Tiananmen Square Massacre

November 15, 2016

By William Stallings, Kate Genty, and Jeffrey Luo

The Silenced Massacre…


Figure 1. The iconic “Tank Man” photo

Who: The People’s Republic of China; Student Protestors 
What: Violent suppression of student protests
June 4th, 1989
Where: Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China 
Why: Preservation of a strong, positive image of the Chinese Communist Party

Even though the firing on civilians took place on June 4th 1989, the start of the protest at Tiananmen Square traces back to April 15th of the same year, when Hu Yaobang died. Hu was a leader of the Chinese Communist Party until he was forced to resign in 1987 (“Hu Yaobang”). Contrary to most of the conservative officials in the party at that time, Hu was highly reform-minded and was often reproached for his Western ideals. He strived to transform China into a more open country and thus became a symbol for democratic reform in China. Six days after his death, approximately 100,000 students gathered in front of the Tiananmen Square to commemorate him. This day was followed by protests with students from 40 different universities. Thousands of students marched in front of Tiananmen Square and were joined by other workers and civilians. By mid-May, the number of people in the square escalated to more than a million. In response, the Chinese government proclaimed martial law in Beijing on May 20th, suspending civilians of their civil right to gather and protest. This proclamation was paired with the arrival of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the armed forces of the Chinese Communist Party, who blocked the protesters so that they could not approach Tiananmen Square. The Chinese government also aimed to control the media, prohibiting on June 1st all American reporters from photographing or videotaping the event. On the morning of June 4th, the Chinese government ordered the PLA to fire at the students and civilians at Tiananmen Square in order to end the demonstration (“Chinese Students Begin Protests at Tiananmen Square”).

The iconic image “Tank Man,” depicted in Figure 1, has come to represent the tragedy at Tiananmen Square. The photographer, Jeff Widener, served as a photojournalist and one of the few who was able to capture the event on film. Widener reveals in an interview with the newspaper Deutsche Welle (DW) that the picture happened to be a lucky shot and was featured on the front pages of major newspapers and magazines around the world (Domínguez). America Online (AOL), a multinational mass media company based in New York, named it one of the top ten most famous photographs of all time. The image has come to represent not just the protests at Tiananmen Square but the strict control the Chinese government asserts over the Chinese people, the lengths it will go to in order to maintain this control.

While recognizable across the world, this photo is unfamiliar to Chinese citizens, as it was never revealed to the Chinese public. Although many countries have belatedly apologized for similar tragedies that occured in their domain, Widener claims that the Chinese government has insisted that its citizens forget about the Tiananmen Massacre (Domínguez). Richard Baum explains in The China Quarterly that Jean-Philippe Beja, a French researcher specializing in both Chinese politics and the changing nature of the Chinese political system, suggests the Chinese government still censors Tiananmen Square because it fears that knowledge of the event could undermine its control.

Immediately following the June 4th massacre, a “dark age” for freedom of press dawned on the Chinese media. Independence was not granted to any newspapers or broadcasting stations. Anything that was published had to follow strict party guidelines. Some journalists who wrote about the June 4th massacre were fired and banned from being a news writer; others were arrested and imprisoned (Binyan). The censorship of newspapers did not relax with time. Arrests are still happening in the twenty-first century. An article written in 2009 stated several of such cases,

Several journalists, including Shi Tao, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for sending an email about the Tiananmen Square anniversary in 2004, are still in prison for referring to the massacre. Free expression activist Liu Xiaobo, one of the leading figures of the 1989 movement, was recently re-arrested. Cyber-dissident Huang Qi, who has long campaigned for the June 1989 victims to be recognised, has been held without trial in Chengdu since June 2008 and is now seriously ill (“All References to Tiananmen Square Massacre Closely Censored for 20 Years”).

As the Internet becomes increasingly accessible to people all around the globe, it has posed a big threat to the Chinese government, which tries to prevent any information about the incident from leaking to the public. China censors information using both machines and humans. In an effort to circumvent the censorship on the internet, bloggers often use made-up words or words that sound similar to describe the incident. As these attempts are caught, new phrases are added to the list of words blocked. If a blocked word is searched on the major blogging platform Sina Weibo, the person will get nothing but a message saying “According to the relevant laws and regulations, search results for [this phrase] cannot be displayed.” These phrases include “Tiananmen,” “June 4,” and “June 4th.” Similarly, on the search engine, any searches on this topic will only yield irrelevant pages. Thus, many Chinese people, especially the younger generation, are unaware of the severity of the massacre (Ser).

Béja and his fellow contributors examine various dimensions of that fear, revealing its continued potency in virtually all aspects of Chinese governmental conduct at home and abroad, from the Communist Party’s obsessive vice-like grip on domestic political power and media content to Beijing’s curiously prickly brand of international diplomacy. Clearly, this is not a regime that is comfortable in its own skin (Baum 235).

Because the Communist Party was afraid of the repercussions of the protest, extreme precautions were taken to cover it up. It described the event as a “newspeak,” a mild type of political propaganda, and replaced language such as “hooligans” with words such as “demonstrators,” downplaying the severity of the event to those uninformed (Baum 235). However, because of the event’s censorship, statistical information surrounding the tragedy is flawed and no concrete death toll data exists. Robert Delf’s article in Regional Affairs claims that this may never change.

Hospitals could verify some 700 deaths in the Tiananmen massacre and in battles with demonstrators armed only with rocks and Molotov cocktails as People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops moved into the city in the pre-dawn hours, raking crowds with machine-gun fire and driving tanks over tents occupied by pro-democracy hunger strikers. But other estimates go as high as 7,000. The true number of casualties may never be known (Delfs 10).

The Communist Party and government officials used China’s exponential economic growth as a means to forgive the extreme violation of human rights that occurred since the location of the tragedy has transformed into a popular tourist destination over the past twenty years (Kuhn 30). Baum claims that businesses “look at China’s growing commercial clout in the West since 1989, and at Beijing’s efforts to use its newfound economic leverage to soften foreign criticism of China’s human rights abuses” (236). However, Baum notes that while the international community’s concern about China’s human rights abuses has decreased, the Chinese citizens are becoming increasingly impatient with the authoritarian government, which may lead to future change (Baum 236).

The Chinese government does not promote beliefs that are inconsistent with Communist ideals or that would spark change in the political system. Anthony Kuhn, the Beijing Correspondent for the National Public Radio, claims in the Far Eastern Economic Review that “since 1989, the suspension and rollback of the incipient democratization begun in the 1980s has continued to concentrate power in the Communist Party, fueling a rise steady rise in corruption” (30). However, following the Tiananmen massacre, the Internet has become increasingly available and attitudes of Chinese citizens are beginning to change (Kuhn 30). “There’s no doubt that China’s political landscape has changed significantly over the past 15 years—ageing revolutionaries have gone to meet Marx, to be replaced by urbane young technocrats, while Marxism itself has become little more than an ideological fig leaf” (Kuhn 30).


Figure 2. Political Cartoon shedding light on how China censors the Tiananmen Square Massacre


Figure 3. Student protestors before retaliation from Chinese authority

Although China is changing, the government is not. The current political changes in China start with the people, the younger generations in particular, as they begin to travel outside the Chinese borders to places where they hear unedited versions of events similar to those occurring at Tiananmen Square (Kuhn 30). As China modernizes, it is difficult for the government to maintain control of the knowledge available to its citizens because “much of the change has been a bottom-up transformation, not a top-down reform, more the result of increasing access to information and changing attitudes as China modernizes than of official policy directives” (Kuhn 30). As the Chinese populace continues to become aware of events surrounding Chinese history that have been previously censored, the government will have a difficult time maintaining control of the public’s perception. The legacy of the Tiananmen massacre may cause unrest among the Chinese citizens and bring forth events that have the potential to change the foundations of the current government system. An uncertain future awaits the Chinese government as increased Internet access and globalization creates more complications when censoring events such as Tiananmen Square from its people.

Key Words: Beijing, Censorship, China, Chinese, Communism, Communist, June 4th, Massacre, Protesters, Students, Tiananmen Square, Tragedy, Violent

Works Cited:

“All References to Tiananmen Square Massacre Closely Censored for 20 Years | Reporters without Borders.” RSF. N.p., 02 June 2009. Web. 07 Nov. 2016.

Baum, Richard. “The Impact of China’s 1989 Tiananmen Massacre.”The China Quarterly 209 (2012): 234-36. The Cambridge University Press. Web. 9 Nov. 2016.

Binyan, Liu. “After Tiananmen Square, a ‘Dark Age’ for Press Freedom in China.” Nieman Reports. N.p., 28 Aug. 2014. Web. 07 Nov. 2016.

“Chinese Students Begin Protests at Tiananmen Square.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 2010. Web. 07 Nov. 2016.

Domínguez, Gabriel. “Widener: ‘Tank Man Photo Changed My Life'” Deutsche Welle. N.p., 29 May 2014. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.

“Hu Yaobang.” Chineseposters. N.p., 11 Aug. 2016. Web. 07 Nov. 2016.

Kuhn, Anthony. “Not Forgotten, Not Forgiven.” Far Eastern Economic Review, vol. 167, no. 22, 2004., pp. 30-34. Web. 8 Nov. 2016.

Pickert, Kate. “Tank Man at 25: Behind the Iconic Tiananmen Square Photo.” Time. N.p., 4 June 2014. Web. 13 Nov. 2016.

Ser, Kuang Keng Kuek. “How China Has Censored Words Relating to the Tiananmen Square Anniversary.” Public Radio International. N.p., 04 June 2016. Web. 7 Nov. 2016.

Tiananmen massacre: Military power play follows onslaught on. (1989). Far Eastern Economic Review, 144(24), 10. Web. 8 Nov. 2016.

Xiaogang, Zhang. “The Market Versus The State: The Chinese Press Since Tiananmen.” Journal Of International Affairs 47 (1993): 195-221. Advanced Placement Source. Web. 8 Nov. 2016.