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What Was the Tiananmen Square Massacre?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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.


A map including China.
A map including China.

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.

Tiananmen Square.
Tiananmen Square.

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.


A statue of Deng Xiaoping, the leader of China in 1989.
A statue of Deng Xiaoping, the leader of China in 1989.

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.

People attending a memorial for the protesters.
People attending a memorial for the protesters.

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.


Hu Yaobang, the official whose death sparked protests.
Hu Yaobang, the official whose death sparked protests.

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.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a HistoricalIndex researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a HistoricalIndex researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

Discussion Comments


I am doing a paper on this subject. I have found that the Red Guard threw Deng Xiaoping's son out a window, which paralyzed him. Do you think the panic of possibly being attacked again by the Red Guard crossed his mind?


One poster here said and I quote:

"Although there the army used violence, didn't you know that it was first acted by crazy students? They burned cars, killed people and soldiers. They even cut a soldier's body in half and hung it on the wall! So the government had to do this, or it couldn't be controlled."

Well. If the truth is on your side then why cover it up? Look. I'm all for governments using crushing military force to suppress protests. However, if you cover it up afterwards, you have no right to claim anything. In fact, covering up something like that makes it so that, even if the government was right in the first place, they now are wrong.


I am so graceful that there are so many people still care about this black history of my kind. I was born in a middle-class family ,in Mainland, south, in 1990, just one year after the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Even all the media and schools and anything, anybody are forbidden to talk about it, not just this but lots of things that may light the "dark side" of this most powerful and horrible government! But the truth is, as far as I know, all the school teachers, our parents still tell us this about bloody event. The problem is not just the history, it's about people, themselves get sick! The government successfully turns those good people into selfish, arrogant, money-and-power-oriented, evil people with no mercy and no faith!

I know that most people like me all know the truth behind the bright news shown on our TV. However, we choose to keep quiet because of what the last generation has been through. They've been through, they've seen all those bloody things, families apart. Perhaps you know that the government is extremely good at controlling people, misleading people and takes advantage of the weakness of those innocent but ignorant people! I cannot explain this quite well, but those examples may tell you how they've done things very, very dirty!

Most of us born in cities are only children, so who wants to sacrifice? So we choose to be quiet as long as bad things don't happen to us. Now, people have become cold-blooded and only care about ourselves and try to avoid offering help for those with brave hearts. More and more people keep quiet and choose to isolate themselves and fewer and fewer people will hold on for this fight for democracy and freedom! That is the one-child policy.

If you look at the countryside, it's even worse. Over 3/4 of the population are born in the countryside. They are poor and used to be good people, but the government divides people into city people and country people. Because of a series of unfair regulations, city people and country people hate each other. While when these hard-working country people struggle to become city people, they still cannot be accepted fully and begin to hate the country people. How sad it is! It is just not right! It is totally wrong. A government divides its own people into first citizen and second citizen! Worst still, there are also priority citizens, that is, the government itself, the politicians. They have done and will keep doing horrible and dirty things to their own people! The tragedy is they have fooled people for more than two generations, and lots of people really have become fools, while still, some people realize things are wrong, just too wrong!

Similarly, they use media and so-called "web-protectors" to fool people, and let the Hong Kong people, Taiwanese and people on the Mainland hate each other! But trust me, most of the Chinese people are good. There are still many people who support those people in HK and Taiwan to fight for democracy and kick the Communists out! Even though we could not fight like them, because we know we may be put into prison, the madhouse or even worse. But we do support you people, getting together and asking for human rights, freedom and things all good people deserve as humans in this world.

Shame on me, because I know I am weak and thousands of people and families are weak, because we are so afraid that what happened in 1989 will happen again. We are just freaking out, and there is nothing we can do when we are a family with single kid.

Many of my countryside classmates were also mean to me because I was the child living in the city and can could abroad. But I really want to help, to help them to get through. It's hard because the government has already turned them into such haters, it's like a dead-end road. Even though some of them have entered into university and received a so-called higher education.

Honestly, talking about the "higher education", China is the no. 1 loser! Shame on me and it's weak of me, but I still thank my teachers; at least I didn't lose myself under their guidance. Our education never teach us how to be responsible, kind and graceful citizens. Instead, we are taught to get high marks so the teachers can gain bonuses, to bribe the headmaster to get more attention and special help, to shun with having difficulty in learning rather than help them get through.

Now that I am studying abroad, I feel even sorry, terribly sorry! I saw so many rich kids and their behaviors in the shopping malls. I just want to say sorry, and that not all Chinese are like them. Most of us are still kind, though weak. Those rich kids were probably born in a politician's family, so they rob innocent people and become rich, and those politicians take it for granted. I really hate them. I think many local people hate them too.

When I see there are so many people suffering from this massacre, some of you from other countries and pay so much attention to this, I understand what is the meaning of "well-educated". What you said here made me understand that you did not treat all Chinese people as Communists or those arrogant rich kids.

Sometimes, I just wish Mr. Chiang Kai-shek had won the Mainland instead of running away. If that happened, China would be totally different. But I don't want China to fall. If China falls, people will suffer and people will die.

In the 1989 massacre, not just the students died, but many soldiers died too. They did not want to fight students about their same age, but they had no choice; they just got the order from the dictator. Both the students and the young soldiers died and their families suffered a lot! It is the black history that no one shall forget, just like The Three Years of Great Chinese Famine which the government calls a "natural disaster." The truth is 500 million people died (maybe even more) and people began to eat our own kind, like zombies! Still today, but they don't eat human flesh, but they begin to eat our souls, hearts and humanity.

There are two terrible things in China: the lack of law and faith. The law is based on the only interests of the Communists, politicians and the government, but not based on its nation and its people! The second is people, being fooled for decades, have no faith now. If there are no laws or regulations to limit and censor the power of those rulers, bribery and other "dark" crimes of the politicians, it becomes risk-less, and the whole nation will just be controlled by those money-obsessed pirates, pedophile rapists and blood-thirsty monsters who call themselves governors, polices, judges. And if there is no faith, even kind people will turn into evil people. They have no faith, so they don't feel guilty about what they are doing. They won't be fear that the god, their ancients are watching, they won't think they may pay for what they've done. They just rape the poor, rob the poor, consume the poor, drink their blood and watch them die or turn innocent people into their kind, monsters!

By the way, I don't hate vampires. I think vampires are good and kind compared to the Chinese Communist Party and those politicians. It's hard to tell a nation what is law, freedom, democracy. It's hard to tell a person what is faith, conscience, justice and integrity because all they believe in is money, power and vainglory.


America is heading here rapidly. The people are against the new health care reform and our government and judicial system don't seem to care that we are. I see a bad future very soon in America. The problem our government will face is that our troops will not slaughter their own family and friends on command. It happened once before at Kent State University, but I guarantee you it won't ever happen again and not to the magnitude our government is pushing towards.


As always, the Chinese communist government has been fooling Chinese people about the truth of the Tiananmen Massacre by censoring the news media, blocking websites, and arresting people who told the truth.

The government has been so successful that most of the young generation who are attending college in the USA have never heard about the massacre. However, as Abraham Lincoln once said, "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time."


This is obvious American prejudice against communism. Most people believe that the Chinese government was dumb. Well frankly, this isn't true. There were more dead soldiers than citizens. Don't people know how to do math? My dad was there and he told me that bodies littered the streets.

It was crazy students who were lighting cars on fire, burning soldiers alive, hanging their corpses on streets, and brutally murdering the soldiers. There are videos online of the massacre and what I've seen in each one is that they always cut out the part where the soldiers were killed. What would you have done in their place?


I participated in the protests in 1989 as a young man. At that time, we protesters sincerely believed that we could help the Chinese government and Chinese communist party to improve their governance. The killings caught me off guard, although I was not in Beijing when that happened. I was sad and angry. I did not understand why a "people"s government could kill peaceful protesters. After being confused for few years, I concluded that this government and this party was simply a cult. All it cares about is protecting the interest of the party nobles. They care nothing about average citizens.

Some of you may not understand those indifferent views expressed by some posters. Chinese students born after 1980 were raised under the Communist party propaganda called "Patriotism Education". "Patriotism Education" was added to K-12 and college curriculum in 1990 by distorting the Chinese history and painting the Chinese Communist Party as a savior and portraying foreigners as demons. One of the "principles" taught by the government is called "non-interference", which says, if Chinese government kills its people, it is not your business. It is a Chinese internal affair.


It's ignorant to say that people in Mainland don't know about these things. The PRC is gradually opening up. The fact is, the party doesn't want to lose power, as well as the concerns not to allow economic reform in the 1980s to go to waste.

The other half of the protesters were workers who rose to protest against the government because it was moving towards a market-economy, thereby 'breaking the iron rice bowls' of the employees who, under the communist regime, had stable social security, health and welfare benefits which economic reforms propounded by the west have had robbed them of. To this day, social security is lacking in China towards a model which shapes the political regimes, basically how economics and self interest takes precedence. Good to see that this is totally left out of the explanation.

Also, the students were unable to correctly describe what they wanted. In fact, what they described displayed undemocratic values, namely overly bureaucratic, highly policed system based on old principles of guanxi.

Although the CCP reacted over aggressively and violently, it's as a result of previous examples of communist countries in transition to a democracy, such as Russia which adopted both economic and political reform led to chaos and instability. Think of the repercussions of that in a country with 1.3 billion people.

Henry Kissinger once said: "No government in the world.. Would have tolerated having the main square of its capital occupied for eight weeks by tens of thousands of demonstrators who blocked the authorities from approaching the area in front of the main government building."

And in response to someone who commented earlier about helping HK to become independent, HK never expressed nor do its citizens show that they wish to be independent, so I don't see what good promoting that would do. Plus, most of China's foreign direct investment comes from Taiwan and HK, so I don't exactly think they are going to take a stance like that against the PRC.


Shame on those who choose to deny the slaughtering of thousands upon thousands of innocent protesting people. My father was living right next to Tiananmen Square at the time and I can assure you the photos he has of thousands of dead bodies piling the streets of Beijing as well as the horrible stories of the things he saw, do not lie. I will never ever forgot this tragic event as long as I live.


anon49040: they don't talk about it because it's kind of forbidden.


@anon51145: I disagree with you. If China falls, many more will die.


Silence gives consent.


I think that it was very cruel for the government to respond in such way, but I also think that if the Chinese were rushing into democracy to quickly. Look at Russia, they rushed into democracy, and their whole economy collapsed when the government gave in. Look at the governments point of view.

I believe they were brave, but look at people who are very powerful. Deng Xiaoping just made a mistake. Russia is fine now, but at the time. Think about it!


My parents were lucky, they managed to escape from China to Taiwan. It's sad that so many people there don't know what is going on, and what's worse is that over time, people have forgotten. Those students were so brave to try to stand up to the government, and even if it didn't work, they tried. Now, no one in China or even the states knows of their sacrifice.


It's sad really!


My mother was in China at that time. When I ask her about the protest, she never gets into any details and keeps on repeating that she wasn't involved with the hunger strike or whatever. She sometimes talks like she just walked out of a war zone.

Also the information you see online is probably greatly minimized. Multiply the deaths by two and you might get the correct number. Who knows how many mothers out there never got saw their kids again?


I am chinese, and i can tell your that people in china know exactly what happened, but most people just choose to never talk about it. it is similar to Japanese if you ask them what happened in World War II.


People are killed every day from disease and other tragedies. Those things are accidents, they are things that naturally occur and we will never be able to stop the terror and wrong doing of this world.

In my opinion the things that happen on purpose, the murders and the cold blood killing we as a world can stoop that we can change the world for the better and the worse. What happened there at Tiananmen Square was on purpose. We could have changed it.


I'm writing a paper on this for Global Studies. To any Chinese who haven't heard of this, it's because the Communist government won't let anyone tell you.

I don't know if this is still true, but they used to block websites like Google in China because it had so much information on the atrocities of the massacre. And people are forbidden to talk of it. I just read an amazing book called Forbidden City by William Bell that was about the massacre and it taught me so much. The students that protested were some of the bravest people ever and they are true heroes. Even though, in the end the Communists won, the protests were not in vain.


O.K. so let me get this right. A large amount of students and other people were protesting the communist chinese laws, so they got ticked off and marched to the square and over 1,000 were killed. This type of massacre used to happen all the time back then.


We should have helped. But we feared the consequences, like an all out war with China. It is something that we do not need. We need no more war than that which we already have. and internal affairs have happened like the Rwanda Genocide.


This is a very serious crime and I don't understand why the Chinese government would do such an awful thing. according to another website the government kills people all of the time. It is so rude to make people mourn over the loss of another when it wasn't really necessary. i had to write a paper on this subject and your website helped me a ton. Thankyou WiseGEEK.


We should not move on with something this tragic. we should do something about it. anyway, would you like people to come over and put a bullet in your chest?


The world could do a lot of things, internal affairs have happened before, examples korea, vietnam, and the world helped, that's crap. and you really believe that communist china wouldn't try to hide this affair?


Excuse me. To all those from China, you never have heard of this because the Chinese government has banned this information to all Chinese on the Mainland. The only places with such knowledge are the foreign countries, Hong Kong (maybe not in the future) and Macau. The Chinese government was the first to act, corresponding to the first poster, or the "8th" poster. The Chinese Communist government attacked first, they made the first strike. The protesters were peaceful protesters. They did not harm anyone. They built a statue of liberty in front of the government's "Parliament." They sent out tanks and troops. There are many videos on which the UK journalist is seen live on the scene with many civilians telling what happened, and telling them to show the world what the Communist party is like.

The world failed to stop China in 1989, and interfere in their abusive powers against humanitarian rights. The world will soon have no choice but to stop China. A lot of things happen in China the world does not know of even this second. Everyone says the "Iron Curtain" is down, but I say China has placed an invisible curtain that morphs reality into deceitful "truths" that the world sees.

China has placed glasses on your eyes with painted images. Take off those glasses. During the massacre, there was a student who turned to the troops telling them they were unarmed. The trooper opened fire on the student's leg, and two of his friends carried him away. Many were injured, killed, arrested, tortured (to death). The Chinese government is a corrupt government.

People retaliated after the shots were fired, and bodies started dropping, and when the tanks rolled over students, they only used, only used stones, metals, whatever they could find. They were unable to match the power of the Chinese "Liberation Army." The world failed to interfere with such slaughters, so the world will soon see their mistakes. 60 years past, and the dead ancestors of those who live today, do not even know about this. Such a shame. I am here to tell you, all of your Mainlanders are related to the Tiananmen Massacre. You all have ancestors that died. Mainlanders, stand up. Stand up for your dead ancestors, seek aid from foreign countries. Defy your government. Defy those murderers. They are not here to protect you. They killed your ancestors. China's luck is running out. Their days are numbered. China shall fall; it is inevitable. I am Chinese myself, so do not call me racist. It's the reason why my family is in Canada. It is the reason why there are many Chinese, HongKong'ers in Canada, USA, UK, Australia, etc. China is corrupt.

I am starting an Anti-Communist-China rule activist in my area. Hopefully to spread through the internet, and help Hong Kong become independent from China before China turns HK to waste like it did with the Mainland. Time is running out. Do your best while you still can. Thank you.


Although there the army used violence, didn't you know that it was first acted by crazy students? They burned cars, killed people and soldiers. They even cut a soldier's body in half and hung it on the wall! So the government had to do this, or it couldn't be controlled.


i am from china, and actually, i have never heard about the event. i am not sure if it was truth. what i have been told is that there no one killed in the event.


Evil thrives only when good people do nothing!

If we do not remember historical events we are in danger of them being repeated!

All statements i recall over my 74 years.


Anon40825 - What? Are you a Chinese communist? Sure this was an internal affair but the repercussions were felt worldwide and the end result is still felt within the country. I was in China two years ago and our Beijing tour guide was asked about this event while we were in Tiananmen Square. The guide blanched, looked around and stated that he could not discuss it. Later when there was no chance that he would be overheard, he talked to us about it. He stated, among other things, that it is still not spoken of except among friends who can totally trusted as you could still be arrested, or disappear, for speaking of it. The support of human rights knows no boundries.


It is an important even to know and to remember. One of the reasons for that is that history tends to repeat itself and only by accountability can we reach evolution in human rights. Good job wiseGEEK!


Yes, this is a tragedy. In the U.S., we had the Kent State killings by our own Army. No comparison as far as number killed but still a U.S. tragedy and a world tragedy.


This was internal affair of China in 1989, what can the world do? I think wiseGEEK should know better than us. We should not interfere with the domestic affairs. it's already passed so let move ahead with other interesting issues. Thank you

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    • A map including China.
      By: pavalena
      A map including China.
    • Tiananmen Square.
      By: martin
      Tiananmen Square.
    • A statue of Deng Xiaoping, the leader of China in 1989.
      By: kameramann
      A statue of Deng Xiaoping, the leader of China in 1989.
    • People attending a memorial for the protesters.
      By: dbking
      People attending a memorial for the protesters.
    • Hu Yaobang, the official whose death sparked protests.
      By: thierry ehrmann
      Hu Yaobang, the official whose death sparked protests.