On this day in 1989, an over month-long, mostly peaceful protest involving workers, political reformers, and pro-democracy students — centered on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, but later spreading across hundreds of cities around the country — was crashed by government security forces.
It all began in April of that year, when the former General Secretary of the ruling Communist Party, Hu Yaobang, died. He was a liberal reformer who had previously been deposed by government hardliners. Numerous people, mostly university students, marched and gathered in Tiananmen Square to mourn, expressing solidarity with Hu’s grievances against corruption and economic stagnation.
The protesters, who at their height numbered over a million in the Square alone, took the opportunity to call for an end to corruption, greater government accountability, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and the restoration of workers’ empowerment. In addition to occupying public spaces like the Square, many of them conducted hunger strikes and sit-ins.
At first conciliatory to these demands, China’s rulers eventually regarded the protest as a “counter-revolutionary riot” and enforced martial law, leading to the crackdown. Due to the lack of information by the government — which still prohibits any public discussion or remembrance of the “June Fourth Incident” — many aspects of the event remain unknown or unconfirmed; estimates of the death toll range from a few hundred to a few thousand. The protest’s impact reverberates to this day, as political reform was halted and censorship remains strong.
The iconic “Tank Man” photo, the most recognizable symbol of the protests and subsequent massacre, is even more captivating when one sees the bigger picture: