China Crushes Prodemocracy Demonstration in Tiananmen Square Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Hundreds of thousands of Chinese were gathered in Tiananmen Square to protest official corruption when the People’s Liberation Army struck a crushing blow to the democracy movement.

Summary of Event

The Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4, 1989, proved to be the climactic event of the massive demonstrations carried out by Chinese involved in the democracy movement, a cause backed by hundreds of thousands of students and endorsed by millions of other Chinese. These voices were crying out for freedom of speech and better representation in their own affairs. A handbill proclaimed that the democracy movement’s “guiding principle is to propagate democratic ideas among the people. Our slogan is to oppose bureaucracy and authoritarianism, and strive for democracy and freedom. The time has come to awaken the democratic ideas that have long been suppressed.” Tiananmen Square massacre China;democracy movement Democracy movement, China Massacres;Tiananmen Square [kw]China Crushes Prodemocracy Demonstration in Tiananmen Square (June 4, 1989) [kw]Prodemocracy Demonstration in Tiananmen Square, China Crushes (June 4, 1989) [kw]Demonstration in Tiananmen Square, China Crushes Prodemocracy (June 4, 1989) [kw]Tiananmen Square, China Crushes Prodemocracy Demonstration in (June 4, 1989) Tiananmen Square massacre China;democracy movement Democracy movement, China Massacres;Tiananmen Square [g]East Asia;June 4, 1989: China Crushes Prodemocracy Demonstration in Tiananmen Square[07270] [g]China;June 4, 1989: China Crushes Prodemocracy Demonstration in Tiananmen Square[07270] [c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;June 4, 1989: China Crushes Prodemocracy Demonstration in Tiananmen Square[07270] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;June 4, 1989: China Crushes Prodemocracy Demonstration in Tiananmen Square[07270] Fang Lizhi Hu Yaobang Deng Xiaoping Zhao Ziyang Jiang Zemin

Decades of suppression led to the wave of demonstrations that culminated at Tiananmen Square, but more directly, the 1986 elections sparked the human rights conflagration that left countless martyrs in its ashes and others exiled in the summer of 1989. China’s electoral laws (established in 1953) were modified in 1979 and allegedly provided a four-tier system of representative government: township congresses with two-year terms, county congresses with three-year terms, provincial congresses with five-year terms, and, at the top of this hierarchy, the People’s National Congress convening in Beijing.

Although the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) claimed a “democracy under central leadership,” it thwarted election campaigns waged by democratic factions from 1980 through 1984. The denial of appointment to elected representatives again in 1986 finally provoked public protests, beginning with students at Heifi and Wuhan and spreading to Shanghai and Beijing. Even while the demonstrators were still hammering out a workable definition of democracy, they persisted in hanging prodemocracy banners. One factor above all others separated these uprisings from the 1989 massacre—the international free press, which was present during the 1989 events. In January of 1987, the Chinese government created a state agency to control not only all publications and presses within the country but also the distribution of relevant supplies. Determined and undaunted, students found creative means to inform distant colleagues, such as letter-writing campaigns, demonstrating before foreign officials, and tireless information campaigns at train stations.

Prodemocracy sentiments remained strong and became increasingly public until the June 4, 1989, showdown. One of the worst catastrophes in the history of human rights occurred when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) slaughtered hundreds of unarmed students who were only claiming what was constitutionally theirs. The duration of this debacle extended much longer than those few bloody hours in 1989, or even the three long years prior. Rather, it spanned the entire era of the republic’s existence.

A Chinese man confronts a line of tanks advancing to Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in June, 1989, to put down prodemocracy demonstrations. Bystanders pulled him away from the tanks.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The same constitutional support claimed by the Tiananmen Square demonstrators had been available since 1954, when Mao Zedong Mao Zedong implemented the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China. The section of that constitution headed “The Fundamental Rights and Duties of Citizens” is replete with support for open dialogue between citizens and officials. Article 35 states, “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.” Articles 37 and 38 buttress this notion with the promise that the freedom and dignity of all Chinese citizens are “inviolable.” Article 41 complements this theme by providing the “right to criticize and make suggestions” to state groups with the assurance that “no one [state official or representative] may suppress such complaints, charges and exposures, or retaliate against the citizens making them.”

The controversy over political standards and human rights was not new to China. The Three Principles of the People of Sun Yat-sen, the very “father of the Chinese Revolution,” were claimed by both the Chinese Communists and the Nationalists in 1949. Precedents for the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in the form of public criticism of political standards and human rights issues can be found in the Hundred Flowers Campaign (May, 1956-June, 1957) and the Democracy Wall incident (1978). In both cases, official decree abruptly stopped the citizens from voicing their right of freedom of expression.

In his experiment with open criticism, Mao had invited monitored criticism of his government, but within a year he was bludgeoned with criticisms not only of easily reparable ills but also of the fundamental tenets of communism. After Mao released his essay “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People” in June, 1957, he assigned Deng Xiaoping to deal with the intellectuals who had criticized the regime and the party. Nearly two million were questioned, with 100,000 serious sentences and several million lesser punishments given, including work in the countryside for “reeducation.” Ironically, in the late 1970’s Deng invoked similar consequences when he pushed for a new state constitution that included the “Great Four Freedoms” of speaking out, elaborating on personal views, holding debates, and hanging big-character posters. When the collage of posters and protests at Xidan Wall in Beijing became a daily and growing challenge to Deng’s policies, he abruptly ended the Democracy Wall Democracy Wall, Beijing movement by making thousands of arrests, removing the Great Four Freedoms from the constitution, and reinforcing his March, 1979, “Four Cardinal Principles.” Consequently, strict ideological party rule ensued.

On the brink of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, Chinese universities were filled with students who had learned the lessons not only of the Hundred Flowers Campaign but also of the much-maligned Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. They were entering their teen years when the Chinese were last allowed to speak out at Xidan Wall. Most of them undoubtedly could recall democracy activist Wei Jingsheng’s famous anti-Deng wall poster, “Democracy, the Fifth Modernization.” One 1986 Shanghai slogan was rather direct: “If you want to know what freedom is, just go and ask Wei Jingsheng.”

In 1986, tolerance of open expression was once again in the air. Deng Xiaoping had miscalculated the ramifications of officially initiating debates on political reform. General Secretary Hu Yaobang became the voice in the secretariat for open debate as an avenue toward reform. The liberalization cause initially received its biggest boost from party member Fang Lizhi, an astrophysicist and vice president of Hefei University in Anhui, who incited student demonstrations with his prodemocracy speeches. He blamed the CCP leaders for “the social malaise in our country today.” Fang also informed the students that the CCP’s “narrow propaganda seems to imply that nothing that came before us has any merit whatsoever.” Propaganda, he said, could be used to praise Communist heroes but should not be used to tear down other heroes.

Fueled by the Voice of America broadcast coverage of the demonstrations, students throughout China began to spread the flames of protest on their respective campuses. Once again, Deng had to extinguish a conflagration that he was instrumental in starting. The party replaced Hu Yaobang with Premier Zhao Ziyang, and it stripped Fang Lizhi of his party membership. Hu’s death on April 15, 1989, gave the students a pretext to demonstrate for democracy in his memory and set off the climactic events of the Beijing Spring.

Zhao Ziyang calculated his moves while making the transition from top administrator to top party member, but his reforming colors soon showed through. As an advocate for openness, he was quickly linked by party conservatives with the student unrest. Students remained vocal after the April 15 demonstrations, looking forward to the seventieth anniversary of another student movement for democracy, the May Fourth Movement. The international media present for Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit on May 16 offered a forum for student demands. Three days prior, three thousand Beijing students had begun a weeklong hunger strike, Hunger strikes successfully drawing attention to reform demands. Hundreds of bureaucrats, intellectuals, and workers rallied behind these novice ascetics, and by May 17 more than one million Beijing demonstrators called for resignations from Deng Xiaoping and Premier Li Peng. Li Peng After a sour May 16 meeting between abrasive hunger strike leaders and an uncompromising Li Peng, Zhao made a personal visit (apparently sincere and compassionate) and tried to persuade the strikers to reconsider, but to no avail. On May 20, Li invoked martial law, which proved ineffective, for the following two weeks.

Reminiscent of most revolutionary movements, when the initial leaders of the student movement began to voice concern about the unruly nature of events and began dissolving the hunger strike, refocusing the protest on local campuses, new radical leadership took over. This final stage was symbolized by perhaps the most provocative development to date, erection of the thirty-foot-high Liberty statue. Beijing art students had molded white plaster and Styrofoam into an Asian symbol of freedom and reform that caught the media eyes of the world. Within a few days, on June 4, their Goddess of Freedom was crushed to pieces by the same tanks and soldiers that had savagely claimed the lives of many of the sculptors and allied protesters.

The radical, fanatical, and militant events of late May had paved the way for the bloody massacre of June 4. When martial law Martial law;China was imposed on May 20, ten thousand demonstrators prevented tanks from entering Tiananmen Square, and another million demonstrators joined the cause the next day. On June 4, 1989, the PLA massacred an undetermined number of prodemocracy demonstrators and bystanders in Tiananmen Square. The following day, another two hundred civilians died at the hands of the soldiers. Troops turned on one another (June 6), reflecting differences within the army leadership. At least seven officers had already publicly sided with the demonstrators.

On June 7, members of the diplomatic community who had been posted in China complied with orders from their respective governments to return home. Premier Li congratulated his troops for their crackdown. On June 10, the government-controlled media reported that four hundred demonstrators were arrested for inciting unrest and attacking the military. As the windows of Western media were quickly closed, the Chinese press took center stage, claiming on June 11 that no students had been killed. Pictures abounded in Western print media that disproved this assertion. The rumor that stacks of student bodies were burned in Tiananmen Square in an attempt to cover up evidence was believable but unsubstantiated.

The first three demonstrators sentenced to death were all male workers, not students. This would not prove to be a precedent as numerous public executions ensued, with reliable evidence of three taking place on June 21 and twenty-four the next day. Hundreds of students and intellectuals remained in jail until 1990. The Iraq crisis in 1991 took the massacre off center stage, allowing the CCP suddenly to announce the trial verdicts on some of the most famous dissident leaders of the 1989 demonstrations.

The Western media claimed evidence of more than four hundred people dying in the massacre and its aftermath. The official report was much lower, and the students’ accounts placed the deaths in the thousands. The Western media and students’ accounts faulted gross violations of human (and constitutional) rights and official corruption as the main causes of the massacre. Predictably, the CCP report, crafted by Deng Xiaoping, faulted a “rebellious clique” and “dregs of society” whose “goal was to establish a bourgeois republic entirely dependent on the West.”


For the first time in China’s history, the international press served as an eyewitness to the disparity between Chinese human rights and institutional prerogatives. Deng Xiaoping’s “new authoritarianism,” a combination of autocratic political government and liberal economic methods, ran counter to any of the hopes of the prodemocracy demonstrators.

On November 13, 1989, the eighty-five-year-old Deng made a bold attempt to prolong the dominance of the “Gang of Old” in Chinese affairs. He stepped down from his chairmanship of the Central Military Commission, handpicking his successor, Jiang Zemin. Jiang openly embraced Deng’s notion of reform, with the primary concern not the subsistence needs of the Chinese people but the leadership role of the Communist Party. Deng and his cohorts boasted that the Tiananmen Square episode clearly showed that hostile force could not shake the party. Even China’s most outspoken advocate of reform, Fang Lizhi, admitted that to supplant the CCP’s power was impossible.

The CCP invoked regulations, including those implemented from 1986 on, intended to stifle prodemocracy uprisings for generations, or at least until key CCP leaders passed from the scene. The size of the freshman university class of 1989 was cut in half. Very few, if any, government-supported students were allowed to study the social sciences abroad. Some observers estimated that less than 1 percent of the Chinese students who were abroad during the uprising returned to China. A thorough reindoctrination program was instituted at every educational level. At Deng’s bidding, the universities added required classes on CCP history and political ideology, seriously detracting from students’ academic pursuits. Social science researchers were given a set list of 190 subjects on which they could publish; many chose not to publish anything at all. Demonstrations were rendered impotent through restrictions.

The right of freedom of expression took a serious step backward in China after the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, indicating the limits of tolerance in a Communist system willing to explore major economic reforms, but not political ones. In subsequent years, China moved rapidly in the former arena, gaining full integration into the world economy despite ongoing international concerns about the status of human rights in a country where the government was resistant to democratic reform and prone to stifle dissidence. Tiananmen Square massacre China;democracy movement Democracy movement, China Massacres;Tiananmen Square

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Falkenheim, Victor C. “The Limits of Political Reform.” Current History 86 (September, 1987): 261-265. Provides a good outline of the political divisions, personnel, and events of the Tiananmen Square ordeal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kwong, Julia. “The 1986 Student Demonstrations in China: A Democratic Movement?” Asian Survey 28 (September, 1988): 970. Account helps to clarify the strategies, goals, and cautions of the student demonstrators. The author has written several other articles on various aspects of modern Chinese society.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nathan, Andrew J. China’s Transition. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997. Examines China’s human rights record, Chinese political culture, and Mao Zedong’s regime. Includes tables, figures, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ogden, Suzanne, ed. Global Studies: China. 4th ed. Guilford, Conn.: Dushkin, 1991. Collection of articles includes a detailed account of the Tiananmen demonstrations that relies almost entirely on primary sources. The section on the People’s Republic of China includes twenty-seven articles from leading journals.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stavis, Benedict. China’s Political Reforms: An Interim Report. New York: Praeger, 1988. Exciting chronicle of the uprisings presents many details of the earliest demonstrations. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zhang Liang, comp. The Tiananmen Papers. Edited by Andrew J. Nathan and Perry Link. New York: Public Affairs, 2001. Collection of hundreds of Communist Party and government documents that recount the positions of the leaders who crushed the demonstration. Features biographical sketches for one hundred of the individuals involved in the events. Includes index.

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