On this day in 1989, thousands of Chinese student activists and workers gathered in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, in a massive display of civil disobedience. Site of a number of monuments to heroic Chinese communists, the square was packed with people protesting the state of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and its government. Inspired by a wave of anti-communist revolutions in Europe – and Russian reformist leader Mikhail Gorbachev‘s recent visit to China – the protestors sought similar reform in their country, including enhanced freedom of speech and a more open system of governance. Additionally, the recent death of popular reformist Hu Yaobang had galvanized many to attend the sit-ins and hunger strikes that spread across the country. Concerned by the growing unrest, PRC officials declared martial law and mobilized the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to disperse the protestors.
By June 3rd, the PLA had moved into Beijing. The following day at 10pm, columns of armoured vehicles began driving down Chang’an Avenue towards the square firing automatic weapons into the air. Instead of dispersing, the protestors formed human chains and began hurling insults – and later on, molotov cocktails – at the PLA vehicles. The soldiers lowered their weapons and began shooting directly into the crowds, firing hollow point rounds (a type of expanding ammunition prohibited by international law) and driving over anyone who got in their way. Throughout the city, thousands of protestors fought back, burning PLA vehicles and beating government troops to death before being gunned down. Although the PRC maintains that no one died in Tiananmen Square, most independent sources (including those who survived the massacre) contend that hundreds of protestors were killed there. Despite the ferocious resistance of the unarmed protestors, roughly 3,000 civilians had been gunned down by June 5th and Beijing’s dissident movement had been effectively stamped out.
In spite of a press blackout, news of the massacre at Tiananmen Square quickly spread to the rest of the country. PLA troops were attacked angry mobs and government buildings set on fire, but the overwhelming PRC response quickly eliminated any remaining resistance. In the ensuing days and weeks, mass arrests of dissidents took place and a purge of Communist Party of China (CPC) leadership followed. Limited economic and social reforms were completely halted, and any hope of China “opening up” – as so many other communist countries had done in the late 1980s – was mercilessly squashed. To quote Canadian journalist Naomi Klein, the PRC deployed “shock therapy” in the form of killings and crackdowns in order to promote further crackdowns on its citizens. To this day, the PRC has not acknowledged the truth about the Tiananmen Square massacre – an event that was used to justify the further development of the PRC as an authoritarian surveillance state.