It is 15 years since the June 4 massacre in Beijing's Tiananmen Square - when Chinese soldiers fired live rounds and used tanks and armoured vehicles to crush peaceful student demonstrators. The crackdown resulted in the deaths of several hundred students - possibly thousands - and ended six weeks of unprecedented pro-democracy protests in China. The young people had been protesting the political, economic and educational policies of the mainland government. The massacre sent shockwaves around the world. In Hong Kong, Beijing's repression resulted in huge public protests. On May 28, the World Chinese March saw 1.5 million Hong Kong people expressing their support for the Tiananmen protesters. While China has changed considerably economically and socially over the last decade and a half, the Tiananmen massacre continues to cast a shadow over its international image. The seeds of the 1989 crackdown were sown years earlier, argue Michael Fathers and Andrew Higgins in Tiananmen: The Rape of Peking: 'The explosive events of April, May and June were the product of tensions which had been building up in China for more than a decade, tensions between economic reform and stagnation.' In 1979, Chinese premier Deng Xiaoping began liberalising the economy and introducing some market reforms. Chinese people - with the nightmare of the Cultural Revolution behind them - were slowly enjoying more freedom. This aroused great aspirations among the young - particularly university students. But there were also economic problems. Inflation was running at the highest levels since the Communist Party came to power in 1949. People felt their living standards were being eroded. Many Chinese workers were becoming disgruntled. These fears precipitated a run on the banks in Shanghai and other cities. In 1986, university students in a number of cities protested - demanding political reforms. They had a sympathetic leader in Hu Yaobang, the Communist Party General Secretary. According to Fathers and Higgins, Hu Yaobang was 'an especially attractive figure to China's academics and artists, for whom his fall from grace was a sad and cautionary tale'. 'Having attempted, as Party boss, to pay something more than lip service to intellectual freedom, he was brought down by a seemingly immovable coalition of octogenarian veterans, supported by an only slightly younger band of hardline ideologues.' Hu had been sympathetic to the concerns of students and academics. He believed China had been neglecting tertiary education. Some academics were earning less than taxi drivers and many university facilities were run-down and under-funded. He urged his colleagues to do more for education. But Premier Deng and his hardline supporters became suspicious of Hu - particularly with rising student unrest. He was accused of being too lenient dealing with student protests and soft on 'bourgeois liberalism'. Hu, who had been General Secretary since June 1981, was forced to resign in January 1987. He would eventually be replaced by Zhao Ziyang. Li Peng would become premier. On April 15, 1989, Hu died of a heart attack. Because of his popularity with young people, students gathered in Beijing's Tiananmen Square to honour him. They also used the opportunity to express concern about their lack of political freedom. A week later an official memorial service was held for Hu in the Great Hall of the People. This attracted some 100,000 students. Three student representatives, carrying a petition, knelt on the steps of the Great Hall. As Li Peng ignored the students, they approached minor officials over the petition. Annoyed at being shunned, the students began boycotting classes. Their actions were condemned on April 26 by a Communist Party editorial in the People's Daily. It argued that a 'small handful of plotters' were trying to overthrow the Communist Party and the government. 'Flaunting the banner of democracy, they [the student leaders] undermined democracy and the legal system,' the editorial argued. 'Their purpose was to sow dissension among the people, plunge the whole country into chaos and sabotage the political situation of stability and unity. This is a planned conspiracy and a disturbance. Its essence is to... negate the leadership of the CPC and the socialist system. This is a serious political struggle confronting the whole party and the people of all nationalities throughout the country,' it added. The next day, students from more than 40 universities marched to Tiananmen Square to protest the editorial. This was followed on May 13 by a hunger strike involving several hundred students in Tiananmen Square. Elected student representatives also attempted dialogue with government officials. The main student leaders included Chai Ling, a psychology masters student and her husband Feng Congde, a physics graduate; Wang Dan, a law student; Wu'er Kaixi, who was studying education, and Yang Tao, a history student. But the talks broke down. Concerned, 12 leading writers and scholars urged the government to respect student demands for greater democracy. They also advised the students to end their hunger strike, but their efforts proved fruitless. On May 15, Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev visited Beijing. The visit was the first by a Russian leader since the 1959 Sino-Soviet Summit. The student protests had forced the government to cancel its plans to welcome Gorbachev in Tiananmen Square. Three days later, Li Peng met with student leaders at the Great Hall of the People. Again, the talks achieved nothing. The government decided to declare martial law. But when its plans were leaked to the students they abandoned their week-long hunger strike and launched a mass sit-in. On the evening of May 19, Li Peng urged 'firm and resolute measures to end the turmoil swiftly'. The following day, the government declared martial law. The People's Liberation Army began advancing on Beijing, although its progress was initially stalled by the presence of so many students. 'Faced with the crumbling of its power, the Party imposed martial law on May 20,' wrote George Black and Robin Munro in Black Hands of Beijing: Lives of Defiance in China's Democracy Movement. 'But again it miscalculated. Its inner defections had progressed further than anyone realised; it did not even have control over its own secrets, and it failed to anticipate that its tanks would be halted by a human wall of protesters. 'Age, and years of unchallenged authority, had atrophied the Party's judgment, leaving it incapable of foreseeing the action groups that now formed spontaneously throughout Beijing,' they wrote. The students had established the Defend Tiananmen Square Headquarters under the leadership of Chai Ling. They rejected calls to end their occupation on Tiananmen Square. In a symbolic gesture of defiance on May 30, they unveiled a 10 metre high statue: the Goddess of Democracy. Then at 5pm on June 2, students Liu Xiaobo, Hou Dejian, Zhou Dou, and Gao Xin launched a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square. The government's patience had run out. The next day, the People's Liberation Army was ordered to re-take Tiananmen Square. 'The attack,' wrote Melinda Liu in Beijing Spring, 'began ignominiously, with a baffling incident after midnight on June 3. 'Five thousand young, inexperienced soldiers suddenly marched from the east, five abreast, down Changan Avenue toward Tiananmen Square.' The following afternoon, about 5,000 soldiers clashed with civilians west of Tiananmen Square, near the Great Hall of the People. At first, the soldiers fired tear gas canisters. Protesters responded with rocks and bricks and the troops beat them with batons and leather belts. As the situation deteriorated, the troops began firing live rounds. 'The killing began in earnest around 10pm, when gunfire rang out along the Changan Avenue four or five kilometres west of the square,' said Liu. 'Troops armed with AK-47 assault rifles moved towards the heart of the protest in armoured vehicles and trucks, firing as they advanced. That trigged a paroxysm of carnage and cruelty which lasted until dawn.' Some of the worst violence occurred between midnight and 2am - west of Tiananmen Square on Changan Avenue. 'Soldiers fought pitched battles with defiant crowds near the Muxidi bridge. Tanks smashed into barriers,' added Liu. 'Buses and military vehicles burned at intersections, highlighting the orgy of violence with orange flames and flickering shadows.' Journalists reporting the event were stunned by the turn of events. Kate Adie, covering the protests for the BBC, remembered the terror students felt when the army opened fire. 'There was confusion and despair among those who could hardly credit that their own army was firing wildly at them,' she recalled. 'Many were bystanders, perhaps naive about the savagery of the situation,' she added. 'Indeed, it was hard at times to grasp that this army was launching into an unarmed, civilian population, as if charging into battle. From Tiananmen Square, the sound of gunfire sounded like a battle, but it was one sided,' Adie said. Students could be heard screaming 'down with the government' and 'fascists stop killing' as they were shot. By 1am on June 4, troops had surrounded Tiananmen Square. At 4am, the lights around the square were turned off. Tanks and armoured vehicles rolled forward, crushing some students as well as tents they had erected. When the soldiers encountered The Statue of the Goddess of Democracy, they began destroying it. Over the next few hours, troops continued to fire at civilians, killing and wounding many. The terrified students did their best to help wounded comrades. 'Casualties were arriving every few seconds - on bikes, rickshaws, park benches, carried in - all with gunshot wounds,' remembered Adie. 'Housewives, elderly residents, people shot while sitting in their homes. The operating theatre was overflowing; many of the staff in tears. In 20 minutes, 40 seriously injured were brought for emergency surgery; two were already dead,' she said. 'In the streets, many came up to us shaking with anger and disbelief and fear. Many were terrified, saying there would be retribution. There was not one voice on the streets which did not express despair and rage. 'Tell the world', they said to us,'' Adie recalled. United States journalist and author Harrison Salisbury was also shocked by the violence erupting around him. Recording the event in Tiananmen Diary: Thirteen Days in June, he wrote: 'A bloody incident has occurred outside the Mu Xi apartment complex, on the western continuation of Changan, where important retired revolutionary figures and their wives live... a dozen people were killed, it was said, outside the buildings, and several died inside, when troops turned their automatic weapons on the windows...' Salisbury heard a BBC report saying 100 students had linked arms and stood in front of advancing tanks. 'They were shot down. Then another 100 linked arms and they were shot down. It is too sad to write. These brave innocent, idealistic kids.' Some students were ready to die. In Tiananmen Square authors Scott Simmie and Bob Nixon quote Chai Ling preparing her comrades for the worst. ''I told them an old story', she would tearfully recall. 'There was a group of ants, 1.1 billion of them. One day, there was a huge fire at the foot of their ant hill. The ants knew that their family could only be saved if they went down the hill, so they held on to each other and rolled down the hill together. Some of the ants were killed, but many more were saved.' Her voice, recorded in secret on Sunday afternoon after the killings, was filled with sadness. 'We knew the purification of the republic could only be achieved by our sacrifice,' she said, crying. 'The students held each others hands tightly and began to sing the Internationale'.' Others had narrow escapes. One man in his 20s, was quoted in the South China Morning Post's June 5, 1989 edition, saying: 'I saw soldiers aim their rifles and open fire at the crowd. In five minutes, people littered the ground. 'I ran, then I crouched on the ground and crawled away. I am angry,' he added. 'My heart is bleeding. They have killed my people.' Many believed the crackdown was directly ordered by the Chinese premier. 'That Deng Xiaoping was directly involved in this - there is no doubt,' wrote Harrison Salisbury. 'A variety of sources attest that he took part in the deliberations and that, at some point, he became convinced that a plot threatening not only to overthrow the party but also to take his life and those of other leaders was developing under cover of the student protests. 'Deng having come to power after the chaos, paranoia, intrigue, plots of the Cultural Revolution and the Gang of Four, was highly sensitive to such dangers,' Salisbury concluded. This view of Deng's role is also apparent in the controversial Tiananmen Papers published in January 2001 by a group of American sinologists, academics and a New York-based Human Rights' Organisation. The veracity of the Tiananmen Papers has been debated, but many - including former Singapore prime minister Lee Kuan Yew - believe they are genuine. The papers quote Deng Xiaoping saying: 'This is no ordinary student movement. A tiny minority is exploiting the students; they want to confuse the people and throw the country into chaos. This is a well-planned plot whose real aim is to reject the Communist Party.' The events in Tiananmen aroused great international attention. People were dismayed by the brutality of Beijing's response to student unrest. World leaders - including US president George Bush, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the governments of Japan, France, Australia, West Germany and Thailand - condemned the crackdown. Overseas governments permitted Chinese students to extend their stays in their countries and offered political asylum to Chinese Embassy officials. When Hong Kong learnt of the bloodshed, Governor Sir David Wilson said: 'All of us here have all been horrified by the stories and reports that have been coming in during the day, about the events in Beijing and death and wounding of substantial numbers of people there. 'There is a very real sense in the community of horror and anger,' said Sir Wilson. On June 7, many Hong Kong schools and businesses closed and people flocked to the Monument of the Unnamed Heroes and Xinhua News Agency to remember the victims of Tiananmen. People also participated in protest rallies outside the Chinese Embassy. In a speech to cadres of the martial law units on June 9, Deng Xiaoping justified the government's use of force. He rejected US criticism of China's handling of the protests. 'America has criticised us for suppressing students. In handling its internal student strikes and unrest, didn't America mobilise police and troops, arrest people, and shed blood? They are suppressing students and the people, but we are quelling a counterrevolutionary rebellion. What qualifications do they have to criticise us? From now on, we should pay attention when handling such problems. As soon as a trend emerges, we should not allow it to spread.' The trials of the leading Tiananmen activists began in January 1991. 'Held in secret, without a jury the trials were crude and perfunctory: the counterrevolutionary appeared, received his or her sentence, then disappeared into the gulag,' noted Charles Foran in Sketches in Winter: A Beijing Postcript. 'In many cases, these brief court appearance were the first indication 12 to 18 months after the fact, that these people had been in police custody,' said Foran, who worked in Beijing as a teacher in 1989. 'Chen Ziming, Wang Juntao, who were accused of plotting to overthrow the government, earned 13 year punishments for their repeat offences. 'Others including several workers, were tried in total secrecy, and either executed [as dozens of workers were immediately after the crackdown] or sentenced to longer-terms,' added Foran. Wang Dan spent almost a decade in jail until 1998, when he was exiled to the US on medical grounds. He now lives in the US and has been studying for a doctorate at Harvard. Yao Bang was arrested in Lanzhou on June 16, 1989 and imprisoned until September 1990. He worked for a company in Guangzhou and sold second-hand computers. On May 19, 1999, he was arrested for subversion relating to a petition commemorating the 10th anniversary of the massacre. Due to insufficient evidence, he was charged with tax evasion and imprisoned. He was finally released in May 2003. Some student leaders managed to escape. Wu'er Kaixi went to Hong Kong and then on to France. He then lived in the United States for six years. In 1994, he moved to Taichung in Taiwan. Chai Ling fled the mainland in April 1990 and went to Paris. She later moved to the US, where she studied business administration at Harvard University. Her husband Feng Congde also went to Paris where he still resides. He is now divorced from Chai Ling. Chai Ling once said: 'The people shall triumph. The darker the age, the sooner the dawn will come.'