The Tiananmen Square Massacre was a response to a protest in the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1989. Also known as the June Fourth Incident, it occurred when several waves of protests across the course of a few months came to a head. The PRC government debated over whether to try to defuse the situation through discussion, but eventually decided to suppress it militarily. Estimates of how many students were killed range from hundreds to thousands. This led to mass criticisms and sanctions around the world, and has remained a controversial topic into the 21st century.
The initial impetus for students coming together was the death of Hu Yaobang, who had been the General Party Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), but was forced to resign in 1987 after several protests. Hu was considered by many to be a reformer, and many of the policies that he enacted while in office had the effect of making the government more transparent and removing some governmental control from the economy. These types of changes made him very popular with people, especially students, many of whom were very frustrated with the bureaucratic corruption and strict party control of the government.
When Hu died in April of 1989, thousands of people came to his funeral. This made some officials very uncomfortable, since he was officially disgraced when he died. The party held a public memorial shortly afterwards, which over 50,000 people attended. Upset about the way the funeral was held and at Hu's treatment by the party, some people began petitioning the Premier, Li Peng, to reverse the verdict that removed him from office in 1987 and reconsider Hu's official legacy. Others sent a list of demands that included ending restrictions on protests in Beijing, raising funding for education, ending newspaper censorship, and saying that Hu's reformist views had been correct, among other things.
As more and more mourners came to Beijing, small groups of people started clashing with police. People began to feel very upset with the government's response to Hu's death as well as their long-standing grievances, and started forming unions and committees to protest. Despite this, the majority of protesters didn't want to overthrow the government or the party, though they did want serious reforms. This started to change when an editorial was published on April 26 that advised taking a hard line with the protesters. Many more people joined the protests, and the violence began to escalate.
Shortly after the editorial came out, the party's General Secretary, Zhao Ziyang, returned from a trip to North Korea. He was dismayed at the aggressive stance that the government had taken, and advised it to take a more conciliatory approach. He and Li Peng argued about it, but Li Peng convinced the overall leader of China, Deng Xiaoping, that the protests were a real threat to the security of the country and the legitimacy of the party, and that military suppression was necessary. The party began to feel more and more pressure as people continued to join the protest and students started hunger striking. When Zhao Ziyang learned that Deng had agreed to militarily suppress the protests, he declined to participate, and went to talk to the protesters, urging them to go home peacefully before the suppression started. He was subsequently purged and spent the rest of his life under house arrest until his death in 2005.
On 2 June, the party officially decided to send the People's Liberation Army (PLA) to clear Tiananmen Square, and soldiers started going into Beijing the next day. The protesters violently opposed them, with many residents of Beijing coming out into the streets to block them from getting to the square. By the time the army got to Tiananmen Square, around 1:00 AM, only a few thousand protesters were left. After they declined a final offer of amnesty, soldiers marched into the square and began firing into the crowd and beating students. The square was totally cleared by 5:40 AM.
The clearing of Tiananmen Square was criticized around the world. The US immediately put economic sanctions on China, and large-scale protests took place in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Chengdu, and other cities. Many of the people who had protested in Beijing left the country, and many countries around the world offered them visas and refugee status. Some of those who remained were arrested and sentenced to long prison terms. The Tiananmen Square Massacre remains a banned topic in China as of 2012, and any mention of it in media, literature, or art is subject to censorship.