Tiananmen Square Protests of June 1989

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Tiananmen Square Protests of June 1989


By: Jeff Widener

Date: June 5, 1989

Source: AP Images.

About the Photographer: Jeff Widener is an Associated Press photographer and has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. As of 2006, he is also photographer for the Honolulu Advertiser.


In June 1989, an unprecedented protest in Tiananmen Square in Beijing which had begun two months before was brought to a violent end. As the world watched, China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) forcibly removed thousands of demonstrators from Tiananmen Square. An estimated 1,000-2,600 people were killed by the military in the events that unfolded beginning in April of that year. In 1991, the Chinese government confirmed that 2,578 demonstrators from the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989 had been arrested. The events which led to the unparalleled suppression of the protests in June of 1989 actually began in 1985. At this time, students and workers began to rally in support of extensive democratic reforms throughout China. These demonstrations began on university campuses as students opposed the presence of the PLA in the schools. In addition, protesters demonstrated against nuclear testing that had recently taken place in the Xinjiang province. This movement adopted slogans of 'Law, not authoritarianism' and 'Long Live Democracy' in its quest for democratic reform in China. As these protests escalated into nationwide demonstrations, members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) supported a swift military response on the part of the government. However, party chairman Hu Yaobang was sympathetic to the reformers and refused to respond with military force. As a result, in 1987 he lost his position as party chairman.

After Hu Yaobang's death on April 15, 1989, students began to gather in Tiananmen Square to express their grief for his passing. These demonstrations developed into demonstrations in support for his political stand against military response to the pro-democracy demonstrations that occurred in 1985. On April 26, an editorial appeared in the People's Daily Newspaper discrediting the gathering of Hu Yaobang's supporters. In response, the mood changed from an outpouring of grief to a political stand for democratic reforms. These demonstrations which began in Tiananmen Square began to spread to twenty-nine provinces and eighty-four cities, according to Chinese government figures. Students began a hunger strike on May 13, and by May 17, approximately one million demonstrators had converged on Tiananmen Square. Many of these protesters were students. However, unlike demonstrations in the past, this became a cross-class protest which included students, urban workers, party and government employees, and over seven hundred organizations participated.

The CCP leadership, under the control of Deng Xiaoping, declared martial law on May 20. During this period, the PLA attempted to dispel the protestors, but failed. On May 30, the protesters constructed the "Goddess of Democracy," a ten-meter-high plaster statue, inspired partly by the Statue of Liberty. The statue was raised to face the portrait of Mao Tse Tung hanging in Tiananmen Square. Shortly thereafter, the Chinese government approved a policy of forceful removal and disbursement of the protesters. The implementation of this policy began on June 1 by cutting off access of foreign journalists. On June 2, convoys of tanks and soldiers moved into central Beijing. By the next day, the military began to use tear gas and rubber bullets to force the demonstrators to leave the square. The PLA's tanks entered Tiananmen Square by midnight of June 3, at which time many demonstrators agreed to leave the square peacefully. However, in the early morning of June 4, the army began to open fire on the protesters.

The American Embassy in Beijing reported that approximately ten thousand troops surrounded the three thousand remaining protesters. This confrontation resulted in violent clashes along Changan Boulevard, the main thoroughfare in Tiananmen Square. As a result, the military used automatic weapons, tanks and armored personnel carriers to end the protests, which until this point had been peaceful. According to these reports, the military opened fire on unarmed civilians, to include members of the press. The U.S. Embassy reported that journalists for CBS had been beaten by the PLA and their equipment, to include cameras, had been smashed.



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On June 5, 1989, the PLA had obtained control of Tiananmen Square and the demonstrators had been quieted. As a column of tanks moved along Changan Boulevard toward Tiananmen Square, a lone man emerged to confront the column. The lead tank attempted to go around the man, but the man continued to stand in the path of the tank. At one point, the man jumped onto the tank and addressed the driver. Shortly thereafter, the man was apprehended by a group of people and taken away. Although many have speculated the name and fate of the lone protester, no one has accurately identified the man or what has become of him.

The U.S. Embassy in Beijing reported that relative calm had been restored to the region by June 8. Human rights organizations assert that approximately 1,000–2,600 people were killed during the events. By 1991, the Chinese government had confirmed 2,578 arrests of those involved in participating and organizing the protests. Unlike the gentle handling of the 1985–1986 pro-democracy protests, the CCP leadership enacted sweeping responses to prevent future demonstrations from occurring. In addition to jailing protesters, many of the demonstration's leadership were exiled. Policy changes also occurred. The CCP intensified the political education of students through programs such as an eight week university program that teaches party principles. Many schools adopted a state-written curriculum which focuses on China's achievements and the excesses of the West.



Clements, Jonathan. "Tiananmen Square 13 Years After: The Prospects for Civil Unrest in China." Asian Affairs: An American Review. 29 (2002): 159.

Web sites

PBS. "Frontline: The Memory of Tiananmen Square, 1989." <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tankman/cron/> (accessed May 10, 2006).

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No.16. "Tiananmen Square, 1989." <http://www.gwu.edu/~ nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB16/> (accessed April 30, 2006).

The Guardian Unlimited. "Tiananmen: Ten Years On." 1999. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/Tiananmen/0,2759,193066,00.html> (accessed April 30, 2006).