Tiananmen Square
Testing the Limits

The Breaking Point
Nineteen eighty-nine promised to be an anniversary year of special significance for China: the year would mark the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, the 70th anniversary of the May Fourth movement, the 40th birthday of the People’s Republic itself, and the passage of 10 years since formal diplomatic relations with the United States had been reinstituted. A number of China’s most prominent scientists and writers — including the dismissed party member Fang Lizhi and the poet Bei Dao — sent letters to Deng Xiaoping and other leaders asking them to seize this opportune moment to take steps that would emphasize the flexibility and openness of Chinese politics. They urged that Wei Jingsheng, who had now served ten years in prison for his role in in the 1978 Democracy Wall movement, be granted amnesty, along with others who were in prison solely for their dissident political views. They also urged the government to grant the rights of freedom of expression that would allow the kind of lively intellectual exchange considered essential to real scientific and economic progress, and to put more money into education for the sake of the country as a whole. ...
Neither Deng Xiaoping, Li Peng, or Zhao Ziyang responded publicly to these various overtures, leaving the task to their subordinates, whose response was harshly dismissive. Such requests and critiques, they observed, were “incitements” to the public and an attempt to exert “pressure” on the government. Since there were no political prisoners in China, the request to “release” Wei Jingsheng and others was a meaningless one.
In this uneasy atmosphere, on April 15, 1989, Hu Yaobang suddenly died of a heart attack. Hu, the feisty Long March veteran and Communist Youth League leader, had been Deng Xiaoping’s handpicked secretary-general of the CCP until he was made the scapegoat for allowing the 1986-1987 student demonstrations to spread. ... As soon as news of Hu Yaobang’s death was released, students in Peking saw a means of pressuring the government to move more vigorously with economic and democratic reforms. ... By launching a pro-Hu Yaobang demonstration, and demanding a reversal of the verdict against him too, the students would ensure that all the issues of the 1986-1987 pro-democracy protests, and perhaps also those of Democracy Wall in 1978-1979, would once more be at the forefront of the nation’s attention. ... [Thousands of students gathered] in a rally that was held in Tiananmen Square on April 17. Their purpose was to mourn Hu’s passing and to call for an end to corruption and nepotism in government, for more democratic participation in decision making, and for better conditions in the universities. Wall posters — declared illegal by the party since 1980 — appeared in many places, openly praising Hu and his support of liberalism and political and economic reform. [SMC, 657-9]

But in late April the students were stunned by a strong editorial in People’s Daily that referred to their movements as a “planned conspiracy,” firmly implying that all those following the current action might be subject to arrest and prosecution. ... Instead of being intimidated, the students reacted with anger and defiance. They were joined now by many of their teachers, by scores of journalists, and by citizens of Peking. The rallies and marches grew larger, the calls for reforms and democratic freedoms more bold. The government leaders appeared paralyzed, for any use of force on the anniversary of the May Fourth demonstrations would immediately lead to reminders of the warlord era. May 4 came and went peaceably, though over 100,000 marched in Peking, dwarfing the student demonstrations of 1919. [SMC, 660]
Similar rallies and parades were held in cities throughout China, but it was Peking that remained the focus for world media attention, not only because of the demonstrations, but because the secretary-general of the Soviet Communist party, Mikhail Gorbachev, was due in Peking in mid-May for a crucial and long-planned summit meeting with Deng Xiaoping. This summit was expected to mark the end of the rift between the Soviet Union and China that had lasted for thirty-three years. ...
But the significance of Gorbachev’s visit and the benign light this might have cast on Deng Xiaoping was overshadowed as the student demonstrators introduced a new tactic — the hunger strike — to emphasize their pleas for reform. Tiananmen Square became a vast camp as close to 3,000 hunger strikers lay out in makeshift tents, surrounded by tens of thousands of their classmates, Peking citizens, and curious visitors and onlookers. ... Nothing like this had been seen in China before, for although crowds as large had assembled during the Cultural Revolution, those gatherings had been orchestrated by the state and were held in homage to Mao Zedong as supreme leader of the party and the people. Now, even though Zhao Ziyang still tried to mute the conflict, and suggested that the People’s Daily’s condemnation of the students had been too harsh, the demonstrators began openly calling on Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng to resign. ... On May 17 and again the following day, the number of demonstrators in and around Tiananmen Square passed the 1 million mark. Muzzled until now by government controls, journalists and editors of newspapers and television news threw off their restraints and began to cover the protests as honestly and comprehensively as they could. ... On May 20, with no published comment by Zhao Ziyang, Premier Li Peng and the president of China, Yang Shangkun, declared martial law and ordered units of the People’s Liberation Army brought into Peking to clear the square and return order to the city. [SMC, 660-1]
But for two weeks the soldiers could not clear the square, their efforts stymied by the courage and unity of the citizens of Peking. Workers, initially sought out as allies by the students, now organized themselves into their own groups to join in the protests and to stem the soldiers’ advance. With a kind of fierce yet loving solidarity, the people of Peking took to the streets and erected makeshift barricades. They surrounded the army convoys, sometimes to let the air out of tires or stall engines but more often to argue with or cajole the troops, urging them not to enforce the martial-law restrictions and not to turn their guns on their fellow Chinese. For their part the troops, seemingly embarrassed by their assignment, practiced considerable restraint while the central leadership of China, both in the party and the army, was clearly divided. [SMC, 661-2]
The students who had emerged as leaders of the demonstrations over the previous month now found themselves in charge of a huge square crammed with their supporters but also awash with dirt and garbage that threatened the outbreak of serious disease. At May’s end they began to urge their fellow students to end the hunger strikes, return to their campuses, and continue to attempt a dialogue with the government from there, and the great majority of the Peking students did so. ... A group of Peking art students provided the faltering movement with a new symbol that drew all eyes — a thirty-foot high white plaster and Styrofoam statue of their version of Liberty, fashioned as a young woman with head held proudly aloft, clasping in both her hands the torch of freedom. [SMC, 662]
Late at night on June 3, the army struck. These were not inexperienced and poorly armed soldiers like those called in up to this time, but tough, well-armed troops from the Twenty-seventh Army (whose commander was a relative of President Yang) and from other veteran units loyal to Deng. Backed by scores of heavy tanks and armored personnel carriers that smashed through the barricades, crushing those who fell in front of them or tried to halt their progress, the troops converged on Tiananmen Square down the wide avenues to its east and west. Armed with automatic weapons, they fired at random on crowds along the streets, at anyone who moved in nearby buildings, and at those who approached too close to their positions. [SMC, 662]
In the small hours of June 4, troops blocked off all the approaches to Tiananmen Square, and turned off all the lights there. ... There followed a period of macabre and terrifying chaos in Peking, as the army gunned down students and citizens both near the square and in other areas of the city. Screams echoed through the night, and flames rose from piles of debris and from army trucks or tanks hit by homemade explosions. ...
PLA soldiers also died, some killed in terrible ways by enraged crowds who had just seen unarmed demonstrators mowed down. Rumors spread swiftly that the fires in Tiananmen Square were piles of corpses burned by the army to hide the evidence of their cruelty. Whether that was true or not — and no one could get past the troops to check — there were enough bodies in full view elsewhere, lying in the roads, in hospitals, or tangled up in their bicycles where they had fallen, to indicate the scale of the violence. Many hundreds were dead and thousands more wounded. The callousness and randomness of the killings evoked memories of the worst episodes of China’s earlier civil wars and the Cultural Revolution. [SMC, 662-3]


Deng Xiaoping
Explanation of the
Tiananmen Crackdown
June 9, 1989
First of all, I’d like to express my heartfelt condolences to the comrades in the people’s Liberation Army, the armed police and police who died in the struggle — and my sincere sympathy and solicitude to the comrades in the army, the armed police and police who were wounded in the struggle, and I want to extend my sincere regards to all the army, armed police and police personnel who participated in the struggle. ... This storm was bound to  happen sooner or later. As determined by the international and domestic climate, it was bound to happen and was independent of man’s will. It was just a matter of time and scale. ... It was also inevitable that the turmoil would develop into a counterrevolutionary rebellion. ... The main difficulty in handling this matter lay in that we had never experienced such a situation before, in which a small minority of bad people mixed with so many young students and onlookers. ... [Some comrades] thought [that the demonstrations were] simply a matter of how to treat the masses. Actually, what we faced was not just some ordinary people who were misguided, but also a rebellious clique and a large quantity of the dregs of society. The key point is that they wanted to overthrow our stand and the party. Failing to understand this means failing to understand the nature of the matter. I believe that after serious work we can win the support of the great majority of comrades within the party.
The nature of the matter became clear soon after it erupted. They had two main slogans: to overthrow the Communist Party and topple the socialist system. Their goal was to establish a bourgeois republic entirely dependent on the West. Of course we accept people’s demands for combating corruption. We are even ready to listen to some persons with ulterior motives when they raise the slogan about fighting corruption. However, such slogans were just a front. Their real aim was to overthrow the Communist Party and topple the socialist system. ...
  • What were the aims of the protesters ... and did these aims include the overthrow of the Communist Party and/or the socialist system?
In a word, this was a test, and we passed. ... This army retains the traditions of the old Red Army. What they crossed this time was genuinely a political barrier, a threshold of life and death. This is by no means easy. This shows that the People’s Army is truly a great wall of iron and steel of the party and country. This shows that no matter how heavy the losses we suffer and no matter how generations change, this army of ours is forever an army under the leadership of the party, forever the defender of the country, forever the defender of socialism, forever the defender of public interest, and they are the most beloved of the people.
       At the same time, we should never forget how cruel our enemies are. For them we should not have an iota of forgiveness. [DC, 560-2]