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30 years later: What happened in Tiananmen Square June 4, 1989?

Image: AP Photo

June 4, 2019, marks the 30th anniversary of the Chinese regime’s bloody crackdown on tens of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

For those who took part in the demonstrations and survived, and for the friends and families of the victims, the more time that passes, the more pressing it is to keep the memory of the events alive.  

Remember the events that led to the Tiananmen Square massacre in the timeline below.



Throughout the 1980s, Hu Yaobang, the liberal General Secretary of China’s Communist Party, pursued a series of free market and democratic reforms that resonated with China’s youth.

Image: AP Photo 



Hu was forced to resign after widespread student protests against the Communist regime, and the government clamped down.

Image: AP Photo 


April 15, 1989

Hu became a symbol of democracy after his sudden death from a heart attack. Thousands of students from several universities around Beijing gathered in Tiananmen Square, where they erected a monument in his honor.  Over the next few days, thousands more joined them, carrying banners, chanting slogans, and singing songs, calling for greater freedoms and equality.

Image: AP Photo 


April 22, 1989

On the morning of Hu’s memorial at the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square, there were as many as 100,000 people gathered outside. Student leaders had drafted a petition of demands and insisted on delivering it to government officials. They also demanded a meeting with Premier Li Peng, but were refused. 

Image: AP Photo 


April 26, 1989

An editorial in the state-run newspaper People’s Daily titled “The Necessity for a Clear Stand Against Turmoil” called the students “counter-revolutionary conspirators.” The editorial only fueled the students’ anger and drove other members of the public to join their ranks.

Image: AP Photo 


May 4, 1989

Nearly a million students and workers were holding daily vigils in Tiananmen Square, and tens of thousands of students were staging protests in several other cities around China, including Shanghai, the biggest city in the country.

Image: AP Photo 


May 13, 1989

Ahead of a state visit by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, some of the more radical student leaders called for a hunger strike, and hundreds of people joined them. The move drew widespread public support, and forced the government to cancel plans to welcome Gorbachev in Tiananmen Square.

Image: AP Photo 


Early - May 19, 1989

Before dawn, Hu’s successor, General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, who also favored far-reaching reforms, visited the students and pleaded with them to end the hunger strike.

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Later - May 19, 1989

That night, Li Peng declared martial law in Beijing and tens of thousands of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops entered Beijing. As tanks moved towards the center of the city, crowds of residents erected road blocks, and the troops, who had been ordered not to fire on unarmed civilians, were eventually forced to retreat.

Image: AP Photo 


May 20 - June 4, 1989

Tens of thousands of students and workers continued, jubilantly, to demonstrate against the Communist regime in Tiananmen Square. At the center stood a large plaster statue called “Goddess of Democracy.”

Image: AP Photo 


June 3, 1989

At about 10 p.m., the PLA began rumbling into the streets of Beijing, this time with orders to use any means necessary to enforce martial law. People again flooded into the streets to erect barricades, but several troops opened fire, killing and injuring many unarmed citizens.

Image: AP Photo 


1 a.m. - June 4, 1989

By about 1 a.m., columns of tanks converged on Tiananmen Square. After troops began firing into the crowds of protesters, turmoil ensued. Thousands of students tried to escape, while others fought back, attacking troops and setting fire to tanks. But the military continued its onslaught.

Image: AP Photo 


6 a.m. - June 4, 1989

By 6 a.m., Tiananmen Square had been cleared; it had been the worst bloodshed ever seen in Beijing under communist rule.

Image: AP Photo 


Late morning - June 4, 1989

Later in the morning thousands of stunned Beijing residents tried to enter the square, and the troops again opened fire. 

The PLA had complete control of Beijing.

Image: AP Photo 


How many people died?

Reporters and Western diplomats estimated that at least a few hundred people and possibly a few thousand were killed.

Beijing Radio’s English language service defiantly reported that thousands of innocent civilians were killed, calling it a barbarous suppression of the people. 

At the end of June, 1989, the government issued a statement saying that 200 civilians and several dozen security personnel had died during the suppression of “counter-revolutionary riots.”

In December, 2017, a newly declassified British diplomatic cable indicated that at least 10,000 protesters were killed. The cable was written on June 5, 1989 by the then-British ambassador to China, Sir Alan Donald, who said his account of the massacre was based on information from a source close to China’s State Council, the ruling cabinet.

Image: AP Photo 


Was the military unified in its support for martial law?

In the days before the massacre, seven commanders signed a letter opposing the use of force, which they submitted to the Central Military Commission. “The People’s Liberation Army is the people’s military and it should not enter the city or fire on civilians,” it said.

In addition, Gen. Xu Qinxian, the leader of the formidable 38th Group Army, simply refused to act.  He was in the hospital recovering from an operation when he was told of the orders to mobilize. He called his superiors to tell them he would not implement a verbal order. Officials then removed him from the hospital and a military tribunal stripped him of his party membership, sentencing him to five years in prison.

In his cable from Beijing, Sir Alan Donald wrote that the atrocities in and around Tiananmen Square had been coordinated by the 27th Army of Shanxi Province in northern China, describing the troops as “60 percent illiterate and called primitives.”

He also said there was speculation that the government had chosen the 27th Army because its troops were “the most reliable and obedient.”

Image: Wikipedia


What happened in the aftermath?

The government hailed the military operation as a great victory, and the crackdown continued, with widespread arrests of student leaders and protesters. Many received prison sentences and a number of them were executed. Some managed to escape to the West.

Less than a week later, Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader of the Chinese Communist Party, made his first appearance at a ceremony honoring the PLA. He made no mention of the civilians who had been killed but held a moment of silence for the dead and wounded security forces.

Later that month, Zhao Ziyang was dismissed from his party and government posts and replaced as General Secretary by Jiang Zemin. Zhao remained under house arrest until his death in 2005.

The international community and human rights organizations meanwhile expressed their outrage at the massacre. The United States and the European Union imposed an arms embargo on China, which remains in place today. Several countries, including the U.S., also imposed economic sanctions.

Image: AP Photo 


Who was the Tank Man?

With martial law firmly in place on June 5, 1989, onlookers were shocked as a lone man stood in the street outside Tiananmen Square blocking a column of PLA tanks as they moved towards the square. Each time the lead tank veered in one direction, the man moved to stand in its way. 

Tank Man, as he was called, was eventually hustled away by concerned bystanders, but not before the incident was photographed and filmed by Western media. The image has become one of the most iconic of all time.

Some unsubstantiated news reports claimed Tank Man was arrested and executed anywhere from two weeks to a few months after the massacre.

But according to the Hong Kong based Information Center for Human Rights, the government apparently could not find the man. And Canadian journalist Jan Wong, who was based in Beijing at the time, wrote that she believed that he was still alive somewhere in China.

In 2000, in an interview with Mike Wallace of “60 Minutes,” then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin said the man was never arrested and that he didn’t know where he was.

Image: AP Photo 


How do the Chinese authorities treat this history today?

To this day, it is a taboo subject in China, where it is known simply as the June Fourth Incident.

Public memorials are banned, and political activists who have attempted to commemorate the anniversary of the crackdown have been placed under house arrest, some for years.

The massive government censorship apparatus blocks all references, especially on search engines, to “Tiananmen Square.” It also censors all related words, phrases, and numbers. Social media sites including Facebook and Twitter, and several websites, have long been blocked.  

And now, according to Reuters, which spoke with several employees at Chinese internet companies, government censorship is more efficient than ever thanks to its use of robots and artificial intelligence.

While expatriates and those in academic circles use a Virtual Private Network, or VPN, to circumvent the “Great Firewall,” many ordinary citizens do not have the means or resources to access one.

And in the days surrounding each anniversary of the “June Fourth Incident” many VPNs do not function properly.

Image: AP Photo 


What have friends and families of the victims done to honor their legacy?

In September, 1989, the group Tiananmen Mothers was formed after Ding Zilin, a retired university professor whose teenage son was shot and killed during the protests, met another mother, Zhang Xianling, whose 19-year-old son also died.

For the last 30 years, members and relatives have been travelling around China collecting the names and stories of the victims. A lot of the victims’ bodies were never found because they were crushed by tanks or their corpses were burned.

Each year, the Tiananmen Mothers write to the government demanding accountability for the killing of unarmed civilians and compensation to survivors and families of the dead. They have never received a reply.

Ahead of the 30th anniversary, many have been put under house arrest or on enforced “vacations” outside of Beijing.

Still, they issued an open letter to China’s leaders, which was translated and published by Human Rights in China, a New York-based Chinese NGO:

Human Rights in China has also this year launched the “Unforgotten” project, a series of profiles of those killed in the massacre using the information gathered by the Tiananmen Mothers.

Image: AP Photo 


Are there any public commemorations on Chinese soil?

On June 5, 1999, two years after the former British colony of Hong Kong was handed over to China as a special administrative region of the mainland, some 70,000 people held a memorial vigil in Victoria Park.

Ever since then, the annual June 4 candlelight vigil draws tens of thousands of people to the park.

In April, 2019, a new June 4 Memorial Museum commemorating the 1989 democracy movement and the subsequent massacre opened.

“In China, the Communist Party attempts to erase people’s memory of this historical event,” museum organizers Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China said in a statement.

“In Hong Kong, we still have room for freedom of expression. Thus, we bear a greater responsibility to preserve history."

Image: AP Photo 

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