Primary Source: Protest, Tragedy and Hope at Tiananmen Square

“Our country will have no peaceful days if this disturbance is not checked resolutely.”

Noel C. Cilker
11 min readJun 4, 2019
University students campaign for democracy in Tiananmen Square, May 1989. (Dominic Dudouble)

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing. To this day, the Chinese government actively works to erase this event from its history, and as a result, many in China, especially the younger generations, aren’t aware the protests and killings occurred. Some, however, do what little they can to keep the memory alive.

On April 15, 1989, Hu Yaobang, a high-ranking member of the Communist Party, died from complications of a heart attack. Students reacted strongly, believing that his forced resignation from the Party — for being soft on student protesters two years before—had played a part in his death. Students in university campuses began creating posters eulogizing not only Hu, but advocating for freedom of the press, democracy and anti-corruption efforts as well.

Student protesters wave a banner under a funeral portrait of Hu Yaobang, April 1989.

Students list seven demands of the government.

At the state funeral for Hu Yaobang at Tiananmen Square, four students broke through the security cordon. They knelt on the steps of the Great Hall of the People, asking to speak with Premier Li Peng and present him with seven demands. Peng refused to grant them an audience.

1. Affirm Hu Yaobang’s views on democracy and freedom as correct.

2. Admit that the campaigns against spiritual pollution and bourgeois liberalization had been wrong.

3. Publish information on the income of state leaders and their family members.

4. Allow privately run newspapers and stop press censorship.

5. Increase funding for education and raise intellectuals’ pay.

6. End restrictions on demonstrations in Beijing.

7. Provide objective coverage of students in official media.

Zhang Zhiyong, Guo Haifeng and Zhou Yongjun kneel on the steps of the Great Hall of the People to present their demands to Premier Li Peng, April 22, 1989.

The Communist Party takes a clear-cut stand.

Angered over the government’s refusal to meet with them, students began protesting in earnest. In Xi’an and Changsha, rioters destroyed property and looted shops, and students in Wuhan protested against the provincial government. Alarmed, on April 26 the Party published an editorial in People’s Daily, its official newspaper, titled, “It is Necessary to Take a Clear-cut Stand Against Disturbances.”

On April 22, before the memorial meeting was held, some students had already showed up at Tiananmen Square, but they were not asked to leave, as they normally would have been. Instead, they were asked to observe discipline and join in the mourning for Comrade Hu Yaobang. The students on the square were themselves able to consciously maintain order. . . .

However, after the memorial meeting, an extremely small number of people with ulterior purposes continued to take advantage of the young students’ feelings of grief for Comrade Hu Yaobang to spread all kinds of rumors to poison and confuse people’s minds. Using both big- and small-character posters, they vilified, hurled invectives at, and attacked party and state leaders. Blatantly violating the Constitution, they called for opposition to the leadership by the Communist Party and the socialist system. . . .

All comrades in the party and the people throughout the country must soberly recognize the fact that our country will have no peaceful days if this disturbance is not checked resolutely. This struggle concerns the success or failure of the reform and opening up, the program of the four modernizations, and the future of our state and nation. Party organizations of the CPC at all levels, the broad masses of members of the Communist Party and the Communist Youth League, all democratic parties and patriotic democratic personages, and the people around the country should make a clear distinction between right and wrong, take positive action, and struggle to firmly and quickly stop the disturbance.

The April 26 editorial in the People’s Daily newspaper, April 26, 1989.

A former Communist official issues a rebuttal.

Wang Ruowang was an author and political dissident who was imprisoned many times over his 83 years. He had formerly been a member of the Communist Party from 1937 to 1957 before getting expelled for “rightist views,” then again from 1979 to 1987 before getting expelled again for promoting “bourgeois liberalization.” In May 1989, Wang published a rebuttal to the April 26 editorial.

After reading the April 26 Renmin ribao editorial, I was so amazed and indignant that I attacked the table and rose to my feet. . . .

According to Marx’s historical materialism, mass riots and wars are generally divided into two clearly opposite kinds — the just and the unjust. Take “the people are driven to by tyranny” as an example. Historical books in our country always say that it is just, while suppression by government troops and police is unjust. Similarly, it is only just that “officials are driven out of power by the people.” . . .

Given that the “editorial” is entitled “It Is Necessary to Take a Clear-Cut Stand,” I think the concept “people with ulterior motives” is very hazy and generalized. It is not clear-cut as the most crucial point. If the meaning of this special phrase which defines the target of attack is ambiguous, it will lead to a large number of people being attacked and make it convenient to wrong good people, wantonly infringe human rights, and to fabricate unjust, false, and erroneous cases. This kind of phrase, which is used to determine the nature of an offense or a case and which has extensive meanings, is neither a legal nor a political term. Like other phrases, such as “people unacceptable to the government,” “people who are dissatisfied with the party and the government,” and “a handful of bad people,” this phrase can lead to serious consequences, bringing calamity to the country and the people.

Wang Ruowang in 1989. (Forrest Anderson)

Students declare a hunger strike.

As the Communist Party continued to refuse to meet with students, protesters began occupying Tiananmen Square. A more radical student faction organized a hunger strike, releasing a declaration on May 13.

In these bright and beautiful days of May, we are beginning a hunger strike. We are young, but we are ready to give up our lives. We cherish life: we do not want to die.

But this nation is in a critical state. It suffers from skyrocketing inflation, growing crime rates, official profiteering, and other forms of bureaucratic corruption, concentration of power in a few people’s hands, and the loss of a large number of intellectuals who would now rather stay overseas. At this life‑and‑death moment of the nation’s fate, countrymen, please listen to us! . . .

What shall we do?

Democracy is supposed to be the highest of human aspirations and freedom a sacred human right, granted at birth. Today these must be bought with our lives.

We say to our dear mothers and fathers, do not feel sorry for us when we are hungry. To our uncles and aunts, do not feel sad when we leave this life. We have one wish, that the lives of everyone we leave be better. We have one request, that you remember this: our pursuit is life, not death. Democracy is not a task for a few; it takes generations.

May this declaration, written with our lives, break up the clouds that cast their shadows on the People’s Republic of China. We are doing this:

1. To protest the government’s indifference to the student demonstrations;

2. To protest the government’s failure to enter into a dialogue with students;

3. To protest the government’s unfair characterization of the student democratic movement as “turmoil” and the further distortion of it in newspaper coverage.

We request:

a. An immediate dialogue between the government and the students on substantial topics with equal status;

b. An acknowledgement by the government of the legitimacy of the student democratic movement.

Time of the hunger strike: Begins at 2:00 P.M., May 13, 1989.

Place of the hunger strike: Tiananmen Square.

A student meditates while on a hunger strike, May 1989. (Jian Lu)
Students display a figure they called the Goddess of Democracy in Tiananmen Square, May 1989. (Jian Liu)
Tiananmen Square on June 2, 1989. (Catherine Henriette)

The military reestablishes control.

By the end of May, with the protests only showing signs of increasing, the Communist Party had had enough. One witness, Liu Binyin, describes the leadup and the events of June 4, 1989.

On the evening of June 3, the darkest night of the People’s Republic was under way. After six, television and radio stations broadcast three emergency announcements from the city government and the troops. They warned the people of Beijing that the soldiers could no longer tolerate the situation and would take measures to wipe out resistance. The announcements asked residents not to come out into the streets, for their own safety. But how could the residents abandon the students? Taking wet towels with them in case of tear-gas attacks, many rushed to Tiananmen Square on their bicycles from all over the city. There were already more than ten thousand people in the square — and the atmosphere was charged. . . .

After one in the morning, about six hundred soldiers were marching toward the Great Hall of the People from the west, in formation, four or five in a row, firing random shots into the air. They arrived at the hall at one-forty. By two o’clock in the morning, soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army had surrounded several thousand students and other civilians — the people — inside Tiananmen Square. The students retreated to the steps of the Monument to the People’s Heroes. They all had their wills inside their pockets. They were singing the “Internationale,” hand in hand, waiting to wake up ancient China with their blood.

At four, all the lights in Tiananmen Square were suddenly turned off. The “evacuation order” was again broadcast.

At four-forty, just as the students were starting to retreat out of the square, a red signal flare ripped the night sky. Searchlights suddenly bathed the square. Students found that they were surrounded by armed soldiers wearing helmets. Some of them had already set up a line of more than a dozen machine guns, aimed at the students. Other soldiers rushed in among the students and beat them with electric cattle prods and rubber covered steel clubs. They tore their way up the base of the Monument to the People’s Heroes, and forced the students down, beating them until their heads were bleeding. As they reached the ground level, the machine guns opened fire. . . .

After the killing, there were massive arrests nationwide. People who were involved in the Democracy movement were executed in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Changsha, Wuhan. The Communist Party of China boasted that it had smashed a “counterrevolutionary rebellion.”

Soldiers move into Tiananmen Square, June 1989. (Jeff Widener)
Protesters climb an armored vehicle just outside of Tiananmen Square in Beijing on June 4, 1989. (Jeff Widener)
Scuffles break out among protesters and security forces near the Great Hall of The People, June 1989. (Jeff Widener)
Vehicles are set ablaze on the night of the crackdown in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, June 4, 1989. (Peter Charlesworth)
Doctors carry an injured protester to safety, June 5, 1989.
Bodies lie at the mortuary at Shuili hospital. They had all died from bullet wounds not long before the photo was taken. (Jian Liu)

A photographer captures the “tank man.”

Associated Press photographer Jeff Widener was in Beijing covering the protest and massacre. On June 5, the A.P. called and asked someone to return to the square to cover the aftermath. “We drew straws and I got the short straw,” he recalled, “I had to go out, and I was so scared.” Widener then sneaked inside the Beijing Hotel to get a better view.

Photographer Jeff Widener describes his experience capturing the “tank man,” 1989. (Time)

I heard this noise of tanks coming down the street, and I went out to the balcony and I see the column of tanks coming towards me. And I’m thinking, “This is a nice, compressed shot of the tanks.”

All of a sudden this guy with shopping bags walks out in front. I’m looking at it and I get annoyed. I look at Kirk and say, “This guy’s going to screw up my composition,” and he goes, “They’re going to kill that guy! They’re going to kill him!” . . . You hear gunfire going on everywhere and the guy doesn’t flinch. . . . When I finally got to the balcony, I took one, two, three shots. . . .

You could say it’s David and Goliath, but I think it goes beyond David and Goliath. Here’s this guy who’s obviously just out shopping, and finally he’s just had enough. He goes out in the street with these oncoming tanks. If he’s halfway normal he think he’s going to die. But he doesn’t care; he just doesn’t care because — for whatever reason, whether he’s lost a loved one or he’s just had it with the government — whatever it is, his statement is more important than his own life.

Everybody connects to this that all hope is not lost, that you can make a stand. There is some dignity and that you fight for your rights.

The “tank man” stares down a line of armored tanks. He was later whisked away, and his fate remains unknown. (Jeff Widener)
In 2009, an image showing a ground angle view of the “tank man” was released. He framed at a distance between two trees at left, while the tanks approach from the right of the frame. (Terril Jones)

A former student leader still has hope.

Wang Dan, among the leaders of the student movement, spent eight years in prison for his role in the protests. He now lives in the United States and cannot return to China. He wrote this editorial for the New York Times.

Despite our failure, I believe that we protesters made a difference. CNN reported live on what happened in Tiananmen Square, and the Chinese government realized that it could no longer butcher its citizens with the whole world watching. We raised the public’s awareness of democracy; many of the lawyers and human rights activists who have challenged the legitimacy of the Communist Party in the years since the massacre were participants in or supporters of the 1989 movement. And today, the West has finally recognized the dangers of China’s totalitarian regime.

My desire to bring democracy to China, a seemingly far-off dream, remains strong. The Chinese government has erased the Tiananmen massacre from its history books. Any mention of it on social media is considered subversive. Yet I try to reach out to younger people, sharing my experiences and keeping the memories alive.

Young people in China today, nearly all of whom grow up in one-child families, are more pragmatic than we were in the 1980s. And despite the government’s brainwashing, they know how to use technology and obtain information from the outside. They understand more about the West than we did. Unlike students of my generation who held false hopes for the party, members of today’s younger generation are more cynical and realistic. Once opportunities arise, they’ll rise up as we did 30 years ago.

Wang Dan in Tiananmen Square, May 27, 1989. (Mark Avery)
For more, watch Frontline’s “The Tank Man,” an excellent documentary about Tiananmen Square and the aftermath.

I am currently working on Gold in the Fire, a book about Ah Toy, the first Chinese brothel madam in gold rush San Francisco.

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Noel C. Cilker

I’m a writer, interested in history’s stories and the links between then and now.