In Depth

Tiananmen Square massacre: what happened 30 years ago?

A protest, a government crackdown and one of history’s most iconic photographs, the events of June 1989 were a turning point for China

China has defended the crackdown on the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in a rare public acknowledgement of events ahead of its 30th anniversary.

Tuesday marks 30 years since a series of student-led protests, which took place in numerous cities across the People’s Republic of China in the spring of 1989, sparked by a cocktail of corruption, government nepotism and economic woes, culminated in the massacre of thousands of civilians in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on 4 June.

A brutal government crackdown was launched in the early hours of the morning, leaving scores of civilians dead, throwing the Chinese administration into disarray and giving the world one of the most iconic pieces of news footage ever put to film.

Since then, Chinese authorities have sought to suppress any mention or discussion of the protests. Instead “what happened in Tiananmen Square is marked faithfully each year by a massive, national act of what might more properly be called ‘forgettance’”, says BBC China correspondent John Sudworth.

“In the weeks leading up to 4 June, the world's biggest censorship machine goes into overdrive as a huge dragnet of automated algorithms and tens of thousands of human expurgators cleanse the internet of any reference, however oblique,” he writes. “Those deemed to have been too provocative in their attempts to evade the controls can be jailed - with sentences of up to three and a half years recently handed down to a group of men who had tried to commemorate the anniversary with a product label.”

However, in a rare public acknowledgement ahead of the 30th anniversary, Defence Minister Wei Fenghe told a regional forum on the weekend that stopping the “turbulence” was the “correct” policy.

“The past 30 years have proven that China has undergone major changes,” he said, adding that because of the government's action at that time “China has enjoyed stability and development”.

So what happened in the lead-up to that fatal day?

April and May

On 15 April 1989, former Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang died suddenly.

A controversial figure owing to his desire to reform the political and economic landscape of China, he had been forced to resign in 1987, having made a number of high-profile enemies within the party. 

His death was a “great loss” for China’s liberals, according to The Atlantic. It sparked a series of student protests that led to thousands of civilians eventually occupying Tiananmen Square, refusing to move until their demands for democratic reform were met. 

“As the days passed, millions of people from all walks of life joined in, angered by widespread corruption and calling for democracy,” the BBC says.

June massacre

Following a series of failed attempts to clear the square, on the night of 3 June, tanks and heavily armed troops advanced toward the protesters, “indiscriminately opening fire on or crushing those who again tried to block their way”, says Encyclopedia Britannica.

By the following day, the army had secured complete control.

The death toll of the massacre remains a point of contention. The official Chinese government figure is 241 dead, including soldiers, and a further 7,000 injured, but independent analysts have suggest that the death toll may have reached upwards of 10,000.

Tank Man

The enduring image of the conflict is that of a lone unidentified man carrying two shopping bags crossing the street the day after the massacre, preventing a column of tanks from advancing.

The moment was caught on film by photographer Jeff Widener, and the man in the photo has since become known as Tank Man - a symbol of “individualistic defiance against repression”, The Japan Times says.

Chinese artist and cartoonist Badiucao, who started the hashtag #TankMan2018 to raise awareness, says Tank Man represents “something lost in China’s young generation now — the idealism, passion, sense of responsibility, and confidence that an individual can make a change”.

The identity and fate of the man in the photo has never been revealed by the Chinese government.

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