Today marked the twenty-sixth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. On this day in 1989, after weeks of student-led demonstrations – calling for democratic reform, greater political transparency, an end to press censorship and restrictions on the right to protest, and increased funding for education – the Chinese military, the People’s Liberation Army, opened fire on unarmed civilians in Beijing.
While Tiananmen Square in the heart of the capital had been the centre of the protest movement, drawing up to a million demonstrators, the majority of those killed and injured on 4 June were in the city’s streets, attempting to block the military as, in tanks and armed with assault rifles, they advanced upon the square. With the Communist Party of China quick to assert its own take on events, and working zealously to thwart any independent reporting, the death toll remains hard to determine: official figures claimed 241 deaths, including 218 civilians and 23 officers, with 7,000 people wounded; other estimates have suggested that as many as 1,000 civilians were killed.
Some groups in China had long been dismayed by the slow pace of supposed economic and political reforms, and by a growing sense of government corruption. There had been a series of student demonstrations in December 1986, starting in Hefei and soon spreading to China’s other major cities. The protests which occurred through the spring of 1989 were spurred by the death on 15 April of liberal reformer Hu Yaobang. Settling first on Tiananmen Square, these protests came to extend across the country, and amid hunger strikes and rising support for the demonstrators, on 20 May the government declared martial law, mobilising up to 250,000 troops from five of the country’s seven military regions.
As the demonstrators remained resolute, the Communist Party Politburo determined to act. Justifying their plans internally over the first few days of the month, the military advance on the square commenced on the evening of 3 June. The first gunfire was issued at around 10 pm; and by 6 am the following morning, Tiananmen square had been cleared. It would remain closed for the next two weeks.
* * *
The iconic image of the Tiananmen Square Massacre proved that of the ‘Tank Man’: a photograph, taken by the Associated Press photographer Jeff Widener, of a lone man facing a column of tanks on the morning of 5 June. The unidentified man, wearing a white shirt and black trousers and holding on to shopping bags, shuffled repeatedly to stand in the way of the tanks as they attempted to move past him. The photograph was taken on Chang’an Avenue, along the north end of Tiananmen Square.
While there had been significant demonstrations in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and elsewhere, along with those in Beijing, 4 June and its aftermath saw an excess of violence in Chengdu. On 4 June, eight people were killed in the Sichuan capital as police broke up student demonstrations. The following day, as many as 300 were killed. Time published a piece today on the other ‘bloody crackdowns’ which took place in China on 4 June.
The Communist Party of China continues to forbid any discussion or remembrance of the massacre. Only in Hong Kong is there an annual commemoration, although this proved divisive this year as activists differ on their responsibilities towards reform on the mainland. As the Financial Times reports, students at Hong Kong’s leading university, impelled by the Occupy movement, broke away from the main event, stating ‘Hong Kong people are only responsible for democracy in Hong Kong’. Still, the commemoration on Thursday evening drew tens of thousands to a candlelight vigil at the city’s Victoria Park.
More images and commentary are available at the International Business Times and The Huffington Post. Meanwhile Quartz has a series of photographs on the theme ‘Tiananmen Square then and now’. The photograph above is courtesy of Anthony Kwan and Getty Images.