One of the most hideous atrocities of the Chinese government that has remained in the public’s memory for the past three decades is the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989, also known as the June 4th incident. Reportedly more than 10,000 Chinese citizens, mostly students from various universities, were crushed mercilessly by army troopers outside the walls of the great Tiananmen Square.
The Tiananmen Square protests began with the sudden death of the Legendary Hu Yaobang on 15th April, 1989 by a heart attack, which many students believed was due to his forced resignation from the party. Hu Yaobang was a high-ranking leader of the People’s Republic of China, who served as a Chairman and then as a Secretary General of the Communist Party of China before he was forced to resign from his position. Students in China were religious followers of Hu, who seemed to be a loyal member and proletarian for the party but was a symbol of liberal reform and clean government for the students. Hu had very differing views regarding the Democracy of China and worked towards the freedom of speech, media and a transparent government.
With the news of the death of Hu, students began gathering in public places as early as the April of 17th to demand for the revival of Hu’s legacy. The students took Hu’s death as an opportunity to display their dissatisfaction with economic reforms and political changes that were taking place during the years of 1980s. The reforms aimed to reduce the rule of the state in the agriculture and industry, with roughly 73% rural farms de-collectivized and 80% private companies allowed to retain profits. These reforms were not a problem until social problems began to arise out of the corruption and nepotism of elite party bureaucrats, which was evident in the inflation in the prices of food supplies and other products. Those with political connections bought the goods and sold them at higher prices to the public.
The country was also going through social disenfranchisement and legitimacy crisis, where private companies no longer accepted students assigned by the state but selected employees through nepotism. Despite the opening of new universities, the market demand of graduates in the growing industries of agriculture was not met and students were left unemployed due to the limited jobs for arts and humanities field. The party also started facing a legitimacy crisis as it slowly adopted capitalist practices.
In 1986, a professor from Princeton University named Fang Lizhi started making tours in universities across the country spreading the ideas about liberty, human rights and separation of powers. His speeches influenced the students that a political reform and adoption of western reforms was the only solution to solve the on-going problems in China. Hu was criticized and forced to resign due to his leniency towards the demonstrations against the government by the students, which started as mass gatherings in various universities in 1986.
After his resignation, the government launched an Anti-Bourgeois Campaign, which tightened the protests and political atmosphere of China, but Hu remained a strong influence among progressives of liberty, freedom and democracy. His sudden death was a nudge towards the pending protests and students started gathering at the Tiananmen Square in the thousands to pay respect to Hu, whose funeral was said to be in the Tiananmen Square with gates closed.
By April 17th, thousands of students from various universities of China such as the Peking University, Tsinghua University and China University of Political Science and Law arrived at the Great Hall of China in a piecemeal fashion to mourn Hu’s death. This was seen as obstruction of operation by the Great Hall of China and the police tried to disperse the students. On that night, three thousand students from PKU marched to the Tiananmen joined by others from Tsinghua and the gathering grew into a protest, where the students drafted a list of seven demands from the government:
- Affirm Hu Yaobang’s views on democracy and freedom as correct;
- Admit that the campaigns against spiritual pollution and bourgeois liberalization had been wrong;
- Publish information on the income of state leaders and their family members;
- Allow privately run newspapers and stop press censorship;
- Increase funding for education and raise intellectuals’ pay;
- End restrictions on demonstrations in Beijing;
- Provide objective coverage of students in official media.
On the April 18th, students remained in the Square and many gatherings around the country had started taking place in order to force the government into fulfilling their demands. Students started protests, made announcements and started hunger strikes in order to the get the government’s attention. On April 21st, the day of Hu’s funeral, thousands of students gathered at Tiananmen and wept for Hu despite the state’s announcement that funeral would be held behind closed gates of Tiananmen.
On April 23, Beijing Student’s Autonomous Federation, also known as the Union, was formed. On the morning of 22nd April, riots broke out in Changsa and Xian, leading to loots, ransacking and arsons. Students began protesting against the provincial governments and Zhou Yongjun, the chair of BSAF, started gathering students with three messages: discourage students from further protests and ask them to go back to class, use all measures necessary to combat rioting, and open forms of dialogue with students at different levels of government.
Organized by the Union, on April 27, some 50000 to 100000 students marched towards Tiananmen Square and gained much support from the public, especially factory workers. The highlighted the message of anti-corruption but pro-party. The government was forced to meet the students and few substantial results were obtained which satisfied many students. Most students except PKU and BNU (Beijing National University) ended boycott of class and lost interest in the movement.
While the government was divided on whether or not the dialogue between the Union and the government should continue, the Union decided to disperse students for a hunger strike on May 11 citing that the dialogue was a way of the government to trick students into submission. The hunger strike began in the Tiananmen Square on May 13, two days before the published arrival of Soviet leader Gorbachev. The Union hoped this would force the government into fulfilling some demands of the students. The hunger strike started with 300,000 students at Tiananmen and gained widespread support throughout China, starting another round of protests in the universities.
The government decided to negotiate with the union to clear the Square for Gorbachev’s visit but the visit was cancelled last minute, leading the Union to lose the bargaining power they thought they had. The hunger strike continued till May 17-18, with student protests increasing in size and number by the day. On May 20, the state announced Martial law and 30 divisions were dispersed to bases outside the city to stop protestors from entering Beijing. On May 24, all army’s returned to the city, which seemed like a retreat but in reality was the preparation for a final assault.
By late May, the students’ internal divisions led to disorganization within the party and Tiananmen was overcrowded with students leading to hygiene problems. Students started protesting against each other and while some wanted to move the base, this idea was opposed and the Square was held, which became the reason for the tragedy that shook the entire nation for years to come.
On the night of June 1, the CPC started dispersing army troops to gates of Tiananmen and asked students to leave the Square. The students denied and the protests grew larger leading the CPC to take action. On June 3, military announced that the officials would charge at those who did not evacuate the Square and therefore, many students left the square, with the professors urging the remaining ones to leave the monuments. The students who did not leave were beaten with gun butts and gun clubs, and the chaos had killed several demonstrators. While the 3rd of June passed, in the very early morning of June 4, thousands of protestors, mostly parents of protestors tried to re-enter the Square to search for the victims. The military suddenly announced the evacuation orders during that time and open fired when the protestors outside Tiananmen surged back at them. The protestors were mercilessly run over by tanks and the debris collected and thrown in the gutters.
The death of thousands of people that morning was suppressed by the Chinese government who reported that only 200-300 people were killed in the protests. It was only when the government decided to celebrate Hu’s 90th birthday that the incident came into light for the world revealing evidence that the number of deaths at the Square was unimaginably tremendous, surpassing tens of thousands.
It was through the declassified files of US in 2014 obtained from Chinese secret files that the total number of deaths and injuries during the massacre was estimated. The total number of deaths was estimated to be 10,454 and injuries over 40,000. As of August 2011, only 202 victims had been identified by a group called Tiananmen mothers, a victim advocacy group of the massacre. Till date, searches are going on with families searching for their loved ones and on the verge of losing hope. June 4 is observed every year as the Memorial Day for the thousands of young patriotic students and civilians who lost their lives due to the orders of a government to value position over public.