Twenty years ago today tanks drove across Tiananmen Square and crushed a student rebellion in China. The students had been protesting for nearly two months, occupying the square in great numbers and partaking in hunger strikes in the name of democracy, economic and political reform. Despite its prominence in global history, the event itself is shrouded in mystery: there is no reliable death toll; there is no accepted series of events; the identity of key players in the protest remains unknown; and today most young Chinese people have never heard of it.
To mark the Tiananmen Square Massacre Crikey brings you news from the vaults of the global media from June 4 1989.
The BBC reported:
Several hundred civilians have been shot dead by the Chinese army during a bloody military operation to crush a democratic protest in Peking’s (Beijing) Tiananmen Square. Tanks rumbled through the capital’s streets late on 3 June as the army moved into the square from several directions, randomly firing on unarmed protesters. The injured were rushed to hospital on bicycle rickshaws by frantic residents shocked by the army’s sudden and extreme response to the peaceful mass protest.
Demonstrators, mainly students, had occupied the square for seven weeks, refusing to move until their demands for democratic reform were met. The protests began with a march by students in memory of former party leader Hu Yaobang, who had died a week before. But as the days passed, millions of people from all walks of life joined in, angered by widespread corruption and calling for democracy.
The Independent reported that the revolution had begun, when it had in fact ended:
It is hard to believe, in political as well as human terms, that the victims died in vain. More than one billion people cannot, if sufficiently roused, be indefinitely controlled with bullets. The bloodbath of the weekend had all the appearances of a last, desperate gesture. It seems bound to unleash reactions powerful enough to shape the country’s history, in both the short and longer terms. It will discredit further an already discredited leadership, and may — should — hasten the demise of communism as a political creed, in China as already in Eastern Europe.
Immediately after reports were published the Chinese government was releasing information and images to counter reports in the global media of a massacre. The New York Times reported:
The question of where the shootings occurred has significance because of the Government’s claim that no one was shot on Tiananmen Square. State television has even shown film of students marching peacefully away from the square shortly after dawn as proof that they were not slaughtered. The disagreement is partly one about definition of the square.
The central scene in the article is of troops beating and machine-gunning unarmed students clustered around the Monument to the People’s Heroes in the middle of Tiananmen Square. Several other witnesses, both Chinese and foreign, say this did not happen.
CBCtv news footage showed the demonstrations and the military crackdown:
The New York Times photoblog Lens has compiled recollections from photojournalists who recorded the events in Tiananmen Square:
Behind the scenes: tank man of Tiananmen. Few images are more recognizable or more evocative. Known simply as “tank man”, it is one of the most famous photographs in recent history. Twenty years ago, on June 5, 1989, following weeks of huge protests in Beijing and a crackdown that resulted in the deaths of hundreds, a lone man stepped in front of a column of tanks rumbling past Tiananmen Square. The moment instantly became a symbol of the protests as well as a symbol against oppression worldwide — an anonymous act of defiance seared into our collective consciousnesses.
“It all started with a man in a white shirt who walked into the street and raised his right hand no higher than a New Yorker hailing a taxi,” James Barron wrote the following day in The New York Times . The picture appeared on the front page of this newspaper as well as in countless other publications around the world.
To this day, the identity and fate of the man in the picture remain unclear.
Here is the video footage:
The Brisbane Times has reproduced cable communications from the US government:
Cable, From: Department of State, Wash DC, To: US Embassy Beijing, and All Diplomatic and Consular Posts, TFCHO1: SITREP 1, 1700 EDT (June 3, 1989). PLA MOVES ON TIANANMEN, CASULATIES HIGH. EMBASSY BEIJING REPORTS THAT TROOPS USING AUTOMATIC WEAPONS ADVANCED IN TANKS, APCS AND TRUCKS FROM SEVERAL DIRECTIONS ON TIANANMEN SQUARE JUNE 3. THERE WAS CONSIDERABLE RESISTENCE BY DEMONSTRATORS, AND THE NUMBER OF CASUALTIES APPEARS HIGH.
Cable, From: US Embassy Beijing, To: Department of State, Wash DC, SITREP No. 32: The Morning of June 4 (June 4, 1989). “ABOUT 0330 HOURS LOCAL TROOPS WERE IN CONTROL OF TIANANMEN SQUARE, BUT PEOPLE REMAINED IN THE SURROUNDING STREETS. SPORADIC GUNFIRE CONTINUED TO BE HEARD THROUGHOUT THE CITY. BY 0430 TROOPS HAD TAKEN UP POSITION ACROSS CHANGAN BOULEVARDE FACING EAST WITH A LINE OF APCS BEHIND THEM. STUDENTS IN TURN LINED UP ON CHANGAN BOULVEVARDE FACING WEST TOWARDS THE TROOPS. MEANWHILE A LARGE CONVOY OF TROOPS BEGAN ENTERING TIANANMEN SQUARE FROM THE WEST. SOME TEN THOUSAND TROOPS IN THE SQUARE FORMED CONCENTRIC RINGS. ONE FACING INWARD TOWARDS SOME THREE THOUSAND REMAINING DEMONSTRATORS, AND THE OTHER FACING OUTWARD. AT 0530 A COLUMN OF ABOUT 50 APCS, TANKS AND TRUCKS ENTERED TIANANMEN FROM THE EAST. DEMONSTRATORS SHOUTED ANGRILY AT THE CONVOY AND PLA TROOPS IN TIANANMEN OPENED A MASSIVE BARRAGE OF RIFLE AND MACHINE GUN FIRE.
The New York Times published a time line on June 4 1989:
CRACKDOWN IN BEIJING; The Beijing Spring: from heady defiance to repression. Demonstrations by students and workers demanding greater democracy and an end to Government corruption went on for more than six weeks in Beijing’s central Tiananmen Square before the authorities resorted to armed force to suppress them. Here are the high points of the sustained protest, which has come to be regarded as a turning point for China:
April 18: Several thousand students march through the capital in predawn hours, chanting democratic slogans, singing revolutionary songs and mourning the ousted Communist Party leader, Hu Yaobang, who died April 15.
April 22: Defying a ban on public protests, more than 100,000 gather in Tiananmen Square to press demands for more democracy. Tens of thousands of university students begin camping all night in the square, foiling Government plans to close off the area.
April 29: Waving banners commemorating a similar demonstration 70 years earlier, protesters march through the streets of the capital demanding greater press freedom and more democracy. The march follows the Government’s rejection of the students’ conditions for formal talks to resolve their differences. Demonstrations are also held in Shanghai, Nanjing and other cities.
May 13: About 2,000 students begin a hunger strike at Tiananmen Square.
For more on the Tiananmen Square Massacre check out our compilation on the Crikey website.