Photography Art: Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989
The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, also known as the Tiananmen Square massacre and the June Fourth Incident (in part to avoid confusion with two prior Tiananmen Square protests), were a series of demonstrations in and near Tiananmen Square in Beijing in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) beginning on 14 April 1989. The movement, influenced partly by the ideas of Mohandas K. Gandhi, used mainly non-violent methods and can be considered a case of civil resistance. Led mainly by students and intellectuals, the protests occurred in the year that was to see the collapse of a number of communist governments in eastern Europe.
The protests were sparked by the death of former CPC General Secretary Hu Yaobang, a Party official known for tolerating dissent, and whom protesters had wanted to mourn. By the eve of Hu’s funeral, 100,000 people had gathered at Tiananmen Square. The protests lacked a unified cause or leadership; participants included Communist Party of China members and Trotskyists as well as liberal reformers, who were generally against the government’s authoritarianism and voiced calls for economic change and democratic reform within the structure of the government. The demonstrations began in Tiananmen Square, but later expanded to the surrounding streets, and large-scale protests also occurred in cities throughout China, including Shanghai. While those in Shanghai remained peaceful, there was looting and rioting in various locations throughout China, including Xi’an Province and Changsha, capital of Mao’s home province of Hunan.
The movement lasted seven weeks after Hu’s death on 15 April. In early June, the People’s Liberation Army moved into the streets of Beijing with troops and tanks and cleared the square with live fire. The exact number of deaths is not known. According to an analysis by Nicholas D. Kristof of The New York Times, “The true number of deaths will probably never be known, and it is possible that thousands of people were killed without leaving evidence behind. But based on the evidence that is now available, it seems plausible that about fifty soldiers and policemen were killed, along with 400 to 800 civilians.” Globe and Mail correspondent Jan Wong placed the death toll at approximately 3,000, based on initial reports by the Red Cross and analysis on the crowd size, density, and the volume of firing.
Following the conflict, the government conducted widespread arrests of protesters and their supporters, cracked down on other protests around China, banned the foreign press from the country and strictly controlled coverage of the events in the PRC press. Members of the Party who had publicly sympathized with the protesters were purged, with several high-ranking members placed under house arrest, such as Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang. There was widespread international condemnation of the PRC government’s use of force against the protesters.