May 18

This Day in History

Cold War

May 18, 1989:

One million protesters take to the streets in Beijing

A crowd of protesters, estimated to number more than one million, marches through the streets of Beijing calling for a more democratic political system. Just a few weeks later, the Chinese government moved to crush the protests.

Protests in China had been brewing since the mid-1980s when the communist government announced that it was loosening some of the restrictions on the economy, allowing for a freer market to develop. Encouraged by this action, a number of Chinese (particularly students) began to call for similar action on the political front. By early 1989, peaceful protests began to take place in some of China's largest urban areas. The largest of these protests took place around Tiananmen Square in the center of Beijing. By the middle of May 1989, enormous crowds took to the streets with songs, slogans, and banners calling for greater democracy and the ouster of some hard-line Chinese officials. The Chinese government responded with increasingly harsh measures, including arrests and beatings of some protesters. On June 3, 1989, Chinese armed forces stormed into Tiananmen Square and swept the protesters away. Thousands were killed and over 10,000 were arrested in what came to be known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

The protests attracted worldwide attention. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev applauded the protesters and publicly declared that reform was necessary in communist China. In the United States, the Chinese students were treated like heroes by the American press. Following the Tiananmen Square Massacre, a shocked U.S. government suspended arms sales to China and imposed economic sanctions. The Chinese government, however, refused to bend, referring to the protesters as "lawless elements" of Chinese society.

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