Tiananmen Square crackdown

The day democracy hopes were shot down

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 June, 2012, 12:00am


Last Monday, up to 180,000 people packed Victoria Park in Causeway Bay. Holding up candles, and shouting in unison, 'Democracy in China', they were there to give public voice to their grief at China's only large scale event to commemorate the many people killed in the June 4, 1989 crackdown.

In April 1989, many students gathered in and around Tiananmen Square, in Beijing, and other cities on the mainland, such as Shanghai and Wuhan . The peaceful demonstrations called for continued economic reform and liberalisation, and grew into a mass movement for political reform and freedom of the press.

The central government declared martial law - claiming it had developed into a riot. On June 4, a military crackdown began, with soldiers and tanks firing on demonstrators to clear the protest. The exact number of civilian deaths is unknown as the government has never issued official figures; estimates vary from hundreds to thousands. Many demonstrators that joined the protests were forced into exile, or put under house arrest. Many of you reading this article now, didn't live through that part of history, and were told only a brief outline of what happened.

Over time, many journalists and witnesses have added their accounts to records and a more detailed picture can be seen. This week, we are looking at what we've been told, and what we may not know.


On April 15, 1989, Hu Yaobang, a former Communist Party chief, died of a heart attack. Hu had been seen as a leading reformist and had won support from many people that were sick of corruption on the mainland and its slow pace of reform. To mourn his death, people gathered in Tiananmen Square.

Within a few days numerous people, including many students - had add their support to the idea of political freedom and democracy, not only in Tiananmen Square, but in other cities, particularly in universities.

On April 26, the state-run People's Daily newspaper published an editorial, 'The Necessity for a Clear Stand Against Turmoil', which further angered the public.

The BBC reported that tens of thousands of students had joined protests in five different cities, with hundreds of students starting hunger strikes in Tiananmen Square.

Martial law was imposed on May 20, when troops moved into Beijing's city centre. Demonstrations continued - apparently with success. But on June 2 senior Communist party leaders ordered that Tiananmen Square be cleared. It was to be done peacefully, but force could be used if demonstrators failed to co-operate, they said.

On the night of June 3, soldiers from the People's Liberation Army and tanks fired on demonstrators. Shootings continued into June 4.


Soviet's leader's visit

The May visit to China by Mikhail Gorbachev - the future president of the Soviet Union and the nation's General Secretary of the Communist Party at the time of the protests - is rarely mentioned in accounts of the crackdown. His trip was important because it was the first meeting of mainland and Soviet leaders for 30years. He was due to arrive on May 15, but the trip was rearranged constantly. His visit to Tiananmen Square was halted owing to the big demonstrations, which embarrassed the mainland government.

The death toll

Official figures of the numbers of casualties are hard to estimate. The number of people killed may never be known, but the then premier, Li Peng , in a diary entry, said authorities had tallied 313 deaths. Prior to that, estimates had ranged from the hundreds to the thousands.

The United States estimated the number of deaths could have been as many as 3,000 Nicholas Kristof, an investigative reporter with The New York Times, carried out detailed research for an article published on June 21, 1989, which estimated that between 400 and 800 civilians were killed, along with a dozen soldiers and policemen.

The battleground

The Chinese government has long denied there were many casualties in Tiananmen Square. Former BBC journalist James Miles, who was in China and reported on the crackdown at that time, wrote an article in 2009, admitting the possibility of a mistake. He said the killings were 'incontrovertible', but most of them did not happen inside Tiananmen Square. He had heard from other reporters that saw troops open fire on Changan Boulevard from the Beijing Hotel, killing at least 30 people. Protestors inside the square were allowed to leave, but some were crushed by tanks as they left. Kristof also said no killings had occurred in Tiananmen Square. Nonetheless, troops were seen firing at ambulances and unarmed crowds outside the square.

Did accident spark violence?

Reported in another investigative article, Kristof suggested that the outbreak of violence could have been caused by misunderstanding. He said the demonstrators had grown used to the motionless troops in the city, and the demonstration was losing momentum.

Yet on June 3, a speeding police van, crashed into and killed three cyclists, he reported. The accident was seen as intentional by demonstrators. This led them to gather again and confront the troops, which contributed to what happened later.

The 'unsung' hero

Not every official was part of the official propaganda machine. Zhao Ziyang was China's General Secretary at the time, having succeeded Hu Yaobang.

Zhao held more liberal views on China's economic reform than other Communist Party members, and was sympathetic to the student demonstrators.

Although it was seldom mentioned, he had suggested withdrawing the People's Daily editorial that angered protesters, although his efforts were in vain owing to a lack of support within his party.

The New York Times reported Zhao pushed for a democratic and corruption-free reform by allowing his two sons to be investigated for corruption.

Zhao's intent was to connect with the demonstrators and encourage them to leave Tiananmen Square, in view of Gorbachev's visit. He garnered support from the protesters, but they still failed to disperse.

On May 19, during the hunger strikes by students, Zhao ignored the official party stance and visited demonstrators in the square. With tears in his eyes, he admitted, 'We came too late'. He warned the students about the 'serious situation' and begged them halt the hunger strikes and disperse - saying that 'the government won't close the door for dialogue'. Yet after the June 4 crackdown, he was put under house arrest until his death in 2005.

The iconic 'Tank Man'

The iconic image of resistance shows a man standing in front of a line of tanks. The man is believed to be challenging the might of tanks in defence of democracy on June 4 - the day of the crackdown. Yet it was taken on June 5.

Some people said the man was crushed later by tanks. But photographers Arthur Tsang Hin-wah, of Reuters, and Charlie Cole, of Newsweek, both confirmed that the man left safely after talking to soldiers in the tanks - while they were taking identical pictures.