The student protests that engulfed Tiananmen Square in 1989 – and the Chinese government’s violent reaction to them – have become synonymous with Communist repression. Today, mention of the events of June 4 is strictly censored in China. In Hong Kong, the only place on Chinese soil where large commemorative gatherings were once held, the vigil held every year at Victoria Park has been banned since 2020. The government says it’s because of the pandemic, but a new law on national security has made some people question whether even lighting candles in private homes is legally allowed. Yet in the West, the killing of protesters calling for freedom has helped define attitudes towards China since then. What happened in Beijing that day?
Several factors led students to occupy Tiananmen Square in 1989. Inspired by the reforms Mikhail Gorbachev was pushing through in the Soviet Union, many students on college campuses demanded more intellectual freedom. The limited market reforms adopted by Deng Xiaoping, who had become the supreme leader of China in 1978, had also led to rising food prices and widening inequalities, causing unrest in the general population. At the same time, the perception that Deng was ready to loosen the state’s grip on Chinese daily life encouraged more open discussion in the press about where the country was heading. Some hoped for a transition to full democracy. More immediately, in April 1989, Hu Yaobang, a former secretary general of the Communist Party demoted because of his liberal views, had passed away.
About 10,000 students walked to Tiananmen Square in Beijing, ostensibly to mourn Hu. Alongside the banners lamenting his death, many demanded more freedom and democracy. Party leaders initially did not know how to deal with this threat to their authority. Three factors fueled their indecision. First, the party, like the students, mourned the loss of its former secretary general. Second, the leadership was split between reformers and conservatives. Hu’s replacement, Zhao Ziyang, was also a liberal. This gave the reformers the edge, at least initially. Third, the students enjoyed a deep cultural reverence for their education and the belief that they were still children who needed to be protected.
As the party mulled over its response, student protests spread to dozens of other cities across the country. And worryingly for the Communist leadership, there were signs that workers – as well as members of the establishment like state media journalists and officials – were starting to support them. At the end of April, up to 100,000 people gathered in Tiananmen Square every day. Some party bigwigs, including Mr. Zhao, called for dialogue to end the dispute. (He would later meet with student leaders, to little effect, offering clemency if they called off their protests.) Others, including Li Peng, the prime minister, believed the outcome could only be achieved by force. In May, as the party procrastinated, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets across the country to demand political reforms. Some 1,000 students in the square have gone on hunger strike “to the end”. Adding fuel to the fire, Gorbachev traveled to Beijing for a meeting with Deng. His arrival gave the students additional cover. They knew the rulers would not want to clean up the square by force at this historic summit, marking the end of a bitter Cold War feud. Perhaps a million people had already been drawn to central Beijing. After Gorbachev left, however, the mood changed: extremists gained the upper hand and martial law was declared in Beijing on May 20. Troops have gathered around the capital.
Faced with pleas from ordinary Pekingese to hold the fire, held back by roadblocks, and with the eyes of the world on them, the soldiers did not budge. Deng decided that strength was his only option. On June 3, the troops were ordered to enter the city and clear the square the next day, using all necessary means. To justify this, the party said the unrest had turned into a “counterrevolutionary rebellion” and had to be crushed. This time, as the troops advanced, rather than being swayed by the pleas of ordinary civilians, they opened fire on them. Faced with a barrier made up of thousands of demonstrators throwing bottles and stones at a bridge in Muxidi, the army mowed them down, probably killing hundreds of people.
Before dawn on June 4, the soldiers had reached the square. Although no definitive toll exists, eyewitnesses speak of protesters who fled the square, shot at point blank range and run over by tanks. During this time, several soldiers were dragged out of their vehicles and beaten to death. As the protesters retreated, trigger-happy troops scoured the suburbs in search of them, killing innocent people, including doctors and schoolchildren, in the process. It is likely that thousands of people in Beijing lost their lives on June 4. The massacre sparked some protests across the country. Foreign governments, including the United States, have announced limited sanctions. Yet the democratic revolution had collapsed. In time, the unspeakable affair, in China at least, would literally become so.