Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Chinese students killed in Tiananmen Square

On June 4, 1989, thousands of Chinese students and their supporters congregated at Tiananmen Square, in the city of Beijing, protesting government corruption and demanding more political democracy in their country. The students had been demonstrating for a month and a half without major violent incidents, but that tragic day the army carried out orders to end the protests at any cost, and that led to a massacre that took the lives of many young people. While nobody knows exactly how many people were killed that day in Tiananmen Square, estimates are given at between 500 to 3000 unarmed youngsters.  

The students had initially taken to the streets on April 16, following the death of Hu Yaobang, the former secretary general of the Communist Party of China.  He had been disgraced and demoted after being accused of sympathizing with student demonstrators in 1987.  With his death, thousands of students went to Tiananmen Square to pay tribute to him. At the same time, university campuses became hotbeds of political activism.

The movement grew rapidly, as more and more students came to occupy Tiananmen Square along with the working class and intellectuals.  Students were demanding democracy, an end to corruption and freedom of the press, and meetings with the government.  The government responded by printing a letter in the People’s Daily speaking out against the students, and describing their behavior as an act of treason.  This strategy, instead of undermining the movement, further ignited it, as hundreds of thousands of students and their supporters marched to Tiananmen Square to express their disapproval of the government.

On May 13th several hundred students began a hunger strike at Tiananmen Square. The solidarity for them was so strong that by the next day the number of hunger strikers had risen to 2,000. By that time, over 100,000 people were occupying Tiananmen Square. This was all occurring at the same time as the first visit by a Soviet head of state to China in 30 years. The day after his arrival, the protests reached  their apex with almost one million people occupying Tiananmen Square, shouting calls for reform and the resignation of  Deng Xiaoping.  It was the largest protest in the history of modern China.

The pressure mounted for the government to respond. Deng Xiaoping, along with Zhao Ziyang ( the secretary general of the Communist party) went to visit the hunger strikers in the hospital. Although Deng remained emotionless, Zhao Ziyang showed that he was moved by the determination of the students. A couple of days later Zhao was accused of being a counter revolutionary and his offices were closed. The government agreed to meet with the leaders of the student movement , but was not willing to concede to their demands.

By this point the students were losing support as the movement lacked direction and the government was warning people that there would be negative repercussions for those involved. So far the use of violence had been held back by the government, as officials were divided on what approach to take. Deng wanted to suppress the movement, while others such as the chief of Beijing’s Public Security Bureau did not want to participate in the use of force. The unarmed soldiers that had been sent to the square were taunted by the students who lectured them and urged them to not hurt anybody. Army vehicles sent to the Square were unable to move because swarms of students surrounded them.

Nobody was sure how long this standoff  would last, but after the ouster of Zhao it was becoming increasingly evident that a hardline approach might be taken. When tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square one student actually stopped a convoy of four tanks just by standing in front of them. That image of David and Goliath, a simple unarmed civilian confronting a powerful war machinery, was reproduced all over the world in newspapers, magazines and televisions. The image probably said more about the conflict than ten thousand words.

The passiveness of the armed forces soon changed as orders were given to reclaim Tiananmen Square at all costs. On June 4, 1989, Deng Xiaoping decided that it was appropriate to use brutal force to crackdown on unarmed student protestors. The ensuing massacre that occurred was a tragic event in the life of modern China and in the history of student movements worldwide. Reactions of protest and repudiation for the action of the Chinese government began to emerge almost immediately from all corners of the planet. The killing of demonstrating unarmed students by a professional brought back to many people the sad memories of  the massacre of Tlatelolco (LINK PLEASE) that had occurred two decades before.

The courage of the Tiananmen Square students has not been forgotten. Every year since 1989, people all over the world mark the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre with memorials and vigils.  For the people of China, life also changed after the student uprising. The government sped up economic development in the hopes of pacifying people with material wealth instead of political rights. This was coupled with greater personal freedom in areas such as the right to relocate and choosing a job.  Although the government has been temporarily successful in steering people’s attention away from political activities, the spirit of the Tiananmen Square students remains an inspiration for students in China and throughout the world.


Benjamin, Daniel. The State of Siege. Time. May 29, 1989.

Birnbaum, Jesse and Chua-Eoan, Howard. Despair and Death in a Beijing Square. Time. June 12,1989.

Liang, Zhang. The Tiananmen Papers. New York : Public Affairs, 2001.

Liu, Melinda. Bad Days in Beijing. Newsweek. July 31, 1989.

Serrill, Micheal .Beijing Spring. Time. May 8,1989.

Wong, Jan. Red China Blues – my long march from Mao to now. Toronto: Doubleday / Anchor Books, 1996.

Prepared by Jasjit Sangha (OISE/UT) with DS

April 2001

DS Home Page     Back to Index     Suggest or Submit a Moment

© 1996-2002 Daniel Schugurensky. All Rights Reserved. Design and maintenance by LMS.
Last updated on September 08, 2002.