1989 Tiananmen Square protests

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"The Unknown Rebel" — This famous photo depicts a lone protester who single-handedly halted the progress of a column of advancing tanks for over half an hour.

The Tiananmen Square protests were a set of national protests in the People's Republic of China, which occurred between April 15, 1989 and June 4, 1989, centered at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The focus of the protests was the occupation of the Square by college and university students advocating democratic reforms. [1]


Since 1978, Deng Xiaoping had led a series of economic and political reforms which had led to the gradual implementation of a market economy and some political liberalization that relaxed the system set up by Mao Zedong. By early 1989, these economic and political reforms had led to two groups of people which were dissatisfied with the government.

The first group were those including students and intellectuals, who believed that the reforms had not gone far enough. They were upset at the social and political controls that the Communist Party of China still held. In addition, this group saw the political liberalization that had been undertaken in the name of glasnost by Mikhail Gorbachev. The second group were those, including urban industrial workers, who believed that the reforms had gone too far. The loosening economic controls had begun to cause inflation and unemployment which threatened their livelihood.

In 1989, the primary supporters of the government consisted of rural peasants who had seen their incomes increase considerably during the 1980's as a result of the Deng Xiaoping reforms. However, this support was limited in usefulness because rural peasants were distributed across the countryside, and in contrast to urban dwellers who were organized into schools and work units, peasant supporters of the government remained largely unorganized and difficult to mobilize.

The trigger for the protest began because of the death, due to illness, of the former General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, Hu Yaobang, who was ousted in February 1987. Hu had been seen as a liberal with a common touch, and his ousting in response to student protests in 1987 was widely seen to be unfair. In addition, the death of Hu allowed Chinese to express discontent with his successors without fear of political repression, as it would have been extremely awkward for the Communist Party to ban people from honoring a former General Secretary. Another current in follow-up to the protests was anti-foreigner sentiment, particularly amongst students who believed foreigners were given more rights than native Chinese (see Nanjing Anti-African protests).

In Beijing, a majority of students from the city's numerous colleges and universities participated with support of their instructors and other intellectuals. The students rejected official Communist Party controlled student associations and set up their own autonomous associations. The students viewed themselves as Chinese patriots, as the heirs of the May Fourth Movement for "science and democracy" of May 4, 1919, and the protests also evoked the Tiananmen Square protests of 1975 which eventually led to the ousting of the Gang of Four. From its origins as a memorial to Hu Yaobang, who was seen by the students as an advocate of democracy, the students' activity gradually developed over the course of their demonstration from protests against corruption into demands for freedom of the press and an end of the rule of China by the Communist Party of China and Deng Xiaoping, a Party elder who ruled from behind the scenes. Partially successful attempts were made to reach out and network with students in other cities and with workers.

Although the initial protests were taken by students and intellectuals who believed that the Deng Xiaoping reforms had not gone far enough, they were able to soon attract the support of urban workers who believed that the reforms had gone too far. This occurred because the leaders of the protests focused on the issue of corruption which united both groups, and because the students were able to invoke Chinese archetypes of the selfless intellectual who spoke truth to power.

Protests escalate

File:Tiananmen Square protests.jpg
"The Goddess of Democracy", also known as the "Statue of Liberty", was carved by students from the Central Academy of Fine Arts and erected in the Square.

Unlike the Tiananmen protests of 1987, which consisted largely of students and intellectuals, the protests in 1989 commanded widespread support from the urban workers who were alarmed by growing inflation and corruption. In Beijing, they were supported by a large fraction of the population, perhaps a majority. At their height, the protests involved over a million people. Similar numbers were found in major cities throughout China.

Protests and strikes began at many colleges in other cities, with many students travelling to Beijing to join the demonstration. Generally, the demonstration at Tiananmen Square was well-ordered, with daily marches of students from various Beijing area colleges displaying their solidarity with the boycott of college classes and with the developing demands of the protest. The students sung the song "The Internationale," which is a song about international worker unity through socialism. The main tactic finally hit upon was a hunger strike by somewhere between several hundred and over a thousand students. This tactic resonated strongly with the Chinese people. While no hunger strikers were observed to become emaciated a Chinese urban legend persists that some protestors starved to death [2].

Partially successful attempts were made to negotiate with the Chinese rulers, who were located nearby in Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party headquarters and leadership compound. Because of the visit of Mikhail Gorbachev in May, foreign media were present in China in large numbers, and their coverage of the protests was extensive and generally favorable towards the protesters, although pessimistic that they would attain their goals. Toward the end of the demonstration, on May 30, a statue of the Goddess of Democracy was erected in the Square and came to symbolize the protest to television viewers worldwide.

The Standing Committee of the Politburo, along with the Party elders (retired, but influential former officials of the government and Party), were, at first, hopeful that the demonstrations would be short-lived or that cosmetic reforms and investigations would satisfy the protesters. They wished to avoid violence if possible, and relied at first on their far-reaching Party apparatus in attempts to persuade the students to abandon the protest and return to their studies. One barrier to effective action was that the leadership itself supported many of the demands of the students, especially the concern with corruption. However, one large problem was that the protests contained a large number of people with varying agendas, and hence it was unclear with whom the government could negotiate, and what the demands of the protesters were. The confusion and indecision among the protesters was also mirrored by confusion and indecision within the government. The official media mirrored this indecision as headlines in the People's Daily alternated between sympathy with the demonstrators and denouncing them.

Among the top leadership, General Secretary Zhao Ziyang was strongly in favor of a soft approach to the demonstrations while Li Peng was seen to argue in favor of a crackdown. Ultimately, the decision to crack down on the demonstrations was made by a group of Party elders who saw abandonment of single-party rule as a return of the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. Although most of these people had no official position, they were able to control the military, as Deng Xiaoping was chairman of the Central Military Commission and was able to declare martial law, and as Yang Shangkun was President of the People's Republic of China. The Party elders believed that lengthy demonstrations were a threat to the stability of the country. The demonstrators were seen as tools of advocates of "bourgeois liberalism" who were pulling the strings behind the scenes, as well as tools of elements within the party who wished to further their personal ambitions.

The crackdown

On May 20, martial law was declared. This, by itself, was not sufficient to end the demonstrations, which continued with popular support. After several weeks, a decision was made to forcibly clean the Square of protesters. Entry of the troops into the city was actively opposed by the citizens of Beijing, causing a few military casualties. Extensive roadblocks constructed by the citizens of Beijing slowed progress, but the Square was cleared of demonstrators during the night of June 4. The battle continued on the streets surrounding the Square, with protesters repeatedly advancing toward the heavily armed troops of the People's Liberation Army, who responded with automatic weapons fire. Many injured citizens were saved by rickshaw drivers who ventured into the no-man's-land between the soldiers and the crowds and carried the wounded off to hospitals [3][4][5]. The suppression of the demonstrations was highly unpopular within the PLA, and subsequently there were several hundred courts-martial of officers who refused to move against the students.

The suppression of the protest was symbolised for many in the West by the famous footage and photographs of a lone protester, taken on 5 June, standing in front of a column of advancing tanks, halting their progress. The "tank man" continued to stand defiantly in front of the tanks for half an hour before an onlooker came over and pulled him away. Despite efforts, to this day no one knows who that solitary figure is. Time Magazine dubbed him The Unknown Rebel and later named him one of the "100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century".

Within the Square itself, there was apparently a debate between those including Han Dongfang, who wished to withdraw peacefully, and those including Chai Ling, who wished to stand within the square at the risk of possibly creating a bloodbath. Those in favor of withdrawal won, and the protesters left the square. The Chinese government has claimed that no one was killed in the square itself, a fact that by the accounts of those who were actually in the Square appears to be technically true, but misleading in that it does not account for the casualties in the approaches to the square. The number of dead and wounded remains a state secret. Some lists of the casualties were created from underground sources. Estimates of the number of civilians killed range up to 2,600 (Chinese Red Cross). Injuries are generally held to have numbered from 7,000 to 10,000.

Attempts were made during and after the suppression of the demonstration to arrest and prosecute the student leaders of the Chinese democracy movement, notably Wang Dan, Chai Ling and Wuer Kaixi. Wang Dan was caught and convicted and sent to prison, then allowed to emigrate to the United States on the grounds of medical parole. Wuer Kaixi escaped to Taiwan. Chai Ling escaped to the United States. Within the leadership, Zhao Ziyang, who had opposed martial law, was removed from power, and Jiang Zemin, the then Mayor of Shanghai, who was not involved at all in this event was elevated to become China's President. Members of the government eventually prepared a white paper on the incident, which was published in the West as The Tiananmen Papers, which gives the government's viewpoint on the protests and was provided by an anonymous source purportedly within the Chinese government.

After the crackdown in Beijing on June 4, protests continued in much of China for a number of days. The Chinese government was able to end these protests outside of Beijing, apparently without significant loss of life.


The Tiananmen Protests seriously damaged the reputation of China in the West. Much of the impact of the protests in the West was due to the fact that western media had been invited to cover the visit of Mikhail Gorbachev in May, and therefore were able to cover some of the government crackdown live through networks such as CNN. Coverage was aided by the fact that there were sharp conflicts within the government itself about what to do about the protests, with the result that the broadcasting was not immediately countermanded.

CNN was eventually ordered to terminate broadcasts from the city during the crackdown, and although the networks attempted to defy these orders and were able to cover the protests via telephone, the government was able to shut down the satellite links.

Images of the protests along with the collapse of Communism that was occurring at the same time in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe would strongly shape Western views and policy toward China throughout the 1990s and into the 21st century. There was considerable sympathy for the student protests among Chinese students in the West, and almost immediately, both the United States and the European Union announced an arms embargo, and the image throughout the 1980s of a China which was reforming and a valuable counterweight and ally against the Soviet Union was replaced by that of a repressive authoritarian regime. The Tiananmen protests were frequently invoked to argue against trade liberalization with China and by the blue team as evidence that the Chinese government was an aggressive threat to world peace and United States interests.

Among overseas Chinese students, the Tiananmen Square protests triggered the formation of Internet news services such as the China News Digest. In the aftermath of Tiananmen, organizations such as the China Alliance for Democracy and the Independent Federation of Chinese Students and Scholars were formed, although these organizations would have limited political impact beyond the mid-1990s.

Zhao speaks during the 1989 Democracy Protests. Behind him (2nd from right in black) is current State Council Premier Wen Jiabao.

In Hong Kong, the Tiananmen square protests led to fears that the PRC would not honor its commitments under one country, two systems in the impending handover in 1997. One consequence of this was that the new governor Chris Patten attempted to expand the franchise for the Legislative Council of Hong Kong which led to friction with the PRC. There have been large candlelight vigils in Hong Kong every year since 1989 and these vigils have continued following the transfer of power to the PRC in 1997.

The Tiananmen square protests dampened the growing concept of political liberalization that was popular in the late 1980s; as a result, many democratic reforms that took place during the 1980s were rolled back. Although there has been some increase in personal freedom since then, discussions on structural changes to the PRC government and the role of the Chinese Communist Party remain largely taboo.

Nevertheless, despite early expectations in the West that Chinese government would soon collapse and be replaced by the Chinese democracy movement, by the early 21st century the Communist Party of China remained in firm control of the People's Republic of China, and the student movement which started at Tiananmen was in complete disarray.

One reason for this was that the Tiananmen protests did not mark the end of economic reform. In the immediate aftermath of the protests, along with democratic rollbacks, conservatives within the Communist Party also attempted to roll back some of the free market reforms that had been undertaken as part of Chinese economic reform, and reinstitute administrative controls over the economy. These efforts met with stiff resistance from provincial governors and broke down completely in the early 1990s as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union and Deng Xiaoping's trip to the south. The continuance of economic reform led to economic growth in the 1990s, which allowed the government to regain much of the support that it had lost in 1989. In addition, none of the current Chinese leadership played any active role in the decision to move against the demonstrators, and one major leadership figure Premier Wen Jiabao was an aide to Zhao Ziyang and accompanied him to meet the demonstrators.

In addition, the student leaders at Tiananmen were unable to produce a coherent movement or ideology that would last past the mid-1990s. Many of the student leaders came from relatively well off sectors of society and were seen as out of touch with common people. Furthermore, many of the organizations which were started in the aftermath of Tiananmen soon fell apart due to personal infighting. In addition, several overseas democracy activists were supportive of limiting trade with the People's Republic of China which significantly decreased their popularity both within China and among the overseas Chinese community.

Among intellectuals in China, the impact of the Tiananmen protests appears to have created something of a generation gap. Intellectuals who were in their 20s at the time of the protests tend to be far less supportive of the Chinese government than younger students who were born after the start of the Deng Xiaoping reforms. Growing up with little memory of Tiananmen and no memory of the Cultural Revolution, but with a full appreciation of the rising prosperity and international influence of China as well as the difficulties that Russia has had since the end of the Cold War, many Chinese no longer consider immediate political liberalization to be wise, preferring to see slow stepwise democratization instead. Rather, many young Chinese, in view of China's rise, are now more concerned with economic development, nationalism, the restoration of China's prestige in international affairs, and perceived governmental weakness on issues like the Political status of Taiwan or the Diaoyu Islands dispute with Japan.

Among urban industrial workers, the continuation of market reforms in the 1990s brought with it higher standards of living as well as increased economic uncertainty. Protests by urban industrial workers over issues such as unpaid wages and local corruption remain frequent with estimates of several thousand of these protests occurring each year. The Communist Party of China appears relatively tolerant of these protests provided that protests remain directed at a local issue and do not call for deeper reform and do not involve coordination with other workers. In a reversal of the situation in 1989, the center of discontent in China appears to be in rural areas, which have seen incomes stagnant in the 1990's and have not been involved in much of the economic boom of that decade. However, just as the lack of organization and the distribution of peasants prevented then from becoming mobilized in support of the government in 1989, these factors also inhibit mobilization against the government in the early 21st century.

See also

Further reading

  • June Fourth: The True Story, Tian'anmen Papers/Zhongguo Liusi Zhenxiang Volumes 1–2 (Chinese edition), Zhang Liang, ISBN 9628744364
  • Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now, Jan Wong, Doubleday, 1997, trade paperback, 416 pages, ISBN 0385482329 (Contains, besides extensive autobiographical material, an eyewitness account of the Tiananmen crackdown and the basis for an estimate of the number of casualties.)

External links