The Tiananmen Square protests were a series of pro-democracy demonstrations in China that began in April, 1989. The protests were largely student-led and grew enormously. Students gathered in the iconic square in the capital, Beijing, for several weeks, in peaceful protests calling for various political and economic reforms.
On May 20, 1989, the Chinese government declared martial law, mobilising troops from five of the country’s seven military regions. The army’s advance into Beijing, however, was blocked by tens of thousands of protestors: they surrounded military vehicles and prevented them from moving. Demonstrators also offered the soldiers food, water and shelter, appealing to them to join their cause. Within four days, the army was ordered to withdraw, as authorities saw no way forward.
However, military forces returned in June with renewed force. The protest had intensified too, and Tiananmen Square was virtually never empty. Reports say that the largest congregations went up to one million demonstrators. June 3 saw an order from the government to the effect that the military would be rolling in on June 4 at 1 am, and the square was to be cleared at all costs by 6 am.
The troops were authorised to “use any means to clear impediments,” according to the government rder. State television broadcasts warned citizens to stay indoors.
Despite the warning, protestors gathered, as they had in May, to block the army. But as a result of the martial law order, and the attempted clearance of the square, many of them were killed in open fire from different directions.
Amongst a variety of lethal tactics, the troops used expanding bullets, prohibited by international law, which expand upon impact and create larger wounds in the body. Despite student leaders negotiating with the army and assuring them that they would clear the protestors on the condition of safe passage, many were mowed down.
Victims were rushed to hospital on rickshaws, and protestors were distraught at the military crackdown on their unarmed groups. Early the same morning, many who were walking in groups back to campuses were pursued by tanks and killed. Crowds that were attempting to return to the square were met with open firing. Even an ambulance was fired on.
While the toll in the Tiananmen Square massacre is usually estimated at 3,000, one British diplomatic cable alleged that at least 10,000 people were killed.
The suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests was immortalised with an image that has now become known as The Tank Man. On June 5, a man was seen standing defiantly in front of a line of tanks in the square.
Holding two grocery bags, he was also seen climbing atop a tank and attempting to have a conversation with the soldiers inside. After returning to his original position in front of the tanks, he was led away by a handful of people who came waving white shirts.
Read all the articles in the Art of Resistance series here.