Twenty Years Ago – Tiananmen Square

Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the massacre of civilian protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square by the People’s Liberation Army of the People’s Republic of China.

For nearly two months, students, faculty members, and ordinary citizens from Beijing had gathered in Tiananmen Square to protest the restriction of freedom by the ruling Chinese Communist Party and to demand economic reforms, democracy and the right of self-rule for the Chinese people. The crowds had originally gathered on April 15, 1989 to mourn the death of moderate reformer Hu Yaobang, but continued to gather as the passion of the protesters increased with each passing week. Protest leaders kept the crowds pouring into Tiananmen Square, motivating them with speeches, hunger strikes, and the dream of freedom from the oppressive Communist government. Despite martial law being declared in Beijing, crowds of tens of thousands continued to gather daily.


On June 3, 1989, the People’s Liberation Army was dispatched in order to disperse the crowd of 100,000, and to permanently put an end to the embarrassing protests, which by that time had garnered tremendous world-wide attention. The attack began at 10:30 PM that evening, and soon escalated into a full-scale military assault. The timidity of the original PLA troops was evidenced by the fact that dozens of them were pulled out of their armored personnel carriers by protesters, who then set the vehicles ablaze in an effort to form a blockade around themselves. But PLA reinforcements were quickly brought in, and by dawn on June 4, Tiananmen Square had been cleared of protesters. Foot soldiers, armored personnel carriers, and tanks continued to fire upon and trample civilians as they fled in front of them.

The next day, June 5, saw the most famous event associated with Tiananmen Square unfold. From Wikipedia:

The suppression of the protest was immortalized in Western media by the famous video footage and photographs of a lone man in a white shirt standing in front of a column of tanks which were attempting to drive out of Tiananmen Square. Taken on 5 June as the column approached an intersection on the Avenue of Eternal Peace, the footage depicted the unarmed man standing in the center of the street, halting the tanks’ progress. As the tank driver attempted to go around him, the “Tank Man” moved into the tank’s path. He continued to stand defiantly in front of the tanks for some time, then climbed up onto the turret of the lead tank to speak to the soldiers inside. He reportedly said, “Why are you here? You have caused nothing but misery.” But this is debatable, as no one was close enough to hear him besides the soldier. After returning to his position blocking the tanks, the man was pulled aside by police. Eyewitness reporter Charlie Cole believes that “Tank Man” was probably executed after being taken from the tank by secret police, since the Chinese government could never produce him to hush the outcry from many countries. Time Magazine dubbed him The Unknown Rebel and later named him one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.

Officially, the Chinese government has never acknowledged the June Fourth Massacre. In the following weeks, the Communist leaders of China grudgingly reported the deaths of 241 civilians and soldiers, with an additional 7,000 wounded. According to their official report, no one died at Tiananmen Square, and those who died were mostly students who deliberately engaged in violent clashes with PLA troops who were assigned to peacefully disperse the crowds. Immediately following the attack, The Red Cross reported 2,600 deaths. Other estimates have placed the number as high as 10,000, but the true number of deaths will probably forever remain a mystery.

Westerners were stunned by the brutality of the assault. It had been two decades since Soviet tanks rolled into Prague in order to crush the series of reforms instigated by Alexander Dubcek, and bring Czechoslovakia back under hard-line Communist rule. Perhaps the Chinese were spooked by the first relatively free elections held in a Communist nation, Poland, since the end of World War II, which also took place on June 4. That election resulted in the capture of 99 out of 100 Polish Senate seats by Solidarity candidates, and paved the way for the peaceful, free election of Lech Walesa as Poland’s first non-Communist leader in December 1989.

The decision by the Chinese to violently end a peaceful pro-democracy protest proved to be one of the most disastrous decisions made by a Communist government since the 1960’s. The resolve of the protesters, combined with the oppression and cruelty of the People’s Liberation Army, energized and transformed the freedom movement in Eastern Europe and ultimately led to the implosion of the Eastern Bloc and the collapse of the Iron Curtain. By the end of 1989, the Communist governments of Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania had all been overthrown.


A nice slideshow from The Telegraph, including the famous photo of the “Tank Man.” Their video report is here, as well.

Tiananmen Remembered by the BBC.

Exiled student leaders of the original Tiananmen Square uprising continue to call for democracy in China.

“Tiananmen 20 Years later: One Person’s Appeasement, Dilemma and Hope” – Seattle Times

“Returning To Tiananmen Square” – Jeff Widener, Huffington Post

ADDED: Commenter Paul Hoosen noted that the official Chinese news agencies are silent today about Tianenmen. Yet Chinese government censors have remained extremely vigilant during the past twenty years, eliminating any reference to Tiananmen in print publications, and heavily censoring the state-controlled access to the Internet in order to block any news agencies or web sites that contain information about Tiananmen. An entire generation of young Chinese has grown up learning about Tiananmen only by word-of-mouth, and only those who have left China have actually seen the uncensored news footage and read the numerous eyewitness accounts of that terrible day.


Claudia Rosett, “What I Saw At Tiananmen

150,000 attend a candlelight vigil in Hong Kong.

Captain Ed Morrisey at has some thoughts too.

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