Photo Gallery: Tiananmen Square, 1989

The Chinese government sought to suppress all images of the June 1989 events at Tiananmen Square, yet foreigners in Beijing at the time managed to secure both photographs and video clips of the incident.

Some, like Associated Press photographer Jeff Widener, was in Beijing on assignment. Others just happened to be traveling in the area at the time.

Here are a few of the surviving photos of the Tiananmen Square Protests, and the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989.

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Art students and their "Goddess of Democracy" statue

Construction of the "Goddess of Democracy" at Tiananmen Square. Beijing, 1989.
Jeff Widener / Associated Press. Used with permission.

These art students in Beijing, China-based their "Goddess of Democracy" sculpture on the American Statue of Liberty, which was a gift to the US from a French artist. The Statue of Liberty symbolizes the US/French commitment to Enlightenment ideals, variously expressed as "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" or "Liberté, égalité, fraternité."

In any case, these were radical ideas to espouse in China. Indeed, the idea of a goddess is radical in itself, since communist China had been officially atheist since 1949.

The Goddess of Democracy statue became one of the defining images of the Tiananmen Square Protests in their hopeful stage before the People's Liberation Army moved in and turned the event into the Tiananmen Square Massacre in early June 1989.

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Burning vehicles in Beijing

A man points out riot damage, Tiananmen Square, China (1989).
Robert Croma on

Trucks burn in the streets of Beijing as the Tiananmen Square Protests begin to spin out of control, early June 1989. Student pro-democracy demonstrators spent months camped out in the Square, calling for political reform. The government was caught off-guard and did not know how to handle the protests.

At first, the government sent in the People's Liberation Army (PLA) without weapons to try to basically muscle the students off of the Square. When that did not work, the government panicked and ordered the PLA to go in with live ammunition and tanks. In the massacre that followed, somewhere between 200 and 3,000 unarmed protestors were killed.

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The People's Liberation Army moves into Tiananmen Square

PLA troops file toward Tiananmen Square to confront thousands of peaceful student protestors, 1989
Robert Croma on

Unarmed soldiers from the People's Liberation Army (PLA) file into Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China amidst a throng of student protestors. The Chinese government hoped that this show of potential force would suffice to drive the students from the square and end the demonstrations.

However, the students were unmoved, so on June 4, 1989, the government sent the PLA in with loaded weapons and tanks. What had been the Tiananmen Square Protests turned in to the Tiananmen Square Massacre, with hundreds or perhaps thousands of unarmed protestors mowed down.

When this photo was taken, things were not yet too tense. Some of the soldiers in the photo are even smiling at the students, who are probably roughly the same age as themselves.

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Student protestors vs. the PLA

Press of soldiers surrounds student protestors, Tiananmen Square, 1989.
Jeff Widener / Associated Press. Used with permission.

Student protestors tussle with soldiers from the People's Liberation Army (PLA) in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China. At this point in the Tiananmen Square Protests, the soldiers are unarmed and are trying to use their sheer numbers to clear the square of protestors.

Most of the student activists in Tiananmen Square were from relatively well-to-do families in Beijing or other major cities. The PLA troops, often the same age as the students, tended to come from rural farm families. Initially, the two sides were relatively evenly matched until the central government ordered the PLA to use all necessary force to put down the protests. At that point, the Tiananmen Square Protests became the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

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Chinese student protestors swarm over a captured PLA tank

Protestors climb captured tank, Tiananmen Square, Beijing. June, 1989.
Jeff Widener / Associated Press. Used with permission.

Early in the Tiananmen Square Protests, it looked as though the student protestors had the upper hand over the People's Liberation Army (PLA). The protestors captured tanks and weapons from the young PLA soldiers, who were deployed without any ammunition. This toothless attempt by the Chinese Communist Party government to intimidate the protestors was completely ineffectual, so the government panicked and cracked down hard with live ammunition on June 4, 1989.

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A Student Gets Comfort and a Cigarette

Tiananmen Square student protestor, Beijing, China (1989).
Robert Croma on

An injured student is surrounded by friends at the Tiananmen Square Massacre in Beijing, China, 1989. Nobody knows exactly how many protestors (or soldiers, or passersby) were injured or killed in the melee. The Chinese government claims that 200 people were killed; independent estimates put the number at as many as 3,000.

In the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Incident, the government liberalized economic policy, effectively offering a new contract to the Chinese people. That contract said:

"We will let you get rich, as long as you don't agitate for political reforms."

Since 1989, China's middle and upper classes have grown immensely (though of course there are still hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens living in poverty). The economic system is now more or less capitalist, while the political system remains firmly one-party and nominally communist.

London-based photographer Robert Croma happened to be in Beijing in June 1989 and took this photo. Efforts by Croma, Jeff Widener, and other western photographers and reporters made it impossible for the Chinese government to keep the Tiananmen Square Massacre a secret.

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"Tank Man" or "The Unknown Rebel" by Jeff Widener

The iconic "Tank Man" photo from the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Beijing, China (1989).
Jeff Widener / Associated Press. Used with permission.

AP Photographer Jeff Widener happened to be in Beijing for a summit between China's leaders and Mikhail Gorbachev when he captured this amazing shot. The "Tank Man" or "The Unknown Rebel" came to symbolize the moral authority of ordinary Chinese people, who had had enough of the government's crackdown on unarmed protestors in Tiananmen Square.

This brave citizen appears to be just an ordinary urban worker - he probably isn't a student protestor. He put his body and his life on the line in an effort to stop the tanks that were crushing dissent in the center of Beijing. Nobody knows what happened to the Tank Man after this moment. He was hustled away; by concerned friends or by undercover cops, nobody can tell.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "Photo Gallery: Tiananmen Square, 1989." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2020, August 26). Photo Gallery: Tiananmen Square, 1989. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "Photo Gallery: Tiananmen Square, 1989." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 6, 2021).