Hu Yaobang, similar to the student movement that happened seventy years prior, the 1989 protests began with a central focus on issues concerning intellectuals, slowly merging with the many issues facing the working class Chinese. 

Wang Hui in “The End of the Revolution” explains how “students, workers and intellectuals demanded constitutional rights, such  as  “workable democratic politics, press freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and the rule of law (as opposed to the “rule of man”)”; state recognition of the legality of the movement as a patriotic student movement; “opposition to corruption and official malfeasance; opposition to…[a] special privileged class; …stable prices; restrictions on Yangpu Peninsula on Hainan Island…; and…social guaranties and social justice”.

The people behind the Tiananmen Square protests included a wide range of individuals, from educated students to men and women from rural areas, with barely any resources to travel to Beijing, as well as prominent figures from inside the CCP who tried to prevent a bloody conflict.

Moreover, there was a debate between the propaganda spewed by the CCP that the protests was an organised attempt to attack the Party and the socialist system and the fact that the gathering in Tiananmen Square began as a spontaneous protest against the injustices suffered at the hands of the CCP. To make it very clear: the dialectical terms here are organised and spontaneous.

Therefore, in order to understand a bit more what happened during the Spring – Summer months of 1989 in Beijing, we need to look in detail at some of the key dates and the events. What follows is the second part of the essay on Tiananmen Square Massacre. You can read the introduction article here, or by going on to “Project 1989”, “Tiananmen Square 1989” section on this website. Also, part one, “A Century of Cries for Freedom in China”, can be accessed here.

15 – 20 April 1989

What sparked the protests was the memorial for Hu Yaobang. As Kallie Szczepanski, a history teacher, explains in ToughtCo., he was “a reformist, who served as General Secretary of the Communist Party of China from 1980 to 1987. He advocated rehabilitation of people persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, greater autonomy for Tibet, rapprochement with Japan, and social and economic reform. As a result, he was forced out of office by the hardliners in January of 1987 and made to offer humiliating public “self-criticisms” for his allegedly bourgeois ideas.

One of the charges leveled against Hu was that he had encouraged (or at least allowed) widespread student protests in late 1986. As General Secretary, he refused to crack down on such protests, believing that dissent by the intelligentsia should be tolerated by the Communist government.

Hu Yaobang died of a heart attack not long after his ouster and disgrace, on April 15, 1989.”

On 20 April, the Beijing Workers Autonomous Federation (WAF) was established by a small group of workers. WAF was about to play a major role in the events that followed in the next weeks as thousands of workers from Beijing and other cities joined the Federation, turning what started as a student-led protest preoccupied with intellectual issues into a protest that now encompassed the deep economic issues that everyday Chinese people were facing: inflation, massive corruption that enabled Party official to get ultra-wealthy while most of the country was poor, and so on. Indeed, WAF leaflets displayed people’s disgruntlement with socialist system:

“The tyranny of the corrupt officials is nothing short of extreme… The people will no longer believe the lies of the authorities for on our banners appear the words: science, democracy, freedom, human rights and rule by law… We have conscientiously documented the exploitation of the workers. The method of understanding exploitation is based on the methods of analysis given in Marx’s Das Capital… We were astonished to find that the ‘peoples public servants’ have devoured all surplus value created by the people’s blood and sweat.”

22 – 27 April 1989

Following Hu’s death, the official media made a brief announcement and the government, at first, did not plan to have a funeral. As a response, university students from across Beijing marched on Tiananmen Square, shouting CCP-approved slogans and calling for Hu’s reputation to be rehabilitated.

Foreign Policy writes: “Shortly after the death of former Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang in April 1989, Xi Zhongxun, the father of current Chinese President Xi Jinping, wrote a letter to key members of the party leadership warning that if the funeral arrangements were not managed well, chaos would occur.”

In a small victory for the students, the government agreed to hold a funeral. However, on 19 – 20 April, the Chinese authorities refused to meet with a group of students who waited peacefully for three days to meet with someone from the government. As a consequence of both this refusal and the subdued commemoration of Hu Yaobang, on the day of his funeral, 22 April, thousands of students, with some estimates suggesting as much as 100,000, demonstrated in front of the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square.

Two days later, on 24 April, the first student strikes began. However, the CCP was confident that the protests will calm down and, the very next day, Zhao Ziyang went to visit North Korea. The failure to act would eventually cost Zhao his position and health.

As the declassified documents from the National Security Archive show, “the demonstration that had begun as an expression of grief over the loss of a popular political figure had, by April 26, taken on a decidedly political character. On that day People’s Daily published an editorial” entitled “The Necessity for a Clear Stand Against Turmoil” – an action which further inflamed the situation: the next day, on 27 April, as a result of the editorial, more protests emerged in other cities and in Beijing the crowd now included people from all walks of life.

29 April – 4 May 1989

During this period, foreign press coverage of the demonstrations increased and the CCP leadership became acutely aware of the outside world’s spotlight on how it governed the country. Nevertheless, the Party remained conflicted over how to respond to the protests. As PBS recalled: “Zhao Ziyang’s camp advocates negotiation and stresses the government should address legitimate complaints, such as the need for political reform. Li Peng and his allies argue that social stability must be restored before any reforms can be considered.”

In the camp for restoring order at any cost was also the current Chinese leader, Xi Jinping who, during the 1989 massacre, was the party chief of Ningde district in Fujian province, over a thousand miles from Beijing.

On 4 May, more students marched into Tiananmen Square to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the 1919 “May Fourth Movement”. At this point, Zhao Ziyang expressed understanding for the student’s patriotism and seemed critical of the government’s editorial published on 26 April. This angered the more radical individuals within the CCP even further.

PBS: Tiananmen Square protestors
PBS: Tiananmen Square protestors

5 May – 12 May 1989

The demonstrations appeared to lose momentum as some students returned to classes. Meanwhile, the CCP was preparing for the visit of USSR leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, and as such, Deng Xiaoping wanted the Tiananmen Square to be cleared. However, Zhao Ziyang failed to reach an agreement with the remaining protestors and fell on ill terms with the Party.

13 May – 23 May 1989

Throughout this period, the events escalated quickly. On 13 May, a small group of students, estimated at around 160, began a hunger strike in anticipation of Gorbachev’s visit. One of the students stated: “The nation is in crisis — beset by rampant inflation, illegal dealing by profiteering officials, abuses of power, corrupt bureaucrats, the flight of good people to other countries and deterioration of law and order. Compatriots, fellow countrymen who cherish morality, please hear our voices!”

This action moved a lot of people and produced a broader public support for the students’ protests. Famines were, and still are, a deeply emotional topic in China as its people knew “thousands of years of famines”, explained Canadian journalist Jan Wong.

Two days later, on 15 May, the USSR leader arrived in Beijing. However, due to the hunger strike, he could not be welcomed in Tiananmen Square. Additionally, his escort was blocked by Beijing protestors on multiple streets. At this point it is important to remember that the CCP was acutely aware of what was happening in the Soviet Union – the struggles facing the communist block – and seeing the protestors gaining such courage scared them into believing that China’s communist regime could soon follow a similar path.

The next day, on 16 May, the hunger strike extended and more than 3,000 people were now participating in it. During an emergency meeting Zhao Ziyang maintained that the way to solve the issue regarding the protests was through dialogue with the Chinese people. From the Politburo meeting, which was reported by multiple Western newspapers, we learn that Zhao stated:

“The vast majority of student demonstrators are patriotic and sincerely concerned for our country. We may not approve of all of their methods, but their demands to promote democracy, to deepen the reforms and to root out corruption are quite reasonable, and I even think it’s quite understandable when they sometimes go a bit overboard.”

Zhao poses for a photo in the garden of his home in central Beijing on April 17, 1990. Photo: Reuters/New Century Media and Consulting Co., Ltd.
Zhao poses for a photo in the garden of his home in central Beijing on April 17, 1990. Photo: Reuters/New Century Media and Consulting Co., Ltd.

This was not the first time that Zhao Ziyang spoke openly about the need for reform. According to documents smuggled into Hong Kong and published by the Chinese University of Hong Kong press in 2016: “in a transcript of a closed-door party meeting in February 1987, Zhao said on the question of political reform that “past elections were elections without choices and [it] would be difficult to call them real democracy.” In the transcript of a speech in April 1981, he says that it is best to “use scientific methods” and not to engage in political movements.”.

However, Zhao’s progressive mindset was his downfall during the 1989 protests. His statements of openness towards the students, who were seen as dangerous by the radical core of the CCP, would result in the Chinese statesman’s eventual demise: “Zhao, who died in 2005 after spending more than 15 years under house arrest for opposing the crackdown on June 4, 1989, remains a symbol of reformist rectitude to more liberal elements in the party.”.

In another meeting of the Politburo, on 17 May, Zhao maintained his position that what was required in order to calm the students was open communication and not martial law:

“I’m against imposing martial law in Beijing. My reason is that, given the extreme feelings of the students at this juncture, to impose martial law will not help calm things down or solve problems. It will only make things more complicated and more sharply confrontational…In the 40 years of the People’s Republic, our party has learned many lessons from its political and economic mistakes. Given the crisis we now face at home and abroad, I think that one more big political mistake might well cost us all our remaining legitimacy.”

Zhao was not the only one to oppose Deng’s desire to use force. The father of Xi Jinping, Xi Zhongxun, was also opposed to this way of action. This was not the first time when the father of the current CCP leader got into a feud with the Party: his support for a novel about the Party’s history got him 16 years in prison. More on the dynamic between Xi Jinping’s family and the relationship with the CCP later on.

Deng Xiaoping refused Zhao’s suggestions and Xi’s warnings and prepared for enacting martial law: “We want to build a socialist democracy, but we can’t possibly do it in a hurry, and still less do we want that Western-style stuff. If our one billion people jumped into multiparty elections, we’d get chaos like the ”all-out civil war” we saw during the Cultural Revolution. […] After thinking long and hard about this, I’ve concluded that we should bring in the People’s Liberation Army and declare martial law in Beijing.”

The chaos during the Cultural Revolution was not because China had suddenly adopted democracy and its population was allowed to express political views freely. Rather, Mao Zedong felt that the CCP was not communist enough, that it was abandoning its socialist creed, and that his own power position was under threat. As such, Mao called the nation’s youth to purge the “impure” elements of Chinese society. From History Magazine: “Mao’s own position in government had weakened after the failure of his “Great Leap Forward” (1958-60) and the economic crisis that followed. Chairman Mao Zedong gathered a group of radicals, including his wife Jiang Qing and defense minister Lin Biao, to help him attack current party leadership and reassert his authority.”

In other words, the Cultural Revolution had zero traces of democracy, with Mao not allowing even the other communist leaders to tilt from the rigid and sacred socialist ideology. If anything, the Cultural Revolution was a coup: “He shut down the nation’s schools, calling for a massive youth mobilization to take current party leaders to task for their embrace of bourgeois values and lack of revolutionary spirit.”

Therefore, Deng’s concerns was not that democracy would bring chaos, but that the CCP leadership would once again repeat the mistakes of the past and lose its grip on power, potentially needing another period of violent chaos, akin to that of the Cultural Revolution, to restore its authority.

In the two days before martial law was declared, Zhao visited hospitalised students who suffered as a result of the hunger strike and asked them to call off the protests fast. The protestors learnt about the Party’s plans and, instead of the hunger strike which they end, staged a sit-in in Tiananmen Square which attracted about 1 – 1.2 million people, including workers, professionals, police and military members. In a last public appearance, on 19 May, Zhao went to Tiananmen Square and tried to reach a compromise with the Chinese people. He was however unsuccessful.

As a consequence, on 20 May martial law is declared. We learn from the declassified documents edited by Richelson and Evans that “the Chinese leadership imposed martial law on the Beijing Municipality and appeared to be moving toward the use of force to clear the square” as, for the first time in 40 years of communist rule, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) tried to occupy the city.

Between 20 and 23 May, the soldiers are blocked by civilians and could not reach the protestors in Tiananmen Square. The fact that those soldiers were ordered not to fire, even if provoked, coupled with the blockages, was taken to be a humiliating experience for the CCP which was now greatly concerned that the entire communist project could collapse.

23 May – 1 June 1989

For the next few days, the demonstrations continued. It is during this period (23 May – 1 June) that the portrait of Mao Zedong was “attacked” with rotten eggs by the “Three Brave Men from Hunan”. Yu Zhijian recalled in an interview with Liao Yiwu:

“I made an alternate proposal to attack the famous portrait of Mao Zedong on the Tiananmen gate tower, symbolically declaring an end to Communist tyranny. Yu Dongyue and Lu Decheng agreed right away. From midnight on May 22, we discussed our plan. […] The next morning, […] we managed to get a ladder and carry it to the doorway under Mao’s portrait. […] When we saw we wouldn’t be able to take down Old Mao, we had to go to plan C.”.

Plan C was to throw eggshells filled with paint at the portrait. “Then we put down a sheet of high-quality art paper, four feet by about two and a half feet, and thought carefully about an appropriate couplet. It had to be the best couplet written since 1949. I suggested a phrase and Yu Dongyue, filled with emotion, wrote it down in one stroke: “Five thousand years of tyranny ends here. No more personality cults starting now”. And across the top: “Freedom is mighty”.”.

This was also the time when the “Goddess of Democracy”, a 30-foot statue, was erected in the middle of Tiananmen Square, which resembled the Statue of Liberty, underlying that the desire for democracy and individual freedom was a common dream among many Chinese people.

Goddess of Democracy China

Following the retreat of the army from the streets of Beijing on 24 May, the Party decided to bring in troops from far away, who did not have any connections with city and with the locals and whose daughters and sons were not in the Square. This time, Deng Xiaoping decided that no obstacle was going to stay in their way.

2 June 1989

Li Peng, who, after the events of 1989, was known as the Butcher of Beijing, reported to CCP high ranking officials that “Americans and Taiwanese were infiltrating the democracy movement and using it to provoke bloodshed and destabilize China.”

In Li’s words addressed to the Party on 2 June: “[…] We should send the troops right now to grab those counterrevolutionaries, Comrade Xiaoping! What’s the People’s Liberation Army for anyway? What are martial law troops for? They’re supposed to grab counterrevolutionaries…Anybody who tries to overthrow the Communist Party deserves death and no burial…”.

Li Peng China
Li Peng

Whether or not this was a made-up pretext used to justify the need of unfettered military force against civilians, we can never know. All that we know for sure was that Deng’s response was this: “I agree with all of you and suggest that martial law troops begin tonight to carry out the clearing plan and finish it within two days.”

“[…] they needed to make a bloody stand to cower their population back into submission” explained John Pomfret, Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post from 1998-2003, who was in Beijing in 1989 on assignment. Document 11 of the archive edited by Richelson and Evans states: “Unlike the previous units, these troops were helmeted and armed with automatic weapons suggesting, as this cable does, ‘that the force option is real’.”.

Slaughtered in Broad Daylight: 3 – 4 June 1989

Before we get into the statistical and qualitative details of what happened on the night towards 4 June, it is important to recall the sentiments and intentions of those who were protesting.

“The students were flawed – as are most people, when they are eighteen or nineteen years old. Most had little idea of what they wanted. And some were arrogant. But they were well-meaning and idealistic, and many Chinese saw in them a hope for a better, more decent society. From across the country, Chinese travelled to Beijing to support them, wired them money, and wrote poems in their honour. And so, on that fateful night, thousands of ordinary Beijingers ran out onto the streets to confront the troops,” wrote Ian Johnson in the Introduction for “Bullets and Opium”.

In the predawn hours of 4 June, on the CCP’s orders, about 200,000 PLA troops surrounded China’s capital and then marched to its heart. The tanks and armoured vehicles cleared the way, crushing the barricades, firing into the crowd and mowing down humans like weeds.

Injured Chinese people on 4 June 1989
Injured Chinese people on 4 June 1989

The declassified NSA documents recall the events:

“[…] violent clashes with demonstrators as PLA troops “using automatic weapons advanced in tanks, APC’s [Armored Personnel Carriers], and trucks from several directions toward the city center.” Casualties, according to the estimates of U.S. Embassy personnel, appear high.

[…] civilians turned out in massive numbers and fought for seven hours to prevent the troops from advancing on the square. In the face of overwhelming numbers of heavily armed troops, the summary notes, “thousands of civilians stood their ground or swarmed around military vehicles. APCs were set on fire, and demonstrators besieged troops with rocks, bottles, and Molotov cocktails.”

[…] “a column of about 50 APC, tanks, and trucks entered Tiananmen from the east.” Demonstrators shouted angrily, the cable states, and “PLA troops in Tiananmen opened a barrage of rifle and machine gun fire.” Another column of military vehicles entered soon thereafter, and more gunfire ensued, “causing a large number of casualties.”

[…] violent PLA clashes with demonstrators on Changan Boulevard, the main thoroughfare in the Tiananmen area, and in other parts of Beijing. Embassy officials also report conversations with angry citizens, some “claiming that more than 10,000 people had been killed at Tiananmen.” One woman claimed to have witnessed a tank running over 11 people. She also told Embassy officers that she had seen PLA troops “breaking the windows of shops, banks, and other buildings.”

By the morning of June 5 (Eastern Standard Time) the “severity of the assault” had become clear to U.S. officials. […] “Troops shot indiscriminately into crowds of unarmed civilians, including women and children, often with automatic weapons… Foreign journalists report seeing fleeing protesters shot in the back”.”.

The PLA clearing Beijing of protestors
The PLA clearing Beijing of protestors

These are the official accounts of 4 June 1989 in Tiananmen Square. However, it would be unjust to only rest this analysis on these documents and not give a voice to some of the people who risked their lives and their freedom for years to come, when they participated at the protests. Some of these accounts follow below.

“[…] when two lines of martial law troops drove their tanks from either side into the square, they were going well over 60 miles an hour. Completely insane. At the time, there were still 20,000, 30,000 people or more who hadn’t left the square. I left with the last group”, recalled Liu Yi, one of the protestors who, before giving his views on what happened on 4 June, said this: “First of all, I want to state my personal views. I have opinions about this society, but I don’t want to subvert it. Just the opposite. I am a patriot […] I am unsophisticated. I even participated in the April 1989 Muslim street demonstrations [despite not being a Muslim]. Because government policies were discriminating against people on the basis of their ethnicity”. 

Liu continued: “The density of bullets flying was like the screen in a sieve. Many people flattened themselves and didn’t dare get up. Those fuckers! No other invaders shot down ordinary people in the streets with guns and cannons – not the Western powers during the Boxer Rebellion, not the Japanese devils, no one! But the People’s Liberation Army soldiers, who claim to serve the people, slaughtered them in broad daylight.”.

When Liao asked Liu how many people did he see shot, Liu replied: “Five, including one female student, who covered her stomach as her intestines spilled out. Blood, moaning and screaming. Who would have thought that patriotism could lead to this?”

Patriotism is dangerous when the leaders of a nation are parasites: they fear people’s love for their country, for its history, traditions and culture because all these things mean the removal and punishment of those who plunder it, even if these usurpers come from inside the country.

Liu was the leader of the Disciplinary Patrol Team, which was the first organisation, even before WAF, to put up tents on the square. The Patrol Team was set up to ensure some order among the demonstrators. Liu was there when the first tank was set on fire. Whether this was done after or before the altercations began and by whom, it will forever remain unknown, including to the CCP:

“Who gave that first order? Who fired the first shot? Who burned the first army truck? Weren’t the rifles that the crowd destroyed all worthless items about to be discarded, purposely sent there by the government?” Liu asked Liao. As such, when the CCP claims to know about the exact unfolding of the events know that: a) they are lying or b) that they know because they planned it.

This state of confusion was confirmed by Document 18 from the declassified throve mentioned above: “Two days after the crackdown, this report from the U.S. Embassy stated that a western military attaché had told the U.S. military representative that one PLA unit, the 27th Army, “was responsible for most of the death and destruction at Tiananmen Square on June 3.” The 27th, the cable notes, was commanded by the nephew of PRC President Yang Shangkun, a noted hardliner, and was even accused of killing “soldiers from other units run over by the 27th APC’s and tanks.” The document also indicates that a large contingent of soldiers from the 27th had taken up position on a highway overpass, “and seem poised for attack by other PLA units”.”.

Soldiers in Tiananmen Square
Soldiers in Tiananmen Square

Another account of what happened on that night comes from Hu Zhongxi, a working class man who came to Beijing on 22 May and established the “Black Leopard Death-Defying Squad”, which had about fifty members that included students, workers and people from outside the capital. The aim of the squad was to provide moral supply to students and to assist everyone with supplies, even the soldiers who received food and water. Hu stated:

“When martial law had just begun, the Communist Party put those young peasant soldiers on the far, undeveloped fringe of the city, brainwashed them, and prohibited the from watching television or reading the newspapers. So the only authority for those soldiers was the word of their officers. When those ignorant soldiers were ordered to leave for Beijing, they had no idea at all of the true situation. So we civilians would patiently explain to them what was going on. The sacred duty of soldiers is to protect their country. What were they doing marching into Beijing? Why were so many soldiers needed in the capital city? Look around: Do these people look like counterrevolutionaries? On a hot day we give you Popsicles that we won’t even buy for ourselves. What kind of scoundrels would do such things?”

Liao’s book is full of such accounts that highlight the complexity of the protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989. One thing to note before we will move to the third part of this essay, is that governments have a long history of provoking violence by introducing in the crowd of demonstrators paid thugs, sometimes from the ranks of the secret police or intelligence services, who have as aim to stir up the spirits, start fires and taunt the authorities. These actions are then used as justification by the government to use excessive force.

Here we end the second part of the essay on the Tiananmen Square massacre. You can read the first part here and the introductory article here. The first part, called “A Century of Cries for Freedom in China“, provides the history of patriotic and anti-CCP movements in China throughout the twentieth century: it is the historic and ideological context of the events that unfolded in the Spring – Summer months of 1989 in Beijing. If you found it useful, please share this article.