Tiananmen Square is a public plaza in central Beijing, the capital of China. It’s said to be the largest urban public space in the world. Although the site has social and historical significance within China, it’s perhaps best known worldwide as the site of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, which followed pro-democracy protests in 1989. The protests ended when Chinese government forces stormed the square, killing scores of protesters and injuring thousands more.
Tiananmen Square is named for the nearby Tiananmen, or “Gate of Heavenly Peace,” which marks the entrance to the so-called Forbidden City, the former imperial palace of China during the Ming and Qing dynasties, from the early 1400s to the early 1900s.
Tiananmen Square has long been an important crossroads within the city of Beijing, but 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 1911-1912 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 faded in the aftermath of Second World War, China entered a period of civil war. At 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.
Since the 1950s, the area around Tiananmen Square has experienced a significant expansion. The square is now home to the Great Hall of the People, which hosts the Chinese Parliament and annual meeting of the National People’s Congress, and the National Museum of China, an art and history exhibition space.
Mao Zedong, considered the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, is also interred at Tiananmen Square, in a mausoleum on the plaza.
As notable as Tiananmen Square is within China, it became known worldwide as the site of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, which occurred on June 4 and 5, 1989.
Although the massacre, as it is known in the West, was limited to just that two-day period, the event itself was weeks in the making.
In fact, pro-democracy protesters, mostly students, had been occupying Tiananmen Square since early May 1989. At issue was their frustration with the limits on political freedom in the country—given its one-party form of government, with the Communist Party holding sway—and ongoing economic troubles.
Indeed, although China’s government had instituted a number of reforms in the 1980s that established a limited form of capitalism in the country, the poor and working-class Chinese still faced significant challenges, including lack of jobs and, thus, increased poverty.
The students also argued that China’s educational system did not adequately prepare them for an economic system with elements of free-market capitalism.
In general, the protests in Tiananmen Square called for democracy, free speech and a free press, among other reforms. Some leaders within China’s government were sympathetic to the protesters’ cause, while others saw them as a political threat.
Martial Law Declared
By the end of May more than one million protesters had gathered in Tiananmen Square. They held daily marches and vigils, and images of the events were transmitted by media organizations to audiences in the United States and Europe.
On May 13, 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 Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union 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.
Tiananmen Square Massacre
While the initial presence of the military failed to quell the protests, the Chinese decided to increase its 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 there 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 United States 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.”
That same day, some 70,000 people in Hong Kong attend a memorial vigil for the victims of the massacre.
Tiananmen Square Today
The events of June 4 and 5, 1989, still resonate today.
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.
Even after the Chinese government reopened the National Museum at Tiananmen Square following a major renovation, the important exhibition space still contains no mention of the 1989 protests, or the military response.