Tiananmen Square protests of 1989

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The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, also known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, June 4th Incident, or the Political Turmoil between Spring and Summer of 1989 by the government of the People's Republic of China, were a series of demonstrations led by students, intellectuals and labour activists in the People's Republic of China between April 15, 1989 and June 4, 1989. The demonstrations centred on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, but large scale protests also occurred in cities throughout China, such as in Shanghai.

In Beijing, the resulting crackdown on the protestors by the PRC government left many civilians dead, the figure ranging from 200–300 (PRC government figures), to 2,000–3,000 (Chinese student associations and Chinese Red Cross), although the PRC government asserts and most independent observers agree that these deaths were not in the square itself but rather in the streets leading to the square.

The protestors came from disparate groups, ranging from intellectuals who believed the Communist Party of China-led government was too corrupt and repressive, to urban workers who believed Chinese economic reform had gone too far and that the resulting rampant inflation and widespread unemployment was threatening their livelihoods.

After the protestors defied government calls to disperse, a split emerged within the Communist Party of China on how to respond to the protestors. Out of the party turmoil, a hardline faction emerged and the decision was made to quell the protests, rather than to heed their demands.

On May 20, the government declared martial law and, on the night of June 3 and the early morning of June 4, army tanks and infantry were sent into Tiananmen Square to crush the protest and disperse the protestors. Estimates of civilian deaths vary: 23 ( Communist Party of China), 400–800 ( Central Intelligence Agency), 2600 (Chinese Red Cross). Injuries are generally held to have numbered from 7,000 to 10,000. Following the violence, the government conducted widespread arrests to suppress the remaining supporters of the movement, banned the foreign press and strictly controlled coverage of the events in the PRC press. The violent suppression of the Tiananmen Square protest caused widespread international condemnation of the PRC government.

Naming of incident

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The incident is named after the location of the movement in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. Some historians also call it "the Beijing massacre".

In the Chinese language, the incident is most commonly known as the June Fourth Movement ( Simplified Chinese: 六四运动; Traditional Chinese: 六四運動) or June Fourth Event (Chinese: 六四事件). The former is in conformity with the other two great protest actions that occurred on Tiananmen Square: the May Fourth Movement of 1919, and the April Fifth Movement of 1976. In some contexts, "June Fourth Movement" refers more generally to all the student and civil unrest which occurred throughout China, in addition to the events in Beijing and specifically Tiananmen Square.


Since 1978, Deng Xiaoping had led a series of economic and political reforms which had led to the gradual implementation of a market economy and some political liberalization that relaxed the system set up by Mao Zedong. By early 1989, these economic and political reforms had led two groups of people to become dissatisfied with the government.

The first group included students and intellectuals, who believed that the reforms had not gone far enough and that China needed to reform its political systems, since the economic reforms had only affected farmers and factory workers; the incomes of intellectuals lagged far behind those who had benefited from reform policies. They were concerned about the social and political controls that the Communist Party of China still had. In addition, this group saw the political liberalization that had been undertaken in the name of glasnost by Mikhail Gorbachev. The second group were those, including urban industrial workers, who believed that the social and political reforms had gone too far. The loosening of economic control had begun to cause inflation and unemployment, which threatened their livelihood.

An anonymous drawing posted in a pedestrian walkway underneath Chang An Avenue caricatures Deng Xiaoping (seated behind the lectern) as an old Chinese emperor.
An anonymous drawing posted in a pedestrian walkway underneath Chang An Avenue caricatures Deng Xiaoping (seated behind the lectern) as an old Chinese emperor.

In 1989, the primary supporters of the government were rural peasants who had seen their incomes increase considerably during the 1980s as a result of the Party's reforms. However, this support was limited in usefulness because rural peasants were distributed across the countryside. In contrast to urban dwellers who were organized into schools and work units, peasant supporters of the government remained largely unorganized and difficult to mobilize.

The Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 were in large measure sparked by the death of former Secretary General Hu Yaobang. Hu Yaobang's "resignation" from the position of Secretary General of the CPC had been announced on January 16, 1987. His forthright calls for "rapid reform and his almost open contempt of Maoist excesses" had made him a suitable scapegoat in the eyes of Deng Xiaoping and others, after the pro-democracy student protests of 1986–1987 (Spence 1999, 685). Included in his resignation was also a "humiliating self-criticism", which he was forced to issue by the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Hu Yaobang's sudden death, due to heart attack, on April 15, 1989 provided a perfect opportunity for the students to gather once again, not only to mourn the deceased Secretary General, but also to have their voices heard in "demanding a reversal of the verdict against him" and bringing renewed attention to the important issues of the 1986–1987 pro-democracy protests and possibly also to those of the Democracy Wall protests in 1978–1979 (Spence 1999, 697).

Protests begin

Sing Democracy to China in Hong Kong
Sing Democracy to China in Hong Kong

Protests started out on a small scale, in the form of mourning for Hu Yaobang and demands that the party revise their official view of him. The protests gained momentum after news of confrontation between students and police spread; the belief by students that the Chinese media was distorting the nature of their activities also led to increased support. At Hu's funeral, a large group of students gathered at Tiananmen Square and requested, but failed, to meet premier Li Peng, widely regarded to be Hu's political rival. Thus students called for a strike in universities in Beijing. On April 26, an editorial in People's Daily, following an internal speech made by Deng Xiaoping, accused the students of plotting civil unrest. The statement enraged the students, and on April 29 about 50,000 students assembled on the streets of Beijing, disregarding the warning of a crackdown made by authorities and demanded that the government revoke the statement.

In Beijing, a majority of students from the city's numerous colleges and universities participated with support of their instructors and other intellectuals. The students rejected official Communist Party-controlled student associations and set up their own autonomous associations. The students viewed themselves as Chinese patriots, as the heirs of the May Fourth Movement for "science and democracy" of 1919. The protests also evoked memories of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1976 which had eventually led to the ousting of the Gang of Four. From its origins as a memorial to Hu Yaobang, who was seen by the students as an advocate of democracy, the students' activity gradually developed over the course of their demonstration from protests against corruption into demands for freedom of the press and an end to, or the reform of the rule of the PRC by the Communist Party of China and Deng Xiaoping, the de facto paramount Chinese leader. Partially successful attempts were made to reach out and network with students in other cities and with workers.

Although the initial protests were made by students and intellectuals who believed that the Deng Xiaoping reforms had not gone far enough and China needed to reform its political systems, they soon attracted the support of urban workers who believed that the reforms had gone too far. This occurred because the leaders of the protests focused on the issue of corruption, which united both groups, and because the students were able to invoke Chinese archetypes of the selfless intellectual who spoke truth to power.

Unlike the Tiananmen protests of 1987, which consisted mainly of students and intellectuals, the protests in 1989 commanded widespread support from the urban workers who were alarmed by growing inflation and corruption. In Beijing, they were supported by a large number of people. Similar numbers were found in major cities throughout mainland China such as Urumqi, Shanghai and Chongqing; and later in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Chinese communities in North America and Europe.

Protests escalate

On May 4, approximately 100,000 students and workers marched in Beijing making demands for free media reform and a formal dialogue between the authorities and student-elected representatives. The government rejected the proposed dialogue, only agreeing to talk to members of appointed student organizations. On May 13, two days prior to the highly-publicized state visit by the reform-minded Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, huge groups of students occupied Tiananmen Square and started a hunger strike, insisting the government withdraw the accusation made in the People's Daily editorial and begin talks with the designated student representatives. Hundreds of students went on hunger strikes and were supported by hundreds of thousands of protesting students and part of the population of Beijing, for one week.

Protests and strikes began at many colleges in other cities, with many students traveling to Beijing to join the demonstration. Generally, the demonstration at Tiananmen Square was well-ordered, with daily marches of students from various Beijing area colleges displaying their solidarity with the boycott of college classes and with the developing demands of the protest. The students sang " The Internationale," the world socialist anthem, on their way to and within the square. The students even showed a surprising gesture of respect to the government by helping police arrest three men from Hunan Province who had thrown ink on the large portrait of Mao that hangs from Tiananmen, just north of the square. One of these men, Yu Dongyue, remained in prison until February 2006. Years of torture and bouts of solitary confinement left Yu mentally ill and barely recognisable to his friends and family. Lu Decheng, another of the three who defaced Mao's portrait with paint, was sentenced to life in prison. Despite being paroled in 1998, Lu remained a pariah in his own country, constantly hounded by China's secret police. In November 2004 Lu slipped out of China across the Burmese border, and made his way to Thailand. Months later Chinese agents nabbed Lu and turned him over to the Thai immigration police, intending to have him extradited back to China for more jail time. In April 2006 Lu legally escaped to Canada with a permanent resident visa granted for political asylum.

The students ultimately decided that in order to sustain their movement and impede any loss of momentum a hunger strike would need to be enacted. The students' decision to undertake the hunger strike was a defining moment in their movement. The hunger strike began in May 1989 and grew to include "more than one thousand persons" (Liu 1994, 315). The hunger strike brought widespread support for the students and "the ordinary people of Beijing rallied to protect the hunger strikers...because the act of refusing sustenance and courting government reprisals convinced onlookers that the students were not just seeking personal gains but (were) sacrificing themselves for the Chinese people as a whole" (Calhoun 1994, 113).

Partially successful attempts were made to negotiate with the PRC government, who were located nearby in Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party headquarters and leadership compound. Because of the visit of Mikhail Gorbachev, foreign media were present in mainland China in large numbers. Their coverage of the protests was extensive and generally favorable towards the protesters, but pessimistic that they would attain their goals. Toward the end of the demonstration, on May 30, a statue of the Goddess of Democracy was erected in the Square and came to symbolize the protest to television viewers worldwide.

The Standing Committee of the Politburo, along with the party elders (retired but still-influential former officials of the government and Party), were, at first, hopeful that the demonstrations would be short-lived or that cosmetic reforms and investigations would satisfy the protesters. They wished to avoid violence if possible, and relied at first on their far-reaching Party apparatus in attempts to persuade the students to abandon the protest and return to their studies. One barrier to effective action was that the leadership itself supported many of the demands of the students, especially the concern with corruption. However, one large problem was that the protests contained many people with varying agendas, and hence it was unclear with whom the government could negotiate, and what the demands of the protesters were. The confusion and indecision among the protesters was also mirrored by confusion and indecision within the government. The official media mirrored this indecision as headlines in the People's Daily alternated between sympathy with the demonstrators and denouncing them.

Among the top leadership, General Secretary Zhao Ziyang was strongly in favour of a soft approach to the demonstrations while Li Peng was seen to argue in favour of a crackdown. Ultimately, the decision to crack down on the demonstrations was made by a group of Party elders who saw abandonment of single-party rule as a return of the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. Although most of these people had no official position, they were able to control the military. Deng Xiaoping was chairman of the Central Military Commission and was able to declare martial law; Yang Shangkun was President of the People's Republic of China, which, although a symbolic position under the 1982 Constitution, was legally the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. The Party elders believed that lengthy demonstrations were a threat to the stability of the country. The demonstrators were seen as tools of advocates of " bourgeois liberalism" who were pulling the strings behind the scenes, as well as tools of elements within the party who wished to further their personal ambitions.

Nationwide protests

At the beginning of the movement, the Chinese news media were given a rare opportunity to broadcast the news freely. At that time, most of the news media were free to write and report however they wanted to. The news were spread quickly across the land. Students from many other major cities also organized and started to protest.


Shanghai's "World Economy newspaper" held a meeting on April 19th to discuss about Hu YaoBang's death, and decided to publish a special section about him. April 20th, Shanghai's city government heard about the news. They immediatly reported to Jiang Zeming. He forced the editor to cut parts of the content in the special section. Then he found out that the newspaper was already printed and being distributed. April 26th, the "People's Daily" published its editorial about anti the student protest. Jiang zeming immediatly called on another meeting. And then he decided to suspend the job of the editor of "World Economy newspaper." Many people say what he did in shanghai was the reason why he got promoted to Beijing afterwards.

worldwide protests

From Hongkong, taiwan, and many other places where Chinese live, they gathered around and protested. On May of 27th of 1989, about 300,000 people gathered in the HongKong's victoria park for a candlelight protest event. Many famous Hongkong and taiwan singers attended.

In Taiwan, the government passed a law in which any Chinese who give up their original PRC passport, will be able to get the ROC passport, and the government will also give them money to study and living. Around the same time, many Taiwan pop singers gathered to sing a special song called "The wound of the history" 历史的伤口.

The crackdown

Although the government declared martial law on May 20, the military's entry into Beijing was blocked by throngs of protesters, and the army was eventually ordered to withdraw. Meanwhile, the demonstrations continued. The hunger strike was approaching the end of the third week, and the government resolved to end the matter before deaths occurred. After deliberation among Communist party leaders, the use of military force to resolve the crisis was ordered, and Zhao Ziyang was ousted from political leadership as a result of his support for the student demonstrators. The Communist Party then decided to stop the situation before it escalated further.

Tiananmen Square as seen from the Tian'an gate in 2004.
Tiananmen Square as seen from the Tian'an gate in 2004.

Soldiers and tanks from the 27th and 28th Armies of the People's Liberation Army were sent to take control of the city. The 27th Army was led by a commander related to Yang Shangkun. In a press conference, President Bush announced sanctions on Communist China (following calls to action from members of congress such as US Senator Jesse Helms). The President suggested that intelligence he had received indicated some disunity in China's military ranks, and even the possibility of clashes within the military during those days. Intelligence reports also indicated that 27th and 28th units were brought in from outside provinces because the local PLA were considered to be sympathetic to the protest and the people of the city. Reporters described elements of the 27th as having been most responsible for civilian deaths. After the attack on the square, the 27th reportedly established defensive positions in Beijing - not of the sort designed to counter a civilian uprising, but as if to defend against attacks by other military units. The locally-stationed 38th Army, on the other hand, was reportedly sympathetic to the uprising. They were supplied no ammunition, and were said to be torching their own vehicles as they abandoned them to join the protests.

Entry of the troops into the city was actively opposed by many citizens of Beijing. Protesters burned public buses and used them as roadblocks to stop the military's progress. The battle continued on the streets surrounding the Square, with protesters repeatedly advancing toward the People's Liberation Army (PLA) and constructing barricades with vehicles, while the PLA attempted to clear the streets using tear gas. Many injured citizens were saved by rickshaw drivers who ventured into the no-man's-land between the soldiers and crowds and carried the wounded off to hospitals. After the attack on the square, live television coverage showed many people wearing black armbands in protest of the government's action, crowding various boulevards or congregating by burnt out and smoking barricades. Meanwhile, the PLA systematically established checkpoints around the city, chasing after protesters and blocking off the university district.

Within the Square itself, there was apparently a debate between those who wished to withdraw peacefully (including Han Dongfang), and those who wished to stand within the square (such as Chai Ling). The assault on the square began at 5:40AM on June 4, as armored personnel carriers (APCs) and armed troops with fixed bayonets approached from various positions. These APCs rolled on up the roads, firing ahead and off to the sides, perhaps killing or wounding their own soldiers in the process. An unnamed BBC reporter spoke of "indiscriminate fire" within the square. Students who sought refuge in buses were pulled out by groups of soldiers and beaten with heavy sticks. Even students attempting to leave the square were beset by soldiers and beaten. Leaders of the protest inside the square, where some had attempted to erect flimsy barricades ahead of the APCs, were said to have "implored" the students not to use weapons (such as Molotov cocktails) against the oncoming soldiers. Meanwhile, many students apparently were shouting, "Why are you killing us?"

The suppression of the protest was immortalized in Western media by the famous video footage and photographs of a lone man in a white shirt standing in front of a column of tanks which were attempting to drive out of Tiananmen Square. Taken on June 5 as the column approached an intersection on the Avenue of Eternal Peace, the footage depicted the unarmed man standing in the centre of the street, halting the tanks' progress. He reportedly said, "Why are you here? You have caused nothing but misery." As the tank driver attempted to go around him, the " tank man" moved into the tank's path. He continued to stand defiantly in front of the tanks for some time, then climbed up onto the turret of the lead tank to speak to the soldiers inside. After returning to his position blocking the tanks, the man was pulled aside by onlookers who perhaps feared he would be shot or run over. Time Magazine dubbed him The Unknown Rebel and later named him one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. British tabloid the Sunday Express reported that the man was 19-year-old student Wang Weilin, however the veracity of this claim is dubious. What happened to the 'tank man' following the demonstration is not known. In a speech to the President's Club in 1999, Bruce Herschensohn — former deputy special assistant to President Richard Nixon — reported that he was executed 14 days later. In Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now, Jan Wong writes that the man is still alive and hiding in mainland China. In Forbidden City, Canadian children's author William Bell, claims the man was named Wang Ai-min and was killed on June 9 after being taken into custody. The last official statement from the PRC government about tank man came from Jiang Ziamin in an interview with Barbara Walters, when asked about the where abouts of tank man Ziamin responded that he "wasn't executed".

After the crackdown in Beijing on June 4, protests continued in much of mainland China for several days. There were large protests in Hong Kong, where people again wore black in protest. There were protests in Guangzhou, and large-scale protests in Shanghai with a general strike. There were also protests in other countries, many adopting the use of black arm bands as well. However, the government soon regained control. Although no large-scale loss of life was reported in ending the protests in other cities, a political purge followed in which officials responsible for organising or condoning the protests were removed, and protest leaders jailed.

Number of deaths

The number of dead and wounded remains unclear. An unnamed Chinese Red Cross official at the time reported that 2,600 people were killed and 30,000 were injured. Two days later, Yuan Mu, the speaker of the State Council, estimated that 300 soldiers and citizens died, 5,000 soldiers and 2,000 citizens injured, 400 soldiers lost contact, and that many of the soldiers were burned alive by the protesters. Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and State Council later claimed that tens of PLA soldiers died and more were injured. The Preparatory Committee of Autonomous Associations of Tsinghua University claimed that 4,000 died and 30,000 were injured. Chen Xitong, Beijing mayor, reported after the event that 36 students and tens of soldiers died, amounting to a total of 200 dead, with 3,000 civilians and 6,000 soldiers injured. Foreign reporters that witnessed the incident have claimed that at least 3,000 people died. Some lists of casualties were created from underground sources with numbers as high as 5,000. In contrast, before the government in Beijing had completely re-established control over the news media in China, a monitored English language broadcast from Beijing stated that at least 3,000 students died in the massacre. At the same time, the Chinese Red Cross reported that they had counted 2,600 people dead - and they still were counting. As both sources are impossible to verify given that access to objective information was impossible under martial law, the discrepancy between the numbers of individuals killed is unresolved. Despite the discrepancy, observers outside China (as well as some inside China) generally agree that at least 400 and perhaps over 1,000 were killed, as quoted by western media such as Los Angeles Times - but cannot agree on the number of people who were injured.

The Chinese government has maintained that there were no death within the square itself. However, from videos that were recorded, people can see tanks and hearing gunshots. Professor Ding ZiLin (丁子霖) whose son was shot dead on the night of June 3rd, 1989 started to collect the names of those who were killed during that time, so far, there are 188 confirmed death which can be found on here in Chinese.


Arrests and purges

During and after the demonstration, authorities attempted to arrest and prosecute the student leaders of the Chinese democracy movement, notably Wang Dan, Chai Ling, Zhao Changqing and Wuer Kaixi. Wang Dan was arrested, convicted, and sent to prison, then allowed to emigrate to the United States on the grounds of medical parole. As a lesser figure in the demonstrations, Zhao was released after six months in prison. However, he was once again incarcerated for continuing to petition for political reform in China. Wuer Kaixi escaped to the R.O.C. in Taiwan. He is now married and he holds a job as a political commentator on national Taiwan television . Chai Ling escaped to France, and then to the United States.

Chinese authorities summarily tried and executed many of the workers they arrested in Beijing. In contrast, the students - many of whom came from relatively affluent backgrounds and were well-connected - received much lighter sentences. Even Wang Dan, the student leader who topped the most wanted list, spent only seven years in prison.

The Party leadership expelled Zhao Ziyang from the Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China and the Communist Party of China, because he opposed martial law, and Zhao remained under house arrest until his death. Hu Qili, the other member of the Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China who opposed the martial law but chose not to vote instead of vetoing was also removed from the Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China, but he was able to retain his party membership, and after "Changing his opinion", he was reassigned as vice-minister of Machine-Building and Electronics Industry. The other member who opposed the martial law by not voting instead vetoing it like Zhao Ziyang did was Qiao Shi, who was saved by his distant biological relationships with Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo because the need for Taiwan issue: although Qiao Shi was also removed from the Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China, he was transferred to a different job with equal rank, though the post was mostly ceremonial. Other reform minded Chinese leaders such as Wan Li was also put under house arrest immediately after he stepped out of the airplane at Beijing Capital International Airport upon returning from his shortened trip abroad, with the official excuse of "health reasons". When Wan Li was released from his house arrest after he finally "changed his opinion" he, like Qiao Shi, was transferred to a different position with equal rank but mostly ceremonial role.

The event elevated Jiang Zemin - then Mayor of Shanghai who was not involved in this event - to become PRC's President. Members of the government prepared a white paper explaining the government's viewpoint on the protests. An anonymous source within the PRC government smuggled the document out of China, and Public Affairs published it in January 2001 as the Tiananmen Papers. The papers include a quote by Communist Party elder Wang Zhen which alludes to the government's response to the demonstrations.

Two CCTV presenters who reported the events of June 4 in the "News Network" program were fired soon after the event. Wu Xiaoyong, the son of a Communist Party of China Central Committee member, and former PRC foreign minister and vice premier Wu Xueqian were removed from the English Program Department of Chinese Radio International. Qian Liren, director of the People's Daily (the newspaper of the Communist Party of China), was also removed from his post because of reports in the paper which were sympathetic towards the students.

Impact on domestic political trends

The Tiananmen square protests dampened the growing concept of political liberalization that was popular in the late 1980s; as a result, many democratic reforms that were proposed during the 1980s were swept under the carpet. Although there has been some increase in personal freedom since then, discussions on structural changes to the PRC government and the role of the Communist Party of China remain largely taboo.

Despite early expectations in the West that PRC government would soon collapse and be replaced by the Chinese democracy movement, by the early 21st century the Communist Party of China remained in firm control of the People's Republic of China, and the student movement which started at Tiananmen was in complete disarray.

In Hong Kong, the Tiananmen square protests led to fears that the PRC would not honour its commitments under one country, two systems in the impending handover in 1997. One consequence of this was that the new governor Chris Patten attempted to expand the franchise for the Legislative Council of Hong Kong which led to friction with the PRC. There have been large candlelight vigils attended by tens of thousands in Hong Kong every year since 1989 and these vigils have continued following the transfer of power to the PRC in 1997.

The protests also marked a shift in the political conventions which governed politics in the People's Republic. Prior to the protests, under the 1982 Constitution, the President was a largely symbolic role. By convention, power was distributed between the positions of President, Premier, and General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, all of whom were intended to be different people, in order to prevent the excesses of Mao-style dictatorship. However, after Yang Shangkun used his reserve powers as head of state to mobilise the military, the Presidency again became a position imbued with real power. Subsequently, the President became the same person as the General Secretary of the CPC, and wielded paramount power.

A memorial depicting a destroyed bicycle and a tank-track - symbol of the Tiananmen Square protests - in the Polish city of Wrocław
A memorial depicting a destroyed bicycle and a tank-track - symbol of the Tiananmen Square protests - in the Polish city of Wrocław

Economic impact

One reason for this was that the Tiananmen protests did not mark the end of economic reform. Granted, in the immediate aftermath of the protests, conservatives within the Communist Party attempted to curtail some of the free market reforms that had been undertaken as part of Chinese economic reform, and reinstitute administrative controls over the economy. However, these efforts met with stiff resistance from provincial governors and broke down completely in the early 1990s as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union and Deng Xiaoping's trip to the south. The continuance of economic reform led to economic growth in the 1990s, which allowed the government to regain much of the support that it had lost in 1989. In addition, none of the current PRC leadership played any active role in the decision to move against the demonstrators, and one major leadership figure Premier Wen Jiabao was an aide to Zhao Ziyang and accompanied him to meet the demonstrators. Today there are economic "sectors" in which business can thrive and this has improved the lives of many Chinese and opened up economic freedom and access to goods.

The students leaders at Tiananmen were unable to produce a coherent movement or ideology that would last past the mid-1990s. Many of the student leaders came from relatively well off sectors of society and were seen as out of touch with common people. A number of them were socialists and wanted to revert China back to the socialist road. Many of the organizations which were started in the aftermath of Tiananmen soon fell apart due to personal infighting. Several overseas democracy activists were supportive of limiting trade with mainland China which significantly decreased their popularity both within China and among the overseas Chinese community. A number of NGOs based in the U.S., which aim to bring democratic reform to China and relentlessly protest human rights violations that occur in China, remain. One of the oldest and most prominent of them, the China Support Network (CSN), was founded in 1989 by a group of concerned Americans and Chinese activists in response to Tiananmen Square.

A generation gap

Growing up with little memory of Tiananmen and no memory of the Cultural Revolution, but with a full appreciation of the rising prosperity and international influence of the PRC as well as the difficulties that Russia has had since the end of the Cold War, many Chinese no longer consider immediate political liberalization to be wise, preferring to see slow stepwise democratization instead. Many young Chinese, in view of PRC's rise, are now more concerned with economic development, nationalism, the restoration of China's prestige in international affairs, and perceived governmental weakness on issues like the political status of Taiwan or the Diaoyu Islands dispute with Japan.

Among intellectuals in mainland China, the impact of the Tiananmen protests appears to have created something of a generation gap. Intellectuals who were in their 20s at the time of the protests tend to be far less supportive of the PRC government than younger students who were born after the start of the Deng Xiaoping reforms.

Among urban industrial workers, the continuation of market reforms in the 1990s brought with it higher standards of living as well as increased economic uncertainty. Protests by urban industrial workers over issues such as unpaid wages and local corruption remain frequent with estimates of several thousand of these protests occurring each year. The Communist Party of China appears unwilling to suffer the negative attention of suppressing these protests provided that protests remain directed at a local issue and do not call for deeper reform and do not involve coordination with other workers. In a reversal of the situation in 1989, the centre of discontent in mainland China appears to be in rural areas, which have seen incomes stagnate in the 1990s and have not been involved in much of the economic boom of that decade. However, just as the lack of organization and the distribution of peasants prevented them from becoming mobilized in support of the government in 1989, these factors also inhibit mobilization against the government in the early-21st century.

The present

Taboo in China

The topic is still a political taboo in mainland China, where any public discussion of it is regarded as inappropriate. The only media coverage takes the Communist Party of China's view: that it was a necessary action to ensure stability. It is common for Chinese, especially younger Chinese who live far from Beijing, to be entirely unaware of the Tiananmen protests. Every year there is a large rally in Hong Kong, where people remember the victims and demand that the CPC's official view be changed.

However, petition letters over the incident have emerged from time to time, notably from Dr. Jiang Yanyong and Tiananmen Mothers, an organization founded by a mother of one of the victims killed in 1989. Tiananmen Square is tightly patrolled on the anniversary of June 4 to prevent any commemoration.

After the PRC Central Government reshuffle in 2004, several cabinet members mentioned Tiananmen. In October 2004, during President Hu Jintao's visit to France, he reiterated that "the government took determined action to calm the political storm of 1989, and enabled China to enjoy a stable development". He insisted that the government's view on the incident would not change.

In March 2004, Premier Wen Jiabao said in a press conference that during the 1990s there was a severe political storm in the PRC, amid the breakdown of the Soviet Union and radical changes in Eastern Europe. He stated that the Communist Central Committee successfully stabilized the open-door policy and protected the "Career of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics".

In 2005, Li Ao, a Taiwanese political activist and TV celebrity, gave a guest lecture at Peking University. He hinted at the 1989 protests by referring to the Bonus March Incident in the United States nearly 50 years earlier. In the speech, he asserted that any national government in the world would resort to using military force when their rule is threatened.

In January 2006, Google agreed to censor their mainland China site, Google.cn, to remove information about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre , as well as other topics such as Tibetan independence, the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong and the political status of Taiwan, confirming that Tiananmen is still an issue the government wants to avoid. The uncensored Wikipedia articles on the 1989 protests, both in English and Chinese, have been attributed as a cause of the blocking of Wikipedia by the government in mainland China. On November 16, 2006 the Chinese government restored Wikipedia after blocking it for over a year. However, subsequent reports suggested that both the Chinese and English versions had been re-blocked as of 17 November .

US-EU arms embargo

The United States and European Union embargo on weapons sales to the PRC, put in place as a result of the violent suppression of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests still remains in place 17 years later. The PRC has been calling for a lifting of the ban for many years and has had a varying amount of support from members of the Council of the European Union. In early 2004, France spearheaded the movement within the EU to lift the ban. Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder publicly added his voice to that of French President Jacques Chirac to have the embargo lifted.

The arms embargo was discussed at a PRC-EU summit in the Netherlands on December 7-9, 2004. In the runup to the summit, the PRC had attempted to increase pressure on the EU Council to lift the ban by warning that the ban could hurt PRC-EU relations. PRC Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui called the ban "outdated", and he told reporters, "If the ban is maintained, bilateral relations will definitely be affected." In the end, the EU Council did not lift the ban. EU spokeswoman Françoise le Bail said there were still concerns about the PRC's commitment to human rights. But at the time, the EU did state its commitment to work towards lifting the ban. Bernard Bot, Foreign Minister of the Netherlands, which held the EU's rotating presidency at that time, said, "We are working assiduously but...the time is not right to lift the embargo." Following the summit, the EU Council confirmed that it had the political will to continue to work towards lifting the embargo. PRC Premier Wen Jiabao said after the meeting that the embargo did not reflect the partnership between the PRC and the EU.

The PRC continued to press for the embargo to be lifted, and some member states began to drop their opposition. Jacques Chirac pledged to have the ban lifted by mid-2005. However, the Anti-Secession Law of the People's Republic of China passed in March 2005 increased cross-strait tensions, damaging attempts to lift the ban, and several EU Council members changed their minds. Members of the U.S. Congress had also proposed restrictions on the transfer of military technology to the EU if they lifted the ban. Thus the EU Council failed to reach a consensus and although France and Germany pushed to have the embargo lifted, no decision was agreed upon in subsequent meetings.

Britain took charge of the EU Presidency in the summer of 2005, making the lifting of the embargo all but impossible for the duration of the term. Britain had always had some reservations on lifting the ban and wished to put it to the side, rather than sour EU-US relations further. Perhaps more importantly, the failure of the European Constitution and the ensuing disagreement over the European Budget and Common Agricultural Policy has superseded the matter of the embargo in importance. Britain wanted to use its presidency to push for wholesale reform of the EU, so the lifting of the ban will become even more unlikely. The election of a new European Commission President José Manuel Durão Barroso, has also made a lifting of the ban more difficult. At a meeting with Chinese leaders in mid-July 2005, he said that China's poor record on human rights would slow any changes to the EU's ban on arms sales to China.

Political will may be changing in countries that are more in favour of lifting the embargo. Schröder lost the 2005 German federal election to Angela Merkel, who became chancellor on November 22, 2005, and is strongly against lifting the ban. Other opposition leaders are against lifting the ban. Jacques Chirac will find it difficult to remain president in 2007—he may not even be a successful candidate, due to losing the French vote over the European Constitution. Nicolas Sarkozy is a strong contender for the French presidency and is not as much in favour of lifting the ban as Chirac is.

In addition, the European Parliament has consistently opposed the lifting of the arms embargo to the PRC. Though its agreement is not necessary for lifting the ban, many argue it reflects the will of the European people better as it is the only directly elected European body—the EU Council is appointed by member states. The European Parliament has repeatedly opposed any lifting of the arms embargo on the PRC:

  • The resolution of April 28, 2005, on the Annual Report on Human Rights in the World 2004 and the EU's policy on the matter,
  • The resolution of October 23, 2003, on the annual report from the Council to the European Parliament on the main aspects and basic choices of CFSP, it insisted on a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue through dialogue across the Taiwan Straits and called on China to withdraw missiles in the coastal provinces adjacent to the Taiwan Straits and
  • The resolution on relations between the EU, China, and Taiwan and security in the Far East of July 7, 2005. The EP has noted several times that the current human rights situation in China, with regards to fundamental civil, cultural and political freedoms does not meet even the international standards recognized by China.

This arms embargo has limited China's options from where it may seek military hardware. Among the sources that were sought included the former Soviet bloc that it had a strained relationship with as a result of the Sino-Soviet split. Other willing suppliers have been Israel and South Africa.


Although the Chinese government never acknowledged wrongdoing when it came to the incident, in April 2006 a payment was made to the family of one of the victims, the first publicized case of the government offering redress to a Tiananmen-related victim's family. The payment was termed a "hardship assistance", given to Tang Deying (唐德英) whose son, Zhou Guocong ( Simplified Chinese: 周国聪; Traditional Chinese: 周國聰) died at the age of 15 while in police custody in Chengdu on June 6, 1989, two days after the Chinese Army dispersed the Tiananmen protestors. The woman was reportedly paid 70,000 yuan (approximately $8,700 USD). This has been welcomed by various Chinese activists, but was regarded by some as a measure to maintain social stability and not believed to herald a changing of the Party's official position.

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