Throughout the 20th century, Tiananmen Square in central Beijing, China, has been the center of protest movements, the first being on May 4, 1919, when students and others demonstrated against the Treaty of Versailles, which had handed the formerly German-occupied Chinese city of Qingdao to Japan. Another large protest was held there in April 1976 by supporters of the former premier Zhou Enlai, who had recently died.
In 1989 student protest movements started in Tiananmen Square following the April 15 death of Hu Yaobang, who had been general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. Some of the students felt that Hu Yaobang had been made a scapegoat for government failures in 1987. By April 18, some 10,000 students were in Tiananmen Square taking part in protests in front of the Zhongnanhai, the seat of the government. Three days later, there were 100,000 students and others in the square, and on May 4 some 100,000 students and workers marched through Beijing, demanding a formal dialogue between the student leaders and the government and the removal of all restrictions on the media, which the government rejected.
The protest reached its first peak on May 13, just before the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev came to visit Beijing. Some of the protestors urged for the reforms that Gorbachev had introduced in the Soviet Union and saw him as a possible ally, but Gorbachev diplomatically refused to become involved. Early in the morning of May 19, Zhao Ziyang, the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, urged the students to end their protests and a hunger strike they had started. However, the demonstrations continued, and on May 30 a statue that became known as the “Goddess of Democracy” was erected in the square. It was not long after that protests and strikes started taking place in factories and in other parts of China. On May 27 some 300,000 people gathered in Hong Kong to protest in support of the students in Beijing.
By this time the Communist Party leadership was split as to how to deal with the protestors. Premier Li Peng urged for a hardline stance, supported by President Yang Shangkun, with Zhao Ziyang still urging for a moderate approach. Although Yang Shangkun’s presidency was a largely ceremonial role, it did, however, mean that he was the commander in chief of the armed forces. Martial law had been declared on May 20, and soldiers rushed to Beijing late in the evening of June 3. Tanks entered the square, and the accompanying soldiers cleared the square of demonstrators by the early morning. On June 5, in a famous photograph by Jeff Widener, a lone protestor stood in front of tanks advancing on the square, and the tank stopped and tried to drive around him. The lone demonstrator, never identified, was later pulled into the crowd. Nobody knows how many were killed in Tiananmen Square on those two days in June and in the subsequent crackdown around the country. Casualty estimates range from 200 civilians and several dozen soldiers—made by the mayor of Beijing, defending the actions of the soldiers—to estimates from foreign commentators that many thousands died.
Further Reading: Calhoun, Craig J. Neither Gods Nor Emperors: Students and the Struggle for Democracy in China.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994; Feigon, Lee. China Rising: The Meaning of Tiananmen. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1990.