The 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, also known as the June Fourth Incident in China, was organized by students and took place in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
It was a spring like no other in Beijing in 1989. The Chinese economy grew rapidly, but its generated wealth was distributed unevenly. The political system was losing legitimacy as corruption and inflation ran rampant.
What were the Events Leading to the Tiananmen Square Massacre?
On April 15, a group of students gathered in Tiananmen Square, demanding greater accountability, democracy, and freedom of speech.
The protests swelled and grew over the next several weeks. Workers joined in, demanding better welfare and an end to inflation. The square was filled with over a million people at the height of the demonstrations. The government responded with conciliation and repression, but the protesters would not be deterred.
On May 20, martial law was declared, and troops were sent to Beijing. Senior leaders in the Communist Party urged immediate action to suppress the protesters. Premier Li Peng, party elder Li Xiannian, and Wang Zhen eventually won over paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and President Yang Shangkun to their cause.
The military moved into Beijing’s central districts on June 4. They were armed with tanks and assault weapons and opened fire on protesters and bystanders alike. What followed became known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre or the June Fourth Incident. The exact number of casualties is unknown, but estimates range from hundreds to thousands killed and thousands more injured.
The Chinese government’s brutal response to the protests shocked the world. China was subject to an arms embargo by the West, and political analysts and human rights groups condemned the government for the slaughter. The events of that day would be remembered as a turning point in China’s history, a warning to those who would challenge the status quo.
In a broader sense, the suppression ended the political changes that started in 1986 and stopped the liberalization initiatives of the 1980s, which were only partially restored following Deng Xiaoping’s Southern Tour in 1992.
Responses to the protests, seen as a turning point, imposed restrictions on political expression in China that have persisted to the present day. Remembering the protests remains one of China’s most delicate and heavily regulated subjects since it is frequently linked to challenging the CCP’s legitimacy.
Martial law was enacted in China on May 20, and at least 30 divisions from five of the country’s seven military regions were called into action. At least 14 of the 24 army corps of the PLA provided personnel. Ultimately, up to 250,000 soldiers were dispatched to the city, some arriving by rail and some by air. To get ready to transport military units, Guangzhou’s civil aviation authorities stopped commercial air traffic.
Military trucks were surrounded by thousands of protesters, blocking them from moving forward or backward. Soldiers were given lectures by protesters who also urged them to support their cause. They were also given shelter, food, and water.
On May 24, the government issued a withdrawal order for the troops after seeing no other option. After that, the entire government army retired to its outlying locations. Although the army’s departure was first perceived as “changing the tide” in favor of the demonstrators, nationwide preparations for a final assault were underway.
Internal conflicts within the student movement itself grew worse during the same period. By the end of May, the kids had lost any sense of direction and were acting incoherently. Tiananmen Square was also quite busy and had significant sanitation issues.
Despite criticism, Hou Dejian proposed an open election of the student leadership to represent the cause. Wang Dan, who appeared aware of the approaching military action and its implications, tempered his stance. He pushed for a brief pullout from Tiananmen Square so that students might reassemble on campus, but strong student factions that wished to defend the plaza resisted this.
A succession of “mini-coups” would break out due to the rising internal strife, with battles over control of the loudspeakers in the plaza’s center. Whoever held control of the loudspeakers was considered “in charge” of the movement. To gather factional support, some students would greet arriving students from other parts of the country at the railway station.
Student organizations started accusing one another of having hidden agendas, such as working with the government or exploiting the movement for personal gain. Chai described the attempted kidnapping by some students to remove Chai Ling and Feng Congde from their leadership roles as a “well-organized and deliberate conspiracy.”
The Protests Turn Violent
In contrast to more sensible student leaders, Chai Ling, a controversial student leader, was ready to let the student movement come to a violent conclusion. In an interview in late May, Chai proposed that the majority of China would only recognize the significance of the student movement and come together when it culminated in bloodshed.
She believed she could not persuade her fellow pupils of this, however. She added that Li Lu had told her to expect a violent crackdown; it was not a notion she had come up with alone.
Angered by the initial fatalities, some city dwellers assaulted soldiers with sticks, rocks, and Molotov cocktails, torching military vehicles and killing the soldiers inside. Anti-government protesters set a military convoy of more than 100 trucks and armored vehicles on fire on one street in western Beijing.
According to Wu Renhua’s study and the Chinese government report, the number of military fatalities brought on by protesters was relatively low at 7 and 10, compared to the hundreds or thousands of civilian deaths.
The Chinese government and its supporters have claimed that these troops were acting in self-defense and have cited troop casualties to justify the increased use of force.
The Wall Street Journal reported on June 5, 1989: “Several soldiers were attacked by enraged protesters shouting “Fascists” as columns of tanks and tens of thousands of soldiers approached Tiananmen.
Many soldiers were brutally abused before being left for dead after being removed from vehicles. The body of a young soldier beaten to death was found naked and hanging from the side of a bus at a junction west of the square. At a crossroads east of the square, the body of another soldier was hanging there.”
The Tiananmen Square Massacre
The square was surrounded by army helicopters around 8:30 p.m., and students immediately requested university reinforcements. The Tiananmen Democracy University’s launching ceremony was held as planned at 10 o’clock at the foot of the Goddess of Democracy.
The government-controlled loudspeakers warned at 10:16 pm that troops might use “any measures” to impose martial law. At 10:30 p.m., rumors of bloodshed in the city’s west and south started to filter into the square.
At midnight, a sad atmosphere descended across the area when the students’ megaphone revealed that a student had been killed on West Chang’an Avenue near the Military Museum. Li Lu, the deputy commander of the student headquarters, exhorted the crowd to stand as one in their non-violent defense of the square.
After learning that a female student from Beijing Normal University who had left campus with him earlier in the evening had just been killed, Wu’erkaixi passed out at 12:30 in the morning. An ambulance was called to transport Wu’erkaixi.
Still present in the square at that time were 70,000–80,000 people.
A flare lighted up the night sky at 12:15, and the first armored personnel vehicle drove onto the square from the west. Two additional APCs from the south came at about 12:30 in the morning. Concrete pieces were hurled at the vehicles by the students.
One APC may have stalled due to metal poles jammed into its wheels, in which case the protesters covered it with blankets soaked in gasoline and set it on fire. The three inmates were dragged outside by the extreme heat and surrounded by protesters.
Many people in the crowd wanted to attack the soldiers because it was alleged that the APCs had run over tents. The three men were led to the medical station by the History Museum on the east side of the square by students who had established a protective barrier around them.
The student leadership came under increasing pressure to forgo nonviolence and respond to the killings violently. Afterward, Chai Ling and Li Lu decided to stick to nonviolent methods and removed the students’ sticks, rocks, and glass bottles.
At one point, Chai Ling took the microphone and urged fellow students to prepare to “defend themselves” against the “shameless government.”
The 38th Army’s vanguard from the XV Airborne Corps arrived at the north and south sides of the square at around 1:30 am. Several protesters trying to access the square were killed as they started to block it off with reinforcements of students and locals.
In the meantime, men from the 24th Army emerged from behind the History Museum to the east, while those from the 27th and 65th armies poured out of the Great Hall of the People to the west. The thousands of remaining students were encircled at the Monument of the People’s Heroes in the square. At 2 am, the soldiers opened shooting at the monument above the heads of the students.
“We implore you in peace, for democracy and freedom of the motherland, strength, and prosperity of the Chinese country, please comply with the people’s decision and refrain from employing force against nonviolent student demonstrators,” the students said in a webcast to the army.
Around 2:30 am, a group of laborers around the monument surfaced with a machine gun they had taken from the soldiers and swore vengeance. Hou Dejian convinced them to hand over the firearm. The workmen also gave Liu Xiaobo an assault rifle that was empty of ammo, which he shattered against the monument’s marble railings.
Student Shao Jiang, who had witnessed the murders at Muxidi, begged the elder intellectuals to leave because they had already lost too many lives. Liu Xiaobo was first opposed but subsequently joined Zhou Duo, Gao Xin, and Hou Dejian in advocating for a withdrawal from the student leaders.
The notion of withdrawal was initially rebuffed by Chai Ling, Li Lu, and Feng Congde. Hou Dejian and Zhuo Tuo agreed to try to speak with the soldiers around 3:30 a.m. at the recommendation of two medics in the Red Cross camp.
After speaking with Ji Xinguo, the political commissar of the 336th Regiment of the 38th Army, they took an ambulance to the northeast corner of the plaza. Ji Xinguo then transmitted their request to command headquarters, which decided to allow the students to travel safely to the southeast. If you can convince the students to leave the square, it would be a wonderful accomplishment, the commissar said Hou.
Around 4 am, the government’s loudspeaker announced as the lights on the square were abruptly switched off: “The square is now starting to be cleared. The students’ call to evacuate the square is one we support.”
The Internationale was sung as the students prepared for a final assault. When Hou returned, he told the student leaders of the troops’ agreement. The lights were turned back on at about 4:30 am, and the soldiers started surrounding the monument from all directions.
Hou Dejian used the student’s loudspeaker at around 4:32 in the morning to describe his encounter with the military. When they first heard about the conversations, several students reacted violently and accused him of being a coward.
The first row of soldiers, prone and carrying machine guns, stopped around 10 meters from the kids. Soldiers with assault rifles stood and knelt behind them. They included anti-riot police armed with clubs. Tanks and APCs were further back. It was announced over the loudspeaker by Feng Congde that there was insufficient time to host a meeting.
The group’s collective action would be decided by voice vote instead. Feng declared that even if the vote’s outcomes were uncertain, the “gods” had won. A unit of troops in camouflaged uniforms quickly stormed the monument at around 4:35 in the morning and fired out the students’ megaphone.
At the monument, additional soldiers kicked and punched numerous students while grabbing and shattering their cameras and recording gear. Using a loudspeaker, police yelled, “You better go, or this won’t end well.”
Although troops beat them with clubs and gunbutts and jabbed them with bayonets, several students and professors convinced those seated on the monument’s lower tiers to get up and leave. Witnesses reported hearing gunfire bursts.
The students started to depart the monument at around 5:10 a.m. Although some dispersed to the north, they joined arms and marched down a corridor to the southeast. Soldiers thrashed those who refused to leave and told them to join the parade that was leaving.
Soldiers were instructed to hand over their ammunition after removing the students from the square and were then given a brief break from 7 am to 9 am.
The soldiers were instructed to remove all trash left behind by the student takeover from the square. Either the trash was piled on the square and set on fire, or it was put in huge plastic bags and flown away by military helicopters.
The troops stationed in The Great Hall of the People remained restricted for nine days after the cleanup. The soldiers were fed one packet of instant noodles each day, divided among three men, and allowed to sleep on the floors during this time. Officers did not experience this hardship and had frequent meals separate from their troops.
On June 4, just after 6 a.m., three tanks fired tear gas into a convoy of students returning to university from the square while traveling west along Chang’an Avenue in the bicycle lane. When one tank plowed through the crowd, 11 students were killed, and dozens more were hurt.
Later in the morning, infantry lines prevented thousands of civilian attempts to re-enter the area from the northeast on East Chang’an Avenue. Parents of the protesters in the square comprised a large portion of the audience.
An officer yelled a warning, and the soldiers began firing as the mob drew near. The mob rushed back down the boulevard in front of the journalists at the Beijing Hotel. When they ran away, dozens more civilians were shot in the back. Then, as the masses surged toward the soldiers, they started firing again.
The crowd then sprinted away in fear. The bullets also hit an oncoming ambulance. Despite the crowd’s repeated attempts, the square remained off-limits to the public for two weeks.
The Tank Man Arrives
On June 5, images and video of a lone man confronting a column of tanks leaving Tiananmen Square via Chang’an Avenue immortalized the demonstration’s suppression outside China. One of the most recognizable images of the 20th century was The Tank Man.
The Tank Man entered the tank’s path as the driver attempted to maneuver around him. After standing boldly in front of the tanks, he ascended into the turret of the leading tank and began speaking to the soldiers there.
The man returned to standing before the tanks when some individuals dragged him aside.
Tank Man’s whereabouts after the rally is unknown, but legendary Chinese leader Jiang Zemin said in 1990 that he did not believe the man was killed. He was later included in Time’s list of the 100 most influential figures from the 20th century.
37 APCs in a stalled convoy on Changan Boulevard in Muxidi were forced to leave their vehicles after getting tangled in a jumble of military and burned-out bus vehicles. In addition to the sporadic shootings of people by soldiers in Beijing, Western media agencies also reported on conflicts between PLA units.
Late in the afternoon, near the Jianguomen and Fuxingmen overpasses, 26 tanks, three armored personnel carriers, and supporting infantry took up defensive positions looking east. Shellfire could be heard all through the night.
The following morning, a US Marine in the city’s eastern section reported seeing an armored vehicle hit by an armor-piercing shell rendered inoperable. The capital’s continuing unrest hampered the flow of daily activities.
Notwithstanding claims to the contrary, no issues of the People’s Daily were available in Beijing on June 5. Because workers stayed home and only the subway and suburban bus routes were available for public transportation, many stores, offices, and industries could not open.
Generally speaking, the administration restored authority in the week following the square’s military takeover. The protest’s organizers and supporters were removed from office during a political purge, and protest leaders were imprisoned.
How Many Died During the Tiananmen Massacre?
On the morning of June 4, numerous estimates of fatalities were published, including those from sources with ties to the government. Leaflets from Peking University distributed on campus estimated that there had been between 2,000 and 3,000 fatalities.
The Chinese Red Cross first reported 2,600 fatalities but later retracted that claim. The Swiss envoy had predicted 2,700. “It seems possible that around a dozen soldiers and policemen were slain, along with 400 to 800 people,” Nicholas D. Kristof of The New York Times wrote on June 21.
According to trips to hospitals around Beijing, according to American envoy James Lilley, at least several hundred people have died. According to a declassified National Security Agency cable submitted the same day, 180–500 deaths had occurred as of the morning of June 4th.
At least 478 people were killed and 920 injured, according to Beijing hospital records that were created soon after the incidents. According to Amnesty International’s estimations, there have been between a few hundred and close to 1,000 deaths, while a Western diplomat who collated data estimated that there have been between 300 and 1,000 deaths.
British Ambassador Alan Donald initially claimed in a disputed cable sent in 2017 following the events at Tiananmen that a minimum of 10,000 civilians perished, based on information from a “good friend” in the Chinese State Council.
Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke repeated these claims in a speech, but they are an estimated number significantly higher than other sources provided. Former student protest organizer Feng Congde noted that after the declassification, Donald updated his estimate to 2,700–3,400 deaths, which is more in line with other figures.
Next, read about the Blood Countess of Bulgaria, Elizabeth Bathory. Then, about the Horrifying Story of Rosemary Kennedy, the Girl Who was Lobotomized!
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