Tiananmen Square Massacre – China – June 4, 1989

Thousands were killed and thousands of others wounded.

Tiananmen Square, meaning “Gate of Heavenly Peace” refers to a cluster of ancient buildings plus a massive square in the heart of Beijing. The former is a museum dealing with events from China’s past, the latter is an important site ever since 1949 when communist revolutionaries became the government of China. Official celebrations and national day rallies are held here. For some time, in the months leading up to June 4, 1989, large numbers of students had been protesting corruption in government circles and authoritarian responses to their complaints. These protests kept increasing in intensity and finally the government ordered its army to crush the protesters. Thousands were killed and thousands more were injured in the military action that followed on June 4.

When Hong Kong was transferred from Britain to China in 1997 the celebrations for the event were held in Tiananmen Square. Protests also occurred in the square and the reason that the 1989 protest was so well internationally publicized on television relates to the fact that President Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union was visiting China at that time. Cameras from many countries were in place for Gorbachev’s visit and they switched to the massacre in the square when it happened. The student protests that developed in the summer of 1989 began as mourning ceremonies for Hu Yaobang, a senior member of the Communist government, who died suddenly in April of 1989. Before his death he was disgraced and removed from office because he was a long-time friend of students supporting them in their demands for political reform. Thousands gathered around the residences of top Chinese officials near Beijing’s Forbidden City to talk about democracy with Prime Minister Li Peng. They wanted to know why Hu Yaobang had been disgraced and dismissed from office.

The numbers grew when they learned that some of the students who were protesting had been arrested. Students took up temporary residence on Tiananmen Square and pressed their requests, including asking high-ranking officials to publish lists of their personal property. In support of their demands, students from Beijing University, the most prestigious in China, organized a strike. Half of the student body boycotted classes and students from other universities joined them. Together, aided by workers from other walks of life, 80,000 people marched to the square where they presented a seven-point demand to the government. It included the rehabilitation of Hu, press freedom, and more money for education. These students were not opposed to their communist form of government, they just wanted their leaders and the party as a whole to live up to their own ideals.

When the memorial service for Hu Yaobang was held in the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square, students won their first victory. They were permitted to remain in the square during the memorial service. About 200,000 came to pay their respects to Hu but, at the end, Li Ping refused to meet with the students to discuss their concerns. Instead he issued a statement criticizing the student movement for reckless behavior and for inciting strikes. The student response to Li Ping was a carefully organized march of students from Beijing University and forty other universities together with people from the community, as many as half a million in all. They went to the square and held up a large copy of the country’s constitution with a focus on the guarantee of the right of demonstration. The protest activities continued for some days, aided by three hundred journalists who had been demanding greater freedom of the press. Sympathy protests were held at other universities across the country. On May 13, 1989, several hundred students began a hunger strike in the square.

The influence of the protests expanded greatly on May 14. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was about to arrive and the students planned to welcome him because of the political reforms he instituted in the Soviet Union. This was to be the first Sino-Soviet summit conference in thirty years. For China, however, the visit became a huge embarrassment. Gorbachev was far too popular with the students. Furthermore, the official procession could not come through Tiananmen Square, the traditional route for all such occasions. The Russian delegation therefore had to come through a back street where no welcoming crowd could see them.

The tense situation was by now the main topic of conversation at the top levels of government. Some wanted to deal sympathetically with the students and give consideration to their demands. Zhao Ziyang, the Communist Party secretary and a well-known reformist was the foremost proponent of this approach. Li Ping was on the opposite side. Students were naive, convinced that the army would never shoot Chinese citizens. There were divisions in the army too. Some units were unwilling to open fire on the protestors so the government officers issued statements saying that the army was there to protect people, not harm them. They added that guns would only be used as a last resort. All of these things heightened tension.

The only person who could settle the dispute among government leaders was Deng Xiaoping, the leader who had transformed China’s economy by adopting western ideas. Although retired, his opinion still carried more weight than any other. His decision, on June 3, 1989, was to bring in the troops and clear the square within twelve hours. The square by this time was full of students and a ten-meter-high goddess of democracy statue had recently been added to their demonstration. Troops began to make their way into the center of Beijing, encountering taunting and public opposition. Students had erected road blocks all around the square.

In the early morning of June 4, the crack of rifle fire and the occasional thud-thud of heavy machine guns told everyone what had happened. There was no warning. As the gunfire came nearer, the crowd became frantic and started to push several buses across the road to block the path against any incoming troops. There were clear signs of the terror to come. Behind the Great Hall of the People in the square 1,000 troops stood, for a moment surrounded by a jeering crowd. Suddenly, eight hundred riot police stormed out of the compound where government leaders lived, firing tear gas and laying about them with clubs.

They were supported by a large contingent of troops accompanied by trucks, tanks, and armored personnel carriers that poured into the square from the east side. The road was soon littered with broken glass and bricks, partly the result of student action against the soldiers, partly due to the destructive activity of the troops. More and more wounded were being taken to the nearest hospital. In the eyes of an onlooker, one of the hospitals looked like a war zone of dead and broken bodies. There were some on benches and beds or on blood-soaked mattresses on the floor, and many had bullet wounds on chest, legs, or head. Students had been bayoneted to death. Students in tents were crushed to death by oncoming tanks. The shock among students was palpable. Again and again voices cried out in words like the following: How could the Communist Party do this? How could they shoot children? Many could not find words to express their horror. Next day the world knew what had happened. It had been documented on film. The Chinese Red Cross estimated that close to 3,000 had been killed.

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