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How the Tiananmen Massacre Changed China

Leo Timm
Leo Timm covers China-related news, culture, and history. Follow him on Twitter at @kunlunpeaks
Published: June 4, 2023
Students and local people gathered at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on May 14, 1989 after an over-night hunger strike as part of the mass pro-democracy protest against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Some of the demonstrators carry a banner reading "Liberty or Death." Over 5,000 students participated in the overnight hunger strike, the latest in a series of pro-democracy protests sparked by the April 15 death of former communist party leader Hu Yaobang. (Image: CATHERINE HENRIETTE/AFP via Getty Images)


It’s been 34 years since the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, which saw the violent suppression of China’s democracy movement. Anywhere from the low thousands to over 10,000 people were gunned down or crushed by tanks in the center of Beijing during the night of June 3 and June 4, and thousands more were arrested nationwide in the days and weeks to come.

The dramatic and brutal event has endured as a symbol of the Chinese Communist Party’s misrule, as well as censorship — the Party claims variously that no one died at the square, or that the victims were mostly police and soldiers lynched by the “rioters.”

Perhaps more important was the change in direction that the Tiananmen massacre represented for China. The country had been under communist rule for 40 years, and tens of millions of people had been executed, starved to death, or committed suicide under founding dictator Mao Zedong.

But when the Tiananmen massacre happened, Mao had already been dead for 13 years. Deng Xiaoping, the leader who ultimately replaced him, introduced private business and allowed farmers to manage their own land. Chinese became wealthier as their country attracted foreign investment and technology, much of it from the United States.

Premier of the People’s Republic of China and General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party Zhao Ziyang (R) and de facto leader of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) Deng Xiaoping (L) raise hand for vote, on November 1, 1987 in Beijing, at the closing meeting of the 13th Communist Party Congress in the Great Hall of the People. (Image: JOHN GIANNINI/AFP via Getty Images)

All throughout the 1980s, the “reform and opening up” caused massive changes across China. In addition to economic freedoms, the Party and its leaders allowed more civil liberties as well. Communist Party general secretaries Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang called for even greater liberalizations, though Deng Xiaoping always retained actual power by controlling the CCP’s Central Military Commission.

Deng proved ambivalent about Hu and Zhao’s reformist policies. In 1987, Hu Yaobang was ousted from his position, and was replaced with Zhao, who was allowed to continue the economic transformation of China.

The road to massacre

The death of Hu Yaobang on April 15, 1989 was the spark for the pro-democracy movement that emerged not just in Beijing, but in dozens of cities across China. Hundreds of thousands of people crowded in Tiananmen Square (near the ancient imperial palace and the CCP headquarters) and other parts of the capital, and more than 1 million people across China came out to demand political reforms.

Zhao Ziyang and others in the Party leadership attempted to work out a peaceful resolution to the protests, but on April 26, Deng Xiaoping publicly denounced the demonstrators as an illegal “riot.” Prior to this, he had also gathered support within the CCP to sideline Zhao and prepare to clear the protesters using force.

It didn’t help that Zhao Ziyang spent several important days on a state visit to North Korea when Deng was making his moves, but given the latter’s power over the military and greater prestige in the CCP regime, Zhao may not have had the ability to influence events even had he cancelled the trip and remained in Beijing.

Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Zhao Ziyang (C) addresses the student hunger strikers through a megaphone at dawn 19 May 1989 in one of the buses at Tiananmen Square in Beijing where pro-democracy hunger strikers had been sheltered. Zhao had pleaded in vain with the rest of the Party leadership against using force to crack down on demonstrators in Tiananmen Square; the massacre eventually occurred in the night of June 3-4, 1989. (Image: XINHUA/AFP via Getty Images)

Knowing that it was just a matter of time before he would be overthrown, Zhao personally travelled to Tiananmen and met with student protesters, assuring them that they were the future of the country and asking them to take care of their health.

Throughout May, several divisions of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) were deployed to Beijing. After several tense weeks, the troops received orders to impose martial law — that is, wipe out whomever remained in and around Tiananmen Square.

Toxic aftermath

Apart from the wave of political repressions that swept China in the wake of the massacre in Beijing, the tragic ending to the Tiananmen protest also made democracy seem like a futile dream. But because the economic reforms were not cancelled, Chinese continued to do all they could to make money, while participating in political or social activism was limited to just a few brave individuals.

Zhao Ziyang was removed as CCP general secretary and put under house arrest, where he would remain until his death in 2005. Replacing him was Jiang Zemin, the mayor of Shanghai who gained favor with Deng Xiaoping for his tough stance on the protesters in China’s largest city.

Jiang turned out to be treacherous. At first, he attempted to undermine Deng by trying to return to the ultra-leftist ideology of the Mao Zedong era, but Deng foiled this by making his famous “Southern Tour” in 1992 and proclaiming the importance of capitalist reforms. Jiang would only fully take over in 1997, after Deng’s death.

People pass under a giant monitor showing CCP head Jiang Zemin in Shenzhen, one of China’s special economic zones, on the day of the funeral of up-to-then de facto leader of China Deng Xiaoping on February 25, 1997. (Image: STR/AFP via Getty Images)

China in Jiang’s era of political dominance was characterized by his mantra of “keep quiet and make a huge fortune.” While ideology was toned down to the point that it became unfashionable to call China a communist country, the crushing of civil society and lack of political openness provided CCP officials with many opportunities to exploit China’s economic rise for their own benefit.

Meanwhile, Jiang launched his own political repression, this time on a scale far larger than the massacre at Tiananmen. In 1999, he directed the CCP to “eradicate” the peaceful spiritual practice of Falun Gong, which he saw as a threat because its 100 million adherents outnumbered members of the Communist Party.

In the 24 years since the beginning of the persecution of Falun Gong, around 1 million people have been arrested, with many of them sent to labor camps or subjected to torture for their beliefs. A burgeoning organ harvesting industry also arose in China at the same time, and has been linked to the mass murder of political prisoners, primarily Falun Gong practitioners.

The tools and policies used to suppress Falun Gong also became the basis for the CCP’s present-day online censorship and surveillance, as well as the mass imprisonment of ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region.