By Richard Baum, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles
On the evening of May 22, 1989, the army’s troop convoys had been ordered to pull back from the Tiananmen Square to the outskirts of the city. The government had quietly accepted defeat. Or so it appeared. Although a few Chinese had anxiously predicted a violent denouement, very few Western experts anticipated the government’s use of overwhelming, deadly force. The carnage that followed, thus, came as a real shock.
The Point of No Return
On Friday evening, June 2 (which was mid-afternoon Saturday, June 3, in Beijing), the studio in Atlanta broke in with a news flash that tear gas was being used by the Chinese army against demonstrators in Beijing. The demonstrators fought back with rocks and bottles.
Shortly afterward, CNN reported that an army jeep had run over three civilians near Tiananmen Square, killing them all. Other acts of scattered violence quickly followed. Things had now reached the point of no return. Now there could be no question of a peaceful political transition. The deluge had begun.
Recapturing Tiananmen Square
The PLA’s deadly drive to recapture Tiananmen Square from student demonstrators commenced shortly after dark on June 3. From several outlying muster points, armored military columns slowly converged on the center of the city. Their instructions were to clear the Square by dawn’s early light using all necessary force.
The order had been given by Deng Xiaoping himself. And there was a great irony in that for he was the chief architect of the very reforms that had inspired China’s students to question the autocratic power of the Communist Party in the first place. Irony notwithstanding, the horror that followed was quite surreal.
This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Horror at Tiananmen
Scratchy news film showed tracer bullets flying overhead as PLA soldiers fired into crowds of civilians blocking their advance on Chang’an Boulevard both east and west of the square.
Pedi-carts hauled the dead and wounded civilians to city hospitals, as armored personnel carriers ran amok, scattering crowds before them while being attacked from the rear by angry citizens armed with iron rods, bricks, rocks, and makeshift Molotov cocktails.
Hundreds of buses and trucks were set ablaze on the streets. In the confusion, a few dozen unfortunate PLA soldiers became separated from their units, only to be set upon by enraged mobs. Some of the soldiers were beaten to death. Others were disemboweled. Still others were hanged or doused in gasoline and incinerated, or both.
When the dust settled at dawn, Tiananmen Square had been physically liberated, but at a terrible cost.
Learn more about the widespread student unrest at Tiananmen Square.
China’s National Psyche Damaged
Hundreds of civilians, perhaps more than a thousand, had been killed and several thousand wounded. The real totals may never be known. Forty soldiers also died and up to a thousand others were injured. But the damage to China’s national psyche and its international image was greater still. As Deng Xiaoping was heard to comment shortly after June 4, “We restored order, but lost the hearts of the people.”
Amid the confusion that surrounded the deadly events of June 3 and 4, 1989, one image stands out above all others: the image of a young man in civilian clothes, stepping out onto Chang’an Boulevard to single-handedly block an approaching column of PLA tanks near Tiananmen Square.
This stunning image remains frozen in memory, a timeless trope containing the entire universe of Liusi—June 4—in a single moment of time, a single grain of sand.
Almost immediately after the carnage ended, the government circulated a list of most-wanted counterrevolutionary criminals. The list was topped by a number of prominent intellectuals, students and labor activists. Among them were Wu’er Kaixi, Wang Dan, and Fang Lizhi.
Throughout the country, thousands of suspected rioters were hunted down and arrested, while dozens of alleged thugs and hooligans, mostly unemployed youths and migrant laborers, were hastily tried, sentenced, and summarily executed.
Television stations around the country covered these events in solemn, and sobering detail—a graphic warning of the dire consequences of participating in active rebellion.
Learn more about Deng’s strategic power moves.
China Under Global Siege
China was under global siege, as foreign governments and the international media alike directed a cascading chorus of condemnation against the ‘Butchers of Beijing’.
Thousands of Chinese students in the United States, Australia, and Western Europe demonstrated nightly in front of local Chinese embassies and consulates. A handful of Chinese diplomats abroad defected, while China’s highly esteemed minister of culture resigned in protest.
At least one senior government official, the widely respected Deputy Foreign Minister Zhang Wenjin, committed suicide, despondent over the brutal suppression of the student movement.
Common Questions about the the Carnage at Tiananmen Square
The PLA’s deadly drive to recapture the Tiananmen Square from student demonstrators commenced shortly after dark on June 3. Their instructions were to clear the Square by dawn’s early light, using all necessary force.
A few dozen unfortunate PLA soldiers who got separated from their units at the Tiananmen Square were set upon by enraged mobs. Some of the soldiers were beaten to death. Others were disemboweled. Still others were hanged or doused in gasoline and incinerated, or both.
To protest against the violence at the Tiananmen Square, thousands of Chinese students in the United States, Australia, and Western Europe demonstrated nightly in front of local Chinese embassies and consulates.