35 Photos of the Courageous Protestors and the Brutal Government Oppression at Tiananmen Square

A student pro-democracy protester flashes victory signs to the crowd as People's Liberation Army troops withdraw on the west side of the Great Hall of the People near Tiananmen Square on Saturday, June 3, 1989 in Beijing. AP Photo:Mark Avery

The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, commonly known as the June Fourth Incident, were student-led demonstrations in Beijing. The protests were the culmination of a popular national pro-democracy movement. The protests were forcibly suppressed after the government declared martial law. The protests ended in a massacre.

 China, in the late 1980s, was in the midst of rapid economic development stemming from radical economic reforms. The first reform, in 1978, involved the de-collectivization of agriculture, the opening up of the country to foreign investment, and permission for entrepreneurs to start businesses (although most industries remained state owned). The second stage of reforms, in the late 1980s, involved the privatization and the contracting out the State owned industry and lifting price controls, protectionist policies, and regulations. State monopolies in banking and petroleum remained. These reforms benefited a small demographic and disaffected many. Common grievances included inflation, limited preparedness of graduates for the new economy, and restrictions on political participation. The legitimacy of China’s one-party system was beginning to be challenged.

Several years of disillusionment climaxed when General Secretary Hu Yaobang, whose western-inspired ideas and political liberalization caused him to be denounced by conservatives and he was forced into resignation. He became seen as a champion of the students’ political movement. When Yaobang died of a heart attack on April 15, 1989, the students reacted strongly. Students began to gather at Tiananmen Square to mourn the death of their beloved politician.

On April 21, the evening before Hu Yaobang’s state funeral, 100,000 students marched on Tiananmen Square. The students called for democracy, greater accountability, freedom of the press, and freedom of speech. Demonstrations continued over the next few weeks.

On May 13, two days prior to the highly publicized state visit by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the students began their hunger strike. Gorbachev’s reception ceremony was planned to be held in the square and the student leaders thought the hunger strike would force the Chinese government into meeting their demands. By this time, there were 300,000 people gathered in the square.

Despite pleas from the government and minor concessions and relaxing the state run media, students remained in the square during the Gorbachev visit. His welcoming ceremony was held at the airport.

On May 17-18, around a million Beijing residents demonstrated in solidarity with the Tiananmen Square movement. The Chinese Red Cross sent a large number of personnel to provide medical services to the hunger strikers. Journalists from all over the world stayed behind after Gorbachev left to cover the protests. Western governments urged Beijing to exercise restraint.

On May 20, martial law was declared, and the government dispatched at 250,000 troops to the capital. The army was met with resistance, and could not enter the square and was forced to retreat outside of Beijing, May 24. They were preparing for their final assault.

On June 3, state-run television warned residents to stay indoors but crowds of people took the streets to block the incoming army. At 10:00 pm the army opened fire on protesters blocking the streets. The soldiers used tanks to ram through the buses blocking the streets. The citizens and residents responded to the murders by attacking the soldiers with sticks, rocks, and Molotov cocktails, setting fire to military vehicles.

Troops with assault rifles and tanks killed at least 700 demonstrators trying to block the military’s advance towards Tiananmen Square. There has never been an official death count made. Estimates of the murders pro-democracy protesters range up into the thousands.

It is currently illegal in all of China, except Hong Kong, to commemorate the June 4 massacre.

Chinese police try in vain to contain a huge crowd of student marchers during a pro-reform demonstration in Beijing, China, May 4, 1989. AP Photo:S. Mikami
May 13, 1989, student demonstrations at Tiananmen Square escalate into a hunger strike with thousands taking part and call for democratic reform. CNN
May 16, 1989, then Chinese President Deng Xiaoping (center) takes then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife Raisa by the hand at the Great Hall of the People. Gorbachev’s visit coincided with the student hunger strikes, forcing the official reception to be moved from Tiananmen Square to the airport, embarrassing the Chinese leadership. CNN
May 17, 1989. Five days into the hunger strike and it begins to take its toll on students. Paramedics evacuate those in need of medical attention. CNN
A truck is almost buried in people as it makes its way through the crowd of thousands gathered in Tiananmen Square for a pro-democracy rally, Wednesday, May 17, 1989, Beijing, China. AP Photo: Sadayuki Mikami
During the protests, students commandeered public buses to carry people and supplies and to spread their message. Credit David Chen
Marchers in Tiananmen Square denounced the government’s condemnation of the student demonstrators. The banner says, “The charges against the students are baseless.’’ Credit David Chen
Protesters aboard a truck near Tiananmen Square in Beijing, May 1989. One appears to be in a police uniform. It was not unusual then for police officers to join the demonstrators. Credit David Chen
David Chen, then a student at Dalian Maritime College, striking a pose beside heroic revolutionary statues near the entrance to the mausoleum of Mao Zedong in Tiananmen Square. The banner voices support for the students on a hunger strike. David Chen
May 18, 1989, Chinese workers parade on motorcycles in support of student hunger strikes. CNN
Unidentified Beijing University students, who have been on a six-day hunger strike for democracy, take an early morning break in Tiananmen Square, Thursday, May 18, 1989, Beijing, China. The students have been joined by thousands of workers, soldiers, and doctors in their demand for political reform. AP Photo/Kathy Wilhelm
May 18, 1989, the sixth day of hunger strikes. Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang arrives at Tiananmen Square to address the students. He begins his famous speech by saying “Students, we came too late. We are sorry.” CNN
Unidentified Beijing University students catch a nap on cases of soft drinks in Tiananmen Square, Friday, May 19, 1989, Beijing, China. They are in their sixth day of a hunger strike for political reform. (AP Photo: Kathy Wilhelm)
The protests grew to include residents of Beijing, including blue-collar workers. The banner in front of the Gate of Heavenly Peace, or Tiananmen, says “Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation,” the main group of worker protesters. Credit David Chen
Beijing University students rally in Tiananmen Square where they have camped for a week to push for political reforms, Saturday, May 20, 1989, Beijing, China. The government declared martial law on Saturday in an effort to end the occupation. AP Photo/Sadayuki Mikami
May 20, 1989, teachers from Beijing Normal University arrive at Tiananmen Square to support their students. Martial law has been declared. CNN
A Chinese military helicopter passes over Tiananmen Square and demonstrating students following the declaration of martial law, Saturday, May 20, 1989, Beijing, China. Students have occupied the square for a week seeking political reform. AP Photo/Sadayuki Mikami
The Chinese government declared martial law in urban Beijing on May 20, and later military helicopters dropped leaflets over Tiananmen Square warning protesters to leave. Credit David Chen
A Beijing University student reads the list of goals in their occupation of Tiananmen Square to Peoples Liberation Army troops, Saturday, May 20, 1989, Beijing, China. The troops, en route to the square, were turned back by the crowds. (AP Photo/Mark Avery)