Tiananmen Square Massacre

Shopping bags in hand, an unknown protester stands in front of a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square
Shopping bags in hand, an unknown protester stands in front of a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square

by Ray Setterfield


June 29, 1981 — Hu Yaobang became Chairman of the Communist Party of China on this day. His death eight years later would lead to the notorious Tiananmen Square Massacre.

A man who wanted to pursue social and economic reforms, Hu inevitably became opposed by the hardliners. So despite being appointed to the more powerful position of party General Secretary in 1982, he was eventually forced out of office and made to state humiliating “self-criticisms” of his ideas in public.

After all, they said, amongst other things he refused in 1986 to crack down on protesting students, saying that they should be allowed to vent their frustrations.

Hu died of a heart attack, aged 73, in April 1989. Not surprisingly given his downfall, his death was hardly mentioned officially and there was no suggestion of a state funeral. “We’ll see about that,” the collective student body responded.

University students from across Beijing marched on Tiananmen Square, calling for the rehabilitation of Hu's reputation – even if the slogans that they shouted had been officially approved and considered acceptable to the Party.

Meanwhile, a delegation of student petitioners waited in vain for three days at the Great Hall of the People to put their case. The Party leadership took note of the protest, however, and decided that Hu should be given a state funeral after all, albeit a muted one.

It took place on April 22, 1989 and turned out to be the focus of massive demonstrations by thousands of students. On top of various grievances they were angry that the Government had refused to receive their petition.

A concerned Party leadership responded by publishing an editorial in the People’s Daily. It described the protests as “dongluan” (meaning "turmoil" or "rioting") and said they had been carried out by a "tiny minority.”

This further enraged the students who feared arrest if accused of being involved in “dongluan” activities and they demanded retraction of the editorial. It remained a major point of contention throughout the protests.

Amid a continued stand-off, students from other cities poured into Beijing to join the protests. Worryingly for the Government, other groups joined in, including a variety of workers, housewives, doctors and even sailors from the Chinese Navy.

Then on May 13 the students took a decisive step by announcing a hunger strike. Over one thousand of them took part, gaining widespread sympathy. Hardline student leaders then called for the protests to continue until June 20 – the date of the next National People's Congress meeting.

Alarmed at the prospect of such prolonged protests, the Government finally decided to bring in the People's Liberation Army and force the protesters out of Tiananmen Square.

On foot and in tanks, firing tear gas, the army moved into the square on the morning of June 3, 1989. But the horror would not take a firm grip until nightfall. Throughout the early hours of June 4 soldiers beat, bayoneted, and shot protesters. Many were crushed to death as tanks drove over them.

By 6am the square had been cleared. Doctors and ambulance drivers who tried to enter the area were shot, as were parents looking for their missing sons or daughters.

Amid all the shock and grief, the next day brought an astonishing event. As foreign journalists and photographers watched spellbound from their hotel balconies, a young man carrying shopping bags stepped in front of a line of tanks.

When the lead tank changed direction, the man jumped back in front of it. After a while he climbed onto the tank and reportedly asked the crew: "Why are you here? You have caused nothing but misery.”

Though the tanks tried to manoeuvre around him, he repeatedly moved to block their path. Finally, as he continued to defy the tanks, he was overpowered by security men and taken away. His identity and his fate are unknown.

Neither does anybody know how many people died in the Tiananmen Square Massacre. The official Chinese Government figure is 241, but other estimates range from 800 to 4,000 deaths.

It is a taboo subject in China. So much so, it is said, that today most young Chinese people know nothing about it.

Published: May 2, 2020

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