Tiananmen Square Protest

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Tiananmen Square Protest


By: Jeff Widener

Date: May 30, 1989

Source: © Peter Turnley/Corbis. Reproduced by permission.

About the Photographer: Peter Turnley is a freelancer photographer who has covered wars, disasters, protests, and many other events for a variety of news organizations.


On June 3, 1989, six weeks of predominantly peaceful student and worker protests in the Chinese capital of Beijing (also known as Peking) came to a violent conclusion. These protesters demanded more democratic freedoms in China, and the protest reflected the growing working class movement. About 40,000 soldiers from the Peoples Liberation Army descended upon the thousands of protesters, and their use of tanks, other weapons of warfare, and tear gas brought the protest movement to a moment of chaos. Witness accounts remarked that Army tanks came in and knocked people off barricades, buses, and buildings. Some of these obstacles caught fire, but the mood of the protesters stayed indignant and did not immediately turn to fear. As the crowd of protesters yelled and chanted sayings like "You pig" and "Go on strike," the military fired rounds of ammunition at them. Previously, rubber bullets had been used to quell the protesters, but the events of June 3 reflected the agitated mood of the protesters and the Chinese government. The Chinese Red Cross estimated that about 2,600 people died from the protest's violent conclusion, and not all of these causalities were protesters. Many by-standers and local residents were caught in the crossfire of bullets and the burning buildings and buses. Numerous scholars, media reports, and critics have agreed the 1989 protests proved the most difficult social uprising in Chinese history since its 1949 revolution.

Tiananmen Square is the largest square in the world; it could hold the entire Summer Olympics with all the events occurring simultaneously. The size of the square made it the perfect location for the protest, though the square has no trees, no benches, no public water fountains, and no venders for food or beverage. It is also one of the most heavily monitored public squares. The light posts are equipped with speakers and swiveling video cameras. These cameras work rather well, as the protester who threw paint on the painting of Mao Tse-tung in Tiananmen Square received a life sentence for his action. The video cameras captured his act of dissent. The lack of facilities heightened the hardships of the protesters, and the video surveillance enabled the Chinese government to convict and suppress many protesters once the hostilities ended.

Before the violent conclusion of the Tiananmen Square protest, a series of events and calculated moves (by the protesters and Chinese government) paved the way for social unrest. Students marched to Tiananmen Square in late December 1986 and early January 1987, but the police arrested and forcefully removed them before a serious protest could get underway. Hu Yaobang stepped in and prevented the student protesters from being jailed, and his opponents saw this action as weak and sympathetic to the students. These protesters demanded larger democratic freedoms in China, and they wanted economic and governmental reforms that would encourage fair hiring and selling practices. Hu was forced to resign his governmental post after the 1987 protest, and his death in 1989 is often marked as a catalyst for the Tiananmen Square uprising. Hu served as general secretary of the Communist Party in 1980 and as party chairman in 1981.

In 1988, the Chinese economy was improving, but many citizens were still disenchanted that government corruption was enabling some members of society to obtain wealth while other individuals could not or could barely pay their bills. Then in April 1989, Hu died from a heart attack, prompting students throughout Beijing to display posters of him from campus buildings. The students rallied on three key demands: more democratic representation, authority to organize student unions, and the end of government corruption. On April 21, students began gathering in Tiananmen Square in anticipation of Hu's funeral. The students camped in the square to prevent the police from barring them from Hu's funeral, and on April 22, some students maneuvered past the police line. They waited for over an hour to give their position to the country's leaders, but official leaders refused to see them. Then, on April 26, a line of protesters- exceeding four miles (6.4 kilometers) long-marched to Tiananmen Square. Workers and civilians joined the movement.

The protesters refused to leave, and on May 13 they viewed the opening of the Sino-Soviet Summit as an opportunity to gain international attention for their cause. Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the Soviet Union, convened with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. The summit, an attempt to ease Soviet and Chinese relations, took a second seat to the scene of protesters in Tiananmen Square. The students, wearing white headbands, declared a hunger strike that would end when the government met their demands. International media coverage focused on protesters fainting and being removed from the square via stretcher. Amid the chaos, the protesters remained unorganized. The lack of facilities and access to water exasperated the situation with the hunger strikers, and the open arena of the square left various student and worker organizations to set up makeshift tent headquarters throughout the area. These ad hoc constructions added to the perception of disarray. The scene tended to reflect a lively party with music and drinking. As the protest continued, students and workers eagerly traveled to Beijing to unite with the movement, and housewives, journalists, doctors, and many others also joined the cause.

As the protest progressed, the Chinese government struggled over how to handle the uprising. Deng argued for military force, but Zhao Ziyang urged for reconciliation and mediation between the protesters and the government. Zhao, the secretary-general for the Chinese Communist party, went to the square to talk with the masses. His attempts failed, and Deng later removed him of his position and banned him from future public life. On May 19, the day after Zhao attempted to negotiate with the Tiananmen Square group, martial law was declared in Beijing and the students called off their hunger strike, which had lasted for five to six days. Yet, they did not leave the square.

In late May, students brought a large "Goddess of Liberty" statue into the square. Several students from the Central Academy for Fine Arts had made the statue, and they framed it on the Statue of Liberty in the United States. As students and workers continued to gather in Tiananmen Square, western journalists frequently captured pictures of the student's statue with Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung overlooking the events. His portrait hung near Tiananmen Square, and the juxtaposition of Mao overlooking the protests brought more international attention to the events. Mao was the leader of the Chinese Communist party that brought widespread economic reforms throughout China with its 1949 revolution. Aside from the images of the student statue, numerous media outlets broad-casted images of Chinese military tanks approaching the square and of the violent conflict between the military and the protesters.



See primary source image.


In response to the use of military force and media coverage showing death and violence at Tiananmen Square, world leaders spoke out against the Chinese government's actions. United States President George Bush and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher both made international statements condemning the use of force against the protesters. Chinese politicians who had been assured that excessive force would not be used to end the protest were shocked and shamed at the use of violence. Unsubstantiated reports state that Communist leader Deng Xiaoping ordered the deployment of troops on the protesters.

The first tanks to approach Tiananmen Square toppled the tent headquarters of the Workers Autonomous Federation, and the military presence and takeover of the capital only signaled the beginning of governmental retaliation upon dissidents. Demonstrations continued to speckle the Chinese landscape, in Beijing and in outlying providences, and these were handled in brutal and harsh fashions. Following the protests, nearly 40,000 people were arrested, with a large majority of them being contacts of worker organizations and unions. Hundreds of workers and student protesters remain in jail, and some of them received death sentences shortly after the incident. For the most part, students received light punishments, with most returning to their campuses. Beijing University decreased its enrollment immediately following the 1989 uprising, but within a few years its campus population exceeded pre-1989 enrollment figures.

The reforms that the students and workers sought have not been completely addressed, but throughout the 1990s China continued its economic reforms. These reforms, started in 1979, opened businesses up to private ownership and competition, and state-owned firms have shifted to privately owned corporations. Adding to the complexity of the situation, western presses quickly changed their coverage of the Tiananmen Square protests from the students and workers to the international business community. One such example of ties and concerns for the Chinese market came from Bob Hawke. Hawke was the Australian Prime Minister in 1989, but in 1991 he left public office to emerge as a consultant for corporate investment in China. Critics have used Hawke as an example of why the 1989 protests failed. Many of the student and worker leaders left the country or spent years in exile or in jail, and the lack of international intervention on their behalf left them feeling jaded.



Hung, Wu. Remaking Beijing: Tiananmen Square and the Creation of a Political Space. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Miles, James. The Legacy of Tiananmen. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1996.


Pfaff, Steven and Guobin Yang. "Double-Edged Rituals and the Symbolic Resources of Collective Action: Political Commemorations and the Mobilization of Protest in 1989." Theory and Society 30, 4 (August 2001): 539-589.

Web sites

PBS.org. "Frontline: The Gate of Heavenly Peace." 〈http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/gate〉 (accessed May 2, 2006).

U.S. House of Representatives: Congressman Chris Smith. "Remembering Tiananmen Square." June 3, 2004. 〈http://www.house.gov/apps/list/press/nj04_smith/Tiananmen.html〉 (accessed May 2, 2006).