On June 4, 1989, the skies were ablaze over Tiananmen Square in Beijing as shots were fired and tanks came rolling in against the backdrop of student protestors singing the Internationale – the communist anthem that for some, would be their defiant last words. 

On Tuesday, June 4, 2024, Beijing said nothing happened.

What happened in 1989?

Not unlike the wave of revolutions against communist rule in eastern European countries like Ukraine, in 1989, China was also wracked by protests.

A series of protests took place in China in mid-1989, which culminated in the Tiananmen Square Massacre on June 4 – with some estimating that up to 1,000 died in that event.

As China began its reform and opening-up policy in the late 1970s, corruption began becoming apparent among party elites, one source of discontent.

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The April 1989 death of Hu Yaobang, a high-ranking Chinese official, who had been forced to resign in 1987 over his advocacy for liberal pro-reform policies precipitated the protests.

As the protests gained momentum in April 1989, students also issued their “seven demands,” which called for more freedom and liberty – whilst upholding their patriotism and support for communist rule.

On the eve of Hu’s funeral on April 22, some 100,000 students were estimated to have gathered in Beijing.

Protesting carried on sporadically until May 15, when former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev paid a historic visit to Beijing.

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Hunger strikes in May

Students started a hunger strike two days before Gorbachev’s visit in hopes of forcing Beijing to implement reforms.

Meanwhile, students from across China had traveled to Beijing to join the protests.

Despite attempts at dialogues between officials and protestors, the hunger strikes continued during Gorbachev’s visit – an embarrassment for Beijing.

This intensified the split between Zhao Ziyang, China’s then-general secretary who held a more sympathetic view of the students, and Li Peng, China’s then-premier, who had a hardliner view.

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Declaring martial law

The hunger strikes revealed widespread Chinese support from all walks of life, and support spread across the nation.

Talk of introducing martial law to crack down on the protests and hunger strikes, which were centered at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, were already in place by mid-May, with Zhao in firm opposition to the views of the hardliners within the communist party.

On May 19, Zhao, who was involved in the martial law discussion, met with the students and urged them to stop the hunger strike, saying that they “must live healthily” to see the future of China.

However, this would be Zhao’s last public appearance and on May 20, China’s State Council declared martial law.

Troop mobilization and June 4 massacre

While there were reports of infighting among the student protestors, most decided to stay on the square despite martial law being declared.

Thousands of troops were stopped by protestors outside Beijing as they attempted to enter the city. The troops were ordered to withdraw on May 24, but Beijing had already decided that it would clear Tiananmen Square by force.

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On the evening of June 3, troops began moving into the city in trucks and tanks and fired at the protestors, where the latter fought back with improvised weapons – not unlike Ukrainians in the Nov. 2013- Feb. 2014 Revolution of Dignity.

In the early hours of June 4, troops entered Tiananmen Square and began clearing the area by force – firing at students and reportedly rolling over still-living protestors with tanks.

Footage of the massacre was broadcast around the world. The footage showed stretchers carrying the wounded, bicycles carrying blood-stained corpses, and the streets of Beijing ablaze with fire. Foreign reporters were able to broadcast the events to televisions around the world.

On the morning of June 5, the massacre had come to an end, save for a lone man standing in front of a moving tank column that culminated in the symbolic moment that defined the protests.

What happens now?

Beijing never acknowledged the massacre, nor the death toll the troops had incurred that night.

Mao Ning, Beijing’s spokesperson, refused to elaborate when a foreign journalist asked her about what happened 35 years ago during her daily press briefing on Tuesday. 

“The Chinese government has long since come to a clear conclusion on the political disturbance that took place in the late 1980s,” said Mao without further elaboration, as reported by France 24.

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The event has also been heavily censored in China, where the number “8964” – representing the year and date it happened – would trigger immediate bans on Chinese social media.

Baidu, China’s search engine, also returns no results related to the massacre when prompted.

In Hong Kong, a former British colony that for years has held vigils for the June 4 massacre, the recent passing of national security law under Beijing rule has prevented locals from commemorating the event.

That said, Taiwanese President Lai Ching-te said on the massacre anniversary: “the memory of June 4 will not disappear in the torrent of history.”

But as China continues to suppress knowledge of the event, some question how long memories of the event will continue to live.

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