The Tiananmen Square Massacre, 1989

What Really Happened at Tiananmen?

The iconic "Tank Man" photo from the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Beijing, China (1989).
Tank Man - The Unknown Rebel.

Jeff Widener/Associated Press

Most people in the western world remember the Tiananmen Square Massacre this way:

  1. Students protest for democracy in Beijing, China, in June of 1989.
  2. Chinese government sends troops and tanks to Tiananmen Square.
  3. Student protesters are brutally massacred.

In essence, this is a fairly accurate depiction of what happened around Tiananmen Square, but the situation was much longer-lasting and more chaotic than this outline suggests.

The protests actually started in April of 1989, as public demonstrations of mourning for former Communist Party Secretary General Hu Yaobang (1915–1989).

A high government official's funeral seems like an unlikely spark for pro-democracy demonstrations and chaos. Nonetheless, by the time the Tiananmen Square Protests and Massacre were over less than two months later, 250 to 4,000 people lay dead.

What really happened that spring in Beijing?

Background to Tiananmen

By the 1980s, the leaders of China's Communist Party knew that classical Maoism had failed. Mao Zedong's policy of rapid industrialization and collectivization of land, the "Great Leap Forward," had killed tens of millions of people by starvation.

The country then descended into the terror and anarchy of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), an orgy of violence and destruction that saw teenaged Red Guards humiliate, torture, murder and sometimes even cannibalize hundreds of thousands or millions of their compatriots. Irreplaceable cultural heirlooms were destroyed; traditional Chinese arts and religion were all but extinguished.

China's leadership knew that they had to make changes in order to remain in power, but what reforms should they make? The Communist Party leaders split between those who advocated drastic reforms, including a move toward capitalist economic policies and greater personal freedoms for Chinese citizens, versus those who favored careful tinkering with the command economy and continued strict control of the population.

Meanwhile, with the leadership unsure of which direction to take, the Chinese people hovered in a no-man's land between fear of the authoritarian state, and the desire to speak out for reform. The government-instigated tragedies of the previous two decades left them hungry for change, but aware that the iron fist of Beijing's leadership was always ready to smash down opposition. China's people waited to see which way the wind would blow.

The Spark—Memorial for Hu Yaobang

Hu Yaobang was a reformist, who served as General Secretary of the Communist Party of China from 1980 to 1987. He advocated rehabilitation of people persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, greater autonomy for Tibet, rapprochement with Japan, and social and economic reform. As a result, he was forced out of office by the hardliners in January of 1987 and made to offer humiliating public "self-criticisms" for his allegedly bourgeois ideas.

One of the charges leveled against Hu was that he had encouraged (or at least allowed) widespread student protests in late 1986. As General Secretary, he refused to crack down on such protests, believing that dissent by the intelligentsia should be tolerated by the Communist government.

Hu Yaobang died of a heart attack not long after his ouster and disgrace, on April 15, 1989.

Official media made just brief mention of Hu's death, and the government at first did not plan to give him a state funeral. In reaction, university students from across Beijing marched on Tiananmen Square, shouting acceptable, government-approved slogans, and calling for the rehabilitation of Hu's reputation.

Bowing to this pressure, the government decided to accord Hu a state funeral after all. However, government officials on April 19 refused to receive a delegation of student petitioners, who patiently waited to speak with someone for three days at the Great Hall of the People. This would prove to be the government's first big mistake.

Hu's subdued memorial service took place on April 22 and was greeted by huge student demonstrations involving about 100,000 people. Hardliners within the government were extremely uneasy about the protests, but General Secretary Zhao Ziyang (1919–2005) believed that the students would disperse once the funeral ceremonies were over. Zhao was so confident that he took a week-long trip to North Korea for a summit meeting.

The students, however, were enraged that the government had refused to receive their petition, and emboldened by the meek reaction to their protests. After all, the Party had refrained from cracking down on them thus far, and had even caved in to their demands for a proper funeral for Hu Yaobang. They continued to protest, and their slogans strayed further and further from the approved texts.

Events Begin to Spin Out of Control

With Zhao Ziyang out of the country, hardliners in the government such as Li Peng (1928–2019) took the opportunity to bend the ear of the powerful leader of the Party Elders, Deng Xiaoping (1904–1997). Deng was known as a reformer himself, supportive of market reforms and greater openness, but the hardliners exaggerated the threat posed by the students. Li Peng even told Deng that the protesters were hostile to him personally, and were calling for his ouster and the downfall of the Communist government. (This accusation was a fabrication.)

Clearly worried, Deng Xiaoping decided to denounce the demonstrations in an editorial published in the April 26th People's Daily. He called the protests dongluan (meaning "turmoil" or "rioting") by a "tiny minority." These highly emotive terms had been associated with the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution. Rather than tamping down the students' fervor, Deng's editorial further inflamed it. The government had just made its second grave mistake.

Not unreasonably, the students felt that they could not end the protest if it was labeled dongluan, for fear that they would be prosecuted. Some 50,000 of them continued to press the case that patriotism motivated them, not hooliganism. Until the government stepped back from that characterization, the students could not leave Tiananmen Square.

But the government too was trapped by the editorial. Deng Xiaoping had staked his reputation, and that of the government, on getting the students to back down. Who would blink first?

Showdown, Zhao Ziyang vs. Li Peng

General Secretary Zhao returned from North Korea to find China transfixed by the crisis. He still felt that the students were no real threat to the government, though, and sought to defuse the situation, urging Deng Xiaoping to recant the inflammatory editorial. Li Peng, however, argued that to step back now would be a fatal show of weakness by the Party leadership.

Meanwhile, students from other cities poured into Beijing to join the protests. More ominously for the government, other groups also joined in: housewives, workers, doctors, and even sailors from the Chinese Navy. The protests also spread to other cities—Shanghai, Urumqi, Xi'an, Tianjin... almost 250 in all.

By May 4, the number of protesters in Beijing had topped 100,000 again. On May 13, the students took their next fateful step. They announced a hunger strike, with the goal of getting the government to retract the April 26 editorial.

Over a thousand students took part in the hunger strike, which engendered wide-spread sympathy for them among the general populace.

The government met in an emergency Standing Committee session the following day. Zhao urged his fellow leaders to accede to the students' demand and withdraw the editorial. Li Peng urged a crackdown.

The Standing Committee was deadlocked, so the decision was passed to Deng Xiaoping. The next morning, he announced that he was placing Beijing under martial law. Zhao was fired and placed under house arrest; hard-liner Jiang Zemin (born 1926) succeeded him as General Secretary; and fire-brand Li Peng was placed in control of the military forces in Beijing.

In the midst of the turmoil, Soviet Premier and fellow reformer Mikhail Gorbachev (born 1931) arrived in China for talks with Zhao on May 16.

Due to Gorbachev's presence, a large contingent of foreign journalists and photographers also descended on the tense Chinese capital. Their reports fueled international concern and calls for restraint, as well as sympathetic protests in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and ex-patriot Chinese communities in Western nations.

This international outcry placed even more pressure on the Chinese Communist Party leadership.

May 19–June 2

Early in the morning on May 19, the deposed Zhao made an extraordinary appearance in Tiananmen Square. Speaking through a bullhorn, he told the protesters: "Students, we came too late. We are sorry. You talk about us, criticize us, it is all necessary. The reason that I came here is not to ask you to forgive us. All I want to say is that students are getting very weak, it is the 7th day since you went on hunger strike, you can't continue like this... You are still young, there are still many days yet to come, you must live healthily, and see the day when China accomplishes the four modernizations. You are not like us, we are already old, it doesn't matter to us anymore." It was the last time he was ever seen in public.

Perhaps in response to Zhao's appeal, during the last week of May tensions eased a bit, and many of the student protesters from Beijing grew weary of the protest and left the square. However, reinforcements from the provinces continued to pour into the city. Hard-line student leaders called for the protest to continue until June 20, when a meeting of the National People's Congress was scheduled to take place.

On May 30, the students set up a large sculpture called the "Goddess of Democracy" in Tiananmen Square. Modeled after the Statue of Liberty, it became one of the enduring symbols of the protest.

Hearing the calls for a prolonged protest, on June 2 the Communist Party Elders met with the remaining members of the Politburo Standing Committee. They agreed to bring in the People's Liberation Army (PLA) to clear the protesters out of Tiananmen Square by force.

June 3–4: The Tiananmen Square Massacre

The morning of June 3, 1989, the 27th and 28th divisions of the People's Liberation Army moved into Tiananmen Square on foot and in tanks, firing tear gas to disperse the demonstrators. They had been ordered not to shoot the protesters; indeed, most of them did not carry firearms.

The leadership selected these divisions because they were from distant provinces; local PLA troops were considered untrustworthy as potential supporters of the protests.

Not only the student protesters but also tens of thousands of workers and ordinary citizens of Beijing joined together to repel the Army. They used burned-out buses to create barricades, threw rocks and bricks at the soldiers, and even burned some tank crews alive inside their tanks. Thus, the first casualties of the Tiananmen Square Incident were actually soldiers.

The student protest leadership now faced a difficult decision. Should they evacuate the Square before further blood could be shed, or hold their ground? In the end, many of them decided to remain.

That night, around 10:30 pm, the PLA returned to the area around Tiananmen with rifles, bayonets fixed. The tanks rumbled down the street, firing indiscriminately.

Students shouted "Why are you killing us?" to the soldiers, many of whom were about the same age as the protesters. Rickshaw drivers and bicyclists darted through the melee, rescuing the wounded and taking them to hospitals. In the chaos, a number of non-protesters were killed as well.

Contrary to popular belief, the bulk of the violence took place in the neighborhoods all around Tiananmen Square, rather than in the Square itself.

Throughout the night of June 3 and early hours of June 4, the troops beat, bayoneted, and shot protesters. Tanks drove straight into crowds, crushing people and bicycles under their treads. By 6 a.m. on June 4th, 1989, the streets around Tiananmen Square had been cleared.

"Tank Man" or the "Unknown Rebel"

The city lapsed into shock during June 4, with just the occasional volley of gunfire breaking the stillness. Parents of missing students pushed their way to the protest area, seeking their sons and daughters, only to be warned off and then shot in the back as they fled from the soldiers. Doctors and ambulance drivers who tried to enter the area to help the wounded were also shot down in cold blood by the PLA.

Beijing seemed utterly subdued the morning of June 5. However, as foreign journalists and photographers, including Jeff Widener (b. 1956) of the AP, watched from their hotel balconies as a column of tanks trundled up Chang'an Avenue (the Avenue of Eternal Peace), an amazing thing happened.

A young man in a white shirt and black pants and carrying shopping bags in each hand, stepped out into the street and stopped the tanks. The lead tank tried to swerve around him, but he jumped in front of it again.

Everyone watched in horrified fascination, afraid that the tank driver would lose patience and drive over the man. At one point, the man even climbed up onto the tank and spoke to the soldiers inside, reportedly asking them, "Why are you here? You have caused nothing but misery."

After several minutes of this defiant dance, two more men rushed up to the Tank Man and hustled him away. His fate is unknown.

However, still images and video of his brave act were captured by the Western press members nearby and smuggled out for the world to see. Widener and several other photographers hid the film in the tanks of their hotel toilets, to save it from searches by the Chinese security forces.

Ironically, the story and the image of the Tank Man's act of defiance had the greatest immediate effect thousands of miles away, in Eastern Europe. Inspired in part by his courageous example, people across the Soviet bloc poured into the streets. In 1990, beginning with the Baltic states, the republics of the Soviet Empire began to break away. The USSR collapsed.

Nobody knows how many people died in the Tiananmen Square Massacre. The official Chinese government figure is 241, but this is almost certainly a drastic undercount. Between soldiers, protesters and civilians, it seems likely that anywhere from 800 to 4,000 people were killed. The Chinese Red Cross initially put the toll at 2,600, based on counts from local hospitals, but then quickly retracted that statement under intense government pressure.

Some witnesses also stated that the PLA carted away many bodies; they would not have been included in a hospital count.

The Aftermath of Tiananmen 1989

The protesters who survived the Tiananmen Square Incident met a variety of fates. Some, particularly the student leaders, were given relatively light jail terms (less than 10 years). Many of the professors and other professionals who joined in were simply blacklisted, unable to find jobs. A large number of the workers and provincial people were executed; exact figures, as usual, are unknown.

Chinese journalists who had published reports sympathetic to the protesters also found themselves purged and unemployed. Some of the most famous were sentenced to multi-year prison terms.

As for the Chinese government, June 4, 1989 was a watershed moment. Reformists within the Communist Party of China were stripped of power and reassigned to ceremonial roles. Former Premier Zhao Ziyang was never rehabilitated and spent his final 15 years under house arrest. Shanghai's mayor, Jiang Zemin, who had moved quickly to quell protests in that city, replaced Zhao as the Party's General Secretary.

Since that time, political agitation has been extremely muted in China. The government and the majority of citizens alike have focused on economic reform and prosperity, rather than political reform. Because the Tiananmen Square Massacre is a taboo subject, most Chinese under the age of 25 have never even heard about it. Websites that mention the "June 4 Incident" are blocked in China.

Even decades later, the people and the government of China have not dealt with this momentous and tragic incident. The memory of the Tiananmen Square Massacre festers under the surface of everyday life for those old enough to recall it. Someday, the Chinese government will have to face this piece of its history.

For a very powerful and disturbing take on the Tiananmen Square Massacre, see the PBS Frontline special "The Tank Man," available to view online.


  • Roger V. Des Forges, Ning Luo, and Yen-bo Wu. "Chinese Democracy and the Crisis of 1989: Chinese and American Reflections." (New York: SUNY Press, 1993.
  • Thomas, Anthony. "Frontline: The Tank Man," PBS: April 11, 2006.
  • Richelson, Jeffrey T., and Michael L. Evans (eds). "Tiananmen Square, 1989: The Declassified History." The National Security Archive, The George Washington University, June 1, 1999. 
  • Liang, Zhang, Andrew J. Nathan, and Perry Link (eds). "The Tiananmen Papers: The Chinese Leadership's Decision to Use Force Against Their Own People—In Their Own Words." New York: Public Affairs, 2001.  
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Szczepanski, Kallie. "The Tiananmen Square Massacre, 1989." ThoughtCo, Oct. 8, 2021, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2021, October 8). The Tiananmen Square Massacre, 1989. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "The Tiananmen Square Massacre, 1989." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).