Tiananmen Square 1989
Even if you don’t know the details, you probably know the name. Tiananmen Square is doubtless the bloodiest and most tragic of all student riots, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of people, mainly students. But it had all been a long time coming. Deng Xiaoping had led China to a period of prosperity after becoming leader in 1978, opening up the economy and undoing many of ills caused by the tyrannical Chairman Mao. However, by the 1980s there were growing calls in China for liberalization, and an end to nepotism and anti-intellectualism within the Communist Party.
Central to these reforms was Hu Yaobang, the party’s general secretary. When a student protest broke out in 1986 after Fang Lizhi, an astrophysicist returning from tenure at Princeton, toured China’s universities lecturing on human rights and liberty, Hu was ousted for his soft approach to protestors. When Hu, a hero to the protestors, died of a heart attack in May 1989, many blamed his death on his forced resignation, and gathered in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, to mourn his death. Thousands of students were massed, and it soon turned into a protest against the government and a call for democracy.
On May 13th, students began a mass hunger strike to encourage the government to discuss their demands. This coincided with Mikhail Gorbachev’s historic visit to China, and thus the world’s press was in China to document the Soviet-Chinese meeting. The event was overshadowed by events in Tiananmen Square, and on May 19th a staggering 1.2 million people had gathered there. The new general secretary, Zhao Ziyang, had advocated negotiating with the protestors, and opposed the imposition of martial law, but was ousted from his post, and 250, 000 troops were sent to retake Tiananmen by any means necessary.
The troops arrived at 1am on June 4th, with instructions to retake it by 6am. Protestors were given an hour to leave, but witnesses claimed that the soldiers opened fire after only 5 minutes, massacring between 3, 000 and 10, 000 people. Students were bayoneted as they begged for their lives, a mother was shot when trying to help her injured three-year-old-daughter, and human remains were ‘hosed down the drains’. Others were deliberately run over in tanks. The massacre was well-documented by photos and videos of the dead and dying. The Chinese government still maintains that no one was killed.