The events leading up to the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre

Live in May 1988. Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China. On the wall: Long live the People's Republic of China, Long live the unity of the people of the world". I had to travel to China, then to North Korea. One day – just relaxing in Budapest – next day on a jet over the gulf. We saw the cannon firing beneath (Iran-Iraq war, 1980-1988. China was a mystery, another planet at the time. Flying homebound I read the Chinese newspaper: János Kádár is gone. Published under Creative Commons in Metapolisz DVD line. Paper, Zenit-E. Tags: Tiananmen Square Beijing China 1988 People’s Republic of China Iran-Iraq War János Kádár Zenit E Metapolisz

The Tiananmen Square protests were student-led demonstrations held in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, during 1989. In what is known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the Chinese army armed with assault rifles and tanks fired at the demonstrators and those trying to block the military’s advance into Tiananmen Square.


The so-called Cultural Revolution died with chairman Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 CE and the Gang of Four arrests. That movement, initiated by Mao, caused critical damage to the nation’s initially diverse social and economic fabric. The government was pushed into poverty as economic production slackened or came to a halt. Political ideology was supreme in the lives of everyday people as well as the inner workings of the Communist Party itself. 

In September 1977 CE, Deng Xiaoping proposed Boluan Fanzheng (“bringing order out of chaos”) to fix the mistakes of the Cultural Revolution. At the later Third Plenum of the 11th Central Committee, in December 1978 CE, Deng emerged as China’s de facto ruler. He launched a broad program to reform the Chinese economy. Within a few years, the nation’s focus on ideological purity was followed by a concerted attempt to achieve material prosperity.

Deng’s reformations aimed to reduce the state’s role in the economy and slowly allow private production in industry and agriculture. By 1981 CE, 80% of state-owned enterprises were permitted to retain their profits, and roughly 73% of rural farms had been de-collectivized. 

Social disenfranchisement and legitimacy crisis

In 1978 CE, reformist leaders thought that intellectuals would play a leading role in guiding the nation through reforms, but this did not transpire as proposed. Despite increased enrollment and the opening of new universities, the state-directed education system did not create enough graduates to meet heightened demand in the areas of light industry, agriculture, foreign investment, and services. The job market was particularly limited for scholars specializing in humanities and social sciences. Moreover, private companies no longer needed to take students assigned to them by the state; and companies offered many high-paying jobs based on favoritism and nepotism. Gaining an excellent state-assigned placement meant piloting a highly inefficient administration that gave authority to officials who had little expertise in areas under their supervision. Facing a horrible job market and limited chances of going abroad, students and intellectuals had a greater vested interest in political issues. Small study groups, such as the “Democracy Salon” and the “Lawn Salon,” started appearing in Beijing university colleges. These groups motivated the trainees to get involved politically.

1989 Protests

When Hu Yaobang abruptly died of a heart attack on April 15, 1989 CE, scholars reacted strongly, most of them thinking that his death was related to his resignation. Hu’s death presented the initial reason for students to gather in numbers. On college campuses, many posters appeared praising Hu, calling for honoring Hu’s legacy. Within days, most signs were about more general political issues, such as democracy, corruption, and press freedom. At Tiananmen Square, spontaneous, small gatherings to mourn Hu began on April 15 in 1989 CE, around the Monument to the People’s Heroes. 

 As its volume grew, the gathering evolved into a protest, as students started to draft a list of suggestions and pleas (the Seven Demands) for the Chinese regime:

  1. End restrictions on demonstrations in Beijing.
  2. Affirm Hu Yaobang’s views on democracy and freedom as correct.
  3. Publish information on the income of state leaders and their family members.
  4. Admit that the campaigns against spiritual pollution and bourgeois liberalization had been wrong.
  5. Increase funding for education and raise intellectuals’ pay.
  6. Allow privately-run newspapers and stop press censorship.
  7. Provide objective coverage of students in official media.

Zhao’s departure to North Korea allowed Li Peng to take over Beijing’s acting executive authority. On April 24 of the same year, Li Peng and the PSC met with Beijing Secretary Li Ximing and mayor Chen Xitong to gauge the circumstance at the Square. The officials wanted a quick resolution to the crisis and blamed the protests as a conspiracy to overthrow China’s government system and leading party leaders, including Deng Xiaoping. In Zhao’s absence, the PSC agreed to take action against the protesters.

Escalation of the protests

In preparation for dialogue, the Union elected representatives to a formal delegation. However, there was some friction as the Union leaders were reluctant to let the delegation unilaterally take control of the movement. The movement was slowed by a change to a more deliberate approach, fractured by internal discord, and increasingly diluted by declining engagement from the student body at large. In this context, a group of charismatic leaders, including Wang Dan and Wu’erkaixi, desired to regain momentum. They also distrusted the government’s offers of dialogue, dismissing them as merely a ploy designed to play for time and pacify the students.

Hunger strikes begin

Students began the hunger strike on May 13, two days before the highly publicized state visit by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Knowing that Gorbachev’s welcoming ceremony was scheduled to be held on the Square, student leaders wanted to use the hunger strike to force the government into meeting their demands. Moreover, the hunger strike gained widespread sympathy from the population at large and earned the student movement the moral high ground that it sought. By the afternoon of May 13, some 300,000 were gathered at the Square.

Martial law

The Chinese government declared martial law on May 20 and mobilized at least 30 divisions from five of the country’s seven military regions. At least 14 of the PLA’s 24 army corps contributed troops. As many as 250,000 troops were eventually sent to the capital, some arriving by air and others by rail. Guangzhou’s civil aviation authorities suspended civil airline travel to prepare for transporting military units.

On June 1, Li Peng issued a report titled “On the True Nature of the Turmoil,” which was circulated to every member of the Politburo. The report aimed to persuade the Politburo of the necessity and legality of clearing Tiananmen Square by referring to the protestors as terrorists and counterrevolutionaries. The report stated that turmoil was continuing to grow, the students had no plans to leave, and they were gaining popular support. Further justification for martial law came in the form of a report submitted by the Ministry of State Security (MSS) to the party leadership. The report emphasized the danger of infiltration of bourgeois liberalism into China and the negative effect that the West, particularly the United States, had on the students. The MSS expressed its belief that American forces had intervened in the student movement in hopes of overthrowing the Communist Party. The report created a sense of urgency within the party and justified military action. In conjunction with the plan to clear the Square by force, the Politburo received word from army headquarters stating that troops were ready to help stabilize the capital and that they understood the necessity and legality of martial law to overcome the turmoil.

June 5 and the Tank Man

On June 5, the suppression of the protest was immortalized outside of China via video footage and photographs of a lone man standing in front of a column of tanks leaving Tiananmen Square via Chang’an Avenue. The “Tank Man” became one of the most iconic photographs of the 20th century. As the tank driver tried to go around him, the “Tank Man” moved into the tank’s path. He continued to stand defiantly in front of the tanks for some time, then climbed up onto the turret of the lead tank to speak to the soldiers inside. After returning to his position in front of the tanks, the man was pulled aside by a group of people.

A stopped convoy of 37 APCs on Changan Boulevard at Muxidi was forced to abandon their vehicles after becoming stuck among an assortment of burned-out buses and military vehicles. In addition to occasional incidents of soldiers opening fire on civilians in Beijing, Western news outlets reported clashes between units of the PLA. Late in the afternoon, 26 tanks, three armored personnel carriers, and supporting infantry took up defensive positions facing east at Jianguomen and Fuxingmen overpasses. Shellfire was heard throughout the night, and the next morning a United States Marine in the eastern part of the city reported spotting a damaged armored vehicle that an armor-piercing shell had disabled. The ongoing turmoil in the capital disrupted everyday life flow. 

Death toll

Estimates of the death toll vary from several hundred to several thousand, with thousands more wounded. Tiananmen Square protest death toll ‘was 10,000’ according to verified sources.

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