The Tiananmen Square protests were student-led demonstrations in 1989 calling for democracy, free speech and a free press in China. Pro-democracy protesters initially marched through Beijing to Tiananmen Square following the April 1989 death of Hu Yaobang, a former Communist Party leader who had worked to introduce democratic reform in China. While mourning Hu, the students called for a more open, democratic government nationwide. Eventually thousands of people joined the students in Tiananmen Square, with the protest’s numbers increasing to the tens of thousands by mid-May. The protests were halted in a deadly crackdown, known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, by the Chinese government on June 4 and 5, 1989.
Background to Unrest
The protests resulted from long-simmering frustration with the limits on political freedom in China—given its one-party form of government, with the Communist Party holding sway—and ongoing economic troubles.
Although China’s government had instituted a number of reforms in the 1980s that established a limited form of capitalism in the country, poor and working-class Chinese still faced significant challenges, including lack of jobs and increased poverty.
The students also argued that China’s educational system did not adequately prepare them for an economic system with elements of global, free-market capitalism. Some leaders within China’s government were sympathetic to the protesters’ cause, while others saw them as a political threat.
Martial Law Declared
On May 13, 1989, a number of the student protesters initiated a hunger strike, which inspired other similar strikes and protests across China. As the movement grew, the Chinese government became increasingly uncomfortable with the protests, particularly as they disrupted a visit by Soviet Union Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev on May 15.
A welcome ceremony for Gorbachev originally scheduled for Tiananmen Square was instead held at the airport, although otherwise his visit passed without incident. Even so, feeling the demonstrations needed to be curtailed, the Chinese government declared martial law on May 20 and 250,000 troops entered Beijing.
By the end of May, more than one million protesters had gathered in and around Tiananmen Square. They held daily marches and vigils, and images of the events were transmitted by media organizations to audiences in the United States, Europe and across the world.
Tiananmen Square Massacre
When the initial presence of the military failed to quell the protests, the Chinese authorities decided to increase their aggression. At 1 a.m. on June 4, Chinese soldiers and police stormed Tiananmen Square, firing live rounds into the crowd.
Although thousands of protesters simply tried to escape, others fought back, stoning the attacking troops and setting fire to military vehicles. Reporters and Western diplomats in Beijing that day estimated that hundreds to thousands of protesters were killed in the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and as many as 10,000 were arrested.
Leaders worldwide, including Gorbachev, condemned the military action and, less than a month later, the U.S. Congress voted to impose economic sanctions against China, citing human rights violations.
Tiananmen Square Tank Man
The image of an unidentified man standing alone in defiance and blocking a column of Chinese tanks on June 5 remains a lasting one for much of the world of the events. He is now renowned as the “Tiananmen Square Tank Man.”
Tiananmen Square History
While the events of 1989 now dominate global coverage of Tiananmen Square, the site has long been an important crossroads within the city of Beijing. It was named for the nearby Tiananmen, or “Gate of Heavenly Peace,” and marks the entrance to the so-called Forbidden City. The location took on added significance as China shifted from an emperor-led political culture to one that was governed by the Communist Party.
The Qing dynasty was the last dynastic power to rule China. It governed the country from the middle of the 1600s until 1912. The Xinhai Revolution of 1911 resulted in the overthrow of the Qings and led to the establishment of the Republic of China.
The early years of the Republic were marked by political turmoil, however, and the country fell under Japanese rule during the lead-up to World War II. During the Japanese occupation, some 20 million Chinese were killed.
As Japan’s influence faded in the aftermath of Second World War, China entered a period of civil war. By the end of the civil war in 1949, the Communist Party had gained control of most of mainland China. They established the People’s Republic of China under the leadership of Chairman Mao Zedong.
A celebration to honor the occasion was held in Tiananmen Square on October 1, 1949. More than one million Chinese people attended. This celebration came to be known as National Day, and it is still observed annually on that date, with the largest events set in the square.
Mao Zedong, considered the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, is interred at Tiananmen Square, in a mausoleum on the plaza.
Tiananmen Square Censorship
Today the June 4 and 5 Tiananmen Square protests and massacre continue to resonate worldwide. In 1999, the U.S. National Security Archive released Tiananmen Square, 1989: The Declassified History. The document includes U.S. State Department files related to the protests and subsequent military crackdown.
It wasn’t until 2006 that Yu Dongyue, a journalist arrested for throwing paint at a portrait of Mao Zedong in Tiananmen Square during the protests, was released from prison.
On the 20th anniversary of the massacre, the Chinese government prohibited journalists from entering Tiananmen Square and blocked access to foreign news sites and social media.
Still, thousands attended a memorial vigil in honor of the anniversary in Hong Kong. Ahead of the 30th anniversary of the event, in 2019, New York-based Human Rights Watch published a report detailing reported arrests in China of those associated with the protests.
The 1989 events at Tiananmen Square have also been highly censored on China’s tightly-controlled internet. According to a survey released in 2019 by the University of Toronto and the University of Hong Kong, more than 3,200 words referencing the massacre had been censored.
Tiananmen Square. Beijing-Visitor.com.
Tiananmen Square, 1989. Department of State: Office of the Historian.
Human Rights Activism in Post-Tiananmen China, Human Rights Watch.
Timeline: Tiananmen protests. BBC.com.
Tiananmen Square Fast Facts. CNN.com.