HP053: Tiananmen Square

HP053: Tiananmen Square

The Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989, also known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, June 4th Incident, or “Political Turmoil between Spring and Summer of 1989” by the Chinese government, were a series of student-led demonstrations in the People’s Republic of China which occurred between April 15, 1989 and June 4, 1989. The protest is named after the location of the forceful suppression of the movement in Tian’anmen Square, Beijing by the People’s Liberation Army. The protestors came from disparate groups, ranging from intellectuals who believed the Communist Party-led government was too corrupt and repressive, to urban workers who believed Chinese economic reform had gone too far and that the resulting rampant inflation and widespread unemployment was threatening their livelihoods.



NOTE: There are plenty of misspellings and notes for me to use while reading the script. Please keep that in mind when you read through the script. Thanks!

Welcome to historypodcast 53. I’m Jason Watts coming to you from Irvine, CA. This episode we will be covering Tiananmen Square. Please excuse any mispronunciations in this episode. I’m not an expert, just a lover of history like you.


1989 is the year that communism died, but not in China. Millions of students and residents of Beijing crowd into Tiananmen square. A 5,000 year administration of autocratic rule looks like it is about to evaporate. The Tiananmen square protest shocks the world.

June 6 1989 – Beijing china. The people liberation army has brutally crushed the 2 month old Tiananmen square protest.

The one image that is conjured up in most peoples minds is the lone individual who stepped in front of a column of tanks causing them to halt. He was pulled away by bystanders. We still do not know how this man was.

This is the symbol of the story that most westerners know bravely and principle confronting the grime tools of oppression. A war hidden from the cameras. A secret coup that plays out here in a public square, that is the heart of china.

Tiananmen square. It is the largest public space in the world. It combines the national symbolism of the mall in Washington dc with the iconic power of Times Square. It’s the place were people go that are unhappy and they want to be heard.

June 4 1989 – the disputed power behind the scenes during the Tiananmen square crack down is den Xiaoping (Dun ZOW PING). He created enormous economic vitality for china. Part of his legacy is the decision to crack down. He is also seen as a person who caused innocents to die, who used an iron fist approach to a democratic movement. Deng is a pragmaticacasts cutting a striking contrast to his predecessor, MAO SE TUNG. Who is an idealistic revolutionary. By the early 1960’s MAO has run the country into the ground. The communist party pushes MAO aside and turns to china’s elite burocrats including deng Xiaoping (Dun ZOW PING). They immediately restore order to China’s finances.

1966 MAO strikes back by unleashing the cultural revolution. His weapon is a fanatical army of teenagers called “the red guard” directed to struggle against their elders. Millions of people parish in the chaos. MAO vengeance strikes MAO xiaoping personally. MAO and his wife were exiled to a remote area of china where they did not see their children for many many years.

1972 – as china’s economy once again threatens to implode. Deng Xiaoping makes a phoenix like return to power.

1978 – with the death of Mao Deng xiaoping is firmly in power declaring to get rich is glorious. Then opens the long closed borders of china to western goods. Yet the dramatic change has some unexpected consequences.

Deng quickly makes it clear how much openness he is willing to take.

1979 – a group of dissenence puts up a poster demanding democracy. The government promptly crushes the movement and jails the critics.

The line has been drawn. If its outside the governments control its out of bounds. Deng Xiaoping believed absolute power must reside at the head of the communist party. Two factions within dengs government spring from his paradoxical design for reform and stability of the communist party above all else and the reformist who nudge the government into losing political controls.

In the mid 1980s dengs number 2 man is reformer Hu Yaobang. A very open minded person who would allow liberated intellectuals to write things and say things and go to meetings and say things that some other party officials did not approve of.

1987 – students start a wave of protest. Deng sides with hard liners who argue that china has exposed itself too much to western political thought. Hu is pushed out of office yet the conflict between freedom and stability remain unresolved.

It is a crisis waiting to happen. And it all starts with a heart attack. 1987 – deng Xiaoping survives the cultural revolution to rise from MAOs shadow and become the leader of china. He charts the nation on a path towards free market declaring to get rich is glorious. Yet after intellectuals demand democracy deng crushes them to get rich may be glorious but the communist party is always in charge. By the spring of 1989 the public is growing impatient with the pace of reform.

April 15 1989 – the fatal heart attack of reformer Hu Yao Bang. Spontaneously people begin to lay wreaths at the monument of the revolutionary heroes. His death in a sense was a signal to all the students that we have to do something. Their demands are basic: better food in the cafeteria, better conditions in the dormitories, and more funding for schools. Yet behind this is restlessness for political charge. Their word for it is democracy.

The people of Beijing have their own complaints. For the first time in the history of the peoples republic for china inflation is becoming an issue. The people decided to back the students because of these inflation problems. They feed the students and bring them water.

April 22, 1989 – the entire paulette beaureau gathers for the funeral of Hu Yao Bang. General secretary Xiaoping delivers the eulogy. He is hu yaobang’s protégé and successor. Also there, is premiere le phung a hard liner and successor to apparent le zhao zung.

April 23 1989 – recently uncovered government transcripts show the strong reaction of the hard liners. Le phung says students are taking to the streets, sending convoys into factories, high schools, elementary schools and even to other provinces in a effort to stir the entire nation to boycott classes and go on strike. The official media publishes an angry editorial on April 26th. The article blames the protest on a small number of people. Its says their goal is to poison peoples minds to create turmoil throughout the country. The government has laid down the gauntlet instead of the protest fizzling as a result of the editorial 100,000 people march to the square the following day.

May 1, 1989 – the paulette beareu calls an emergency meeting. Recently declassified transcripts revealing the ranker in this meeting. Le Phung claims that if protestors have their way everything will vanish into thin air and china will take a huge step backwards. Zhao Zung pleads for modernization in these secret transcripts saying that the students slogans uphold the constitution, promote democracy and oppose corruption. All echo positions of the party and the government. I share everyone’s view that we should move quickly to diffuse the situation that has nearly gotten out of hand.

May 4, 1989 – A quarter of a million people fill Tiananmen square in the largest protest yet. Demonstrations have spread to 51 cities across china. That same day zao zung delivers a speech to the Asian development bank. He declares that the government should engage in dialog with the protestors. This is in contradiction to the april 24th editorial. Zhao Zung may not realize it yet, but the noose is slowly tightening around his neck. Meanwhile, students at Tiananmen square raise the steaks. They vow to starve themselves to death. This is a bold move that strikes a deep emotional cord with the Chinese people. The hunger strike electrifies the movement. The split between the reformers and the hardliners hardens as the government sinks into paralysis. A further complication is the impending state visit of Mical Gorbachof. The reformers reached out to the student protestors hoping to get them to clear the square before the summit. Just hours before Gorbachov is scheduled to arrive. Government officials tell the students that a live televised meeting is technically impossible on such short notice. The façade of the student union cracks.

May 15, 1989 – gorbachov arrives in Beijing. What is supposed to be a feather in Dengs cap turns into a thorn in his side. Thousands of journalists are in Beijing with brand new satellite links to cover the summit. More than one western correspondent compares the square with Woodstock, the three day rock festival often quoted as the high point of the 1960s protest movement in the US.

May 17, 1989 – 1.2 million people converge on the square making it the largest mass protest in the history of the peoples republic of china. There is an electric sense in the square that history has reached a tipping point. That same day an emergency meeting of the standing committee convenes seeding with anger over the international humiliation of the summit. Deng Xiaoping quietly pushes for marshal law. The committee follows den’s lead and votes to authorize marshal law. The hunger strike continues.

May 18, 1989 – as the hunger strike enters its 5th day the government agrees to one final meeting and unprecedented dialog between le phung and student leaders to be aired live on national television. Le phung clearly intends to lecture the protestors as if they were unruly children. But student leader wor-ke-she who comes straight from the hospital wearing pajamas and still connected to an IV drip, has little patients for le phungs paternalistic arrogances. The hard liners give up hope of getting the students to obey through dialog. The prepare for marshal law. Meanwhile in the early morning hours of may 19th zao zung ventures into Tiananmen. This is the last time he appears in public. Rumors of zao’s fall and the coming of marshal law ripple thought Beijing. On the evening of may 19th the blade finally falls. In a fiery televised speech le phung declares marshal law. Once again instead of gaining the upper hand as the hardliners expected, they lose control and credibility. And for the first time since its founding the communist party fights to maintain power and they will do anything to keep it.

Despite international pleas, the government is ready to send in the troops. The reaction of the declaration is swift. The students abandon their hunger strike and prepare for a crackdown. Meanwhile, as the troop transports enter the city the night of may 19th enraged citizens of Beijing block major intersections, preventing the troops from entering the square. This is no longer just a student protest. This is a city wide revolt. Shocked by the out pouring of emotion against marshal law the government withdrawals the troops to the suburbs and tries to shore up its base. Meanwhile, as the city of Beijing rejoices the mood in the square grows sour. Students passionately debate weather or not to vacate the square and head off a violent conflict. Though they demand more than democracy from the government the students are unclear how democracy works. The situation in the square is increasingly chaotic and soon the leadership is out stripped by new more radical elements.

May 29, 1989 – a new icon graces Tiananmen square. Students from the art academy erect a 30 foot statue dubbed the goddess of democracy. A pure white figure clutching a flame with two hands and starring directly at the portratit of MAO on the forbidden city. Meanwhile, li phung and fellow hardliners orchestrate a decisive violent end to the crisis. In recently released government transcripts from a meeting on June 3rd 1989, le phung states “we have to be absolutely firm in putting down this counter revolutionary riot in the capital. We must be miraculous, security forces are authorized to use any means necessary to deal with people who interfere with the mission. What happens will be the responsibility of these who do not heed warnings and persist in testing elements of the law.” That day, the city of Beijing begins to hold its breath preparing for the worst. That evening the troops mobilize once again for the Chinese capital. The stage is set for a massacre.

June 3rd 1989 – over 50,000 troops along with armored personnel carriers enter the city from every direction. Just as on the day after marshal law is declared. Towns people pour into the streets in an attempt to thwart the army. The troops entered the square firing live ammunition. The streets of Beijing soon become killing fields. Most of the people die in this horrible night are in fact not students, but outraged citizens in the wrong place at the wrong time. Meanwhile, in the square a sense of panic and confusion builds. The closer the army comes to the square the stiffer the resistance from the towns people. In the center of the killing thousands of students sit holding hands and singing songs.

June 4, 1989 – 5am with the square ringed with jumpy troops and the remainder of the students huddled around the monument of peoples heroes. A couple of the intellectuals negotiate a peaceful withdrawal from the square. Troops take control, crushing the goddess of democracy under the treads of a tank. The killing continues throughout the night and into the following day. Jun 9th 1989 – dung Xiaoping appears on television praising the military for successfully crushing the riot. The states first report of the event claims that 1,000 soldiers died while only 23 counter revolutionary thugs and hooligans perished. These numbers seem improbable even in a country used to hyperbolic propaganda and soon causality figures are revised to 300 counter revolutionaries. Western experts put the number between several hundred and a few thousand. We will likely never know and exact amount. Since then the square is patrolled day and night by secret police watching for an sign of protest. Most dissidents are jailed of exiled. And in 2005 zao zing dies under house arrest. To his last breath zao refuses to renounce his opposition to the June 4th crackdown. He was under house arrest for 16 years. Now china is poised to become a prominent world power. Yet Tiananmen remains an explosive issue. The protests were the first time a popular uprising challenged the communist party. As china moves into the 21st century and does more and more business with the rest of the world, time will tell what new challenges face china and weather those changes will bring unity or conflict to Tiananmen Square.

Source: History Channel Program Declassified

Tons of links to more information about Tiananmen Square on the website.


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