The Tiananmen Square Massacre: 30 years ago today

Rare Historical PhotosA Chinese man stands alone to block a line of tanks heading east on Beijing’s Cangan Boulevard in Tiananmen Square, on on June 5, 1989.

On the 4th June 1989, in the streets around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, Chinese soldiers gunned down thousands of protesting university students, intellectuals, workers and civil servants. This was the so-called Tiananmen Square Massacre (the Chinese government prefers to call it the June Fourth incident.)

The protesters were demanding things that their government was not prepared to deliver: things like individual freedom, a measure of democracy and a clampdown on corruption among Communist party officials.

A protest in China seems unbelievable, given what we know about the oppressive Xi Jinping regime ruling now, but in the 1980s there was a feeling among some youth and intellectuals that a way of life under less Communist party control was practical and possible. They were encouraged to think this way by, of all people, the General Secretary of the party, a man by the name of Hu Yaobang.

When Hu’s more hardline colleagues felt that popular demands for freedom were getting out of hand he was forced to resign, but his liberal spirit persisted among certain sectors of China’s youth. His death in April 1989 sparked demonstrations for greater freedom in dozens of cities.

These demonstrations were led by university students, who were joined by a range of fellow citizens. Among other things, the protesters wanted the Communist party to reevaluate the man who had inspired them, their deceased hero Hu Yaobang.

There were protests all over the country, including in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. A million students and others were in protest there for several weeks, thousands of them were on a hunger strike.

Party leaders tried negotiating with the students but these came to nothing and on 4th June 1989 thousands, were gunned down by the People’s Liberation Army. The Chinese Red Cross estimated that 2,600 people were killed, other observers estimated up to 10,000 fatalities.

To this day the Chinese Communist Party seeks to suppress this tragic chapter in the history of China. The massacre was widely reported by foreign media at the time and there is plenty of footage on YouTube, but that medium is banned in China.

Mention of the so-called “June Fourth incident” is banned in Chinese media, including the government-controlled social media. At this time of year the date June fourth is blocked, as is the number 6489. In fact even 82 (i.e. 64) is blocked.

With the party hiding the facts, many of today’s young Chinese know nothing about the murder of their kind thirty years ago today, but the parents and siblings of those who died will not have forgotten.