From the night of June 3, 1989 until early morning, Chinese soldiers carried out a clearance operation on and near Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, a crackdown on what the Chinese Government wrote off as a “counter-revolutionary riot”.
- Young Chinese people have been kept in the dark over many generations
- One artist claims his “personality split in two” on that night
- Bob Hawke’s “moving and emotional speech” is vividly remembered by many
Western media reported at the time that the death toll from the resulting massacre ranged from 100 to 3,000, but according to a secret UK diplomatic cable released last year, up to 10,000 protesters may have been killed.
The event Beijing euphemistically dubbed “the June Fourth Incident” was sparked by the sudden death of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) general secretary Hu Yaobang, a reformer who was forced to step down two years earlier by Deng Xiaoping.
Up to 100,000 university students and citizens descended on Tiananmen Square for his funeral, and that gathering transformed into a pro-democracy movement demanding government accountability and greater freedoms.
Over 1 million people were occupying Tiananmen Square in a show of solidarity by mid-May, but on June 2, China’s rulers made the order to send tanks and armed soldiers into the heart of Beijing.
Twenty-nine years on, here’s a look back at the sequence of events of that now infamous night through the eyes of students across different generations.
‘I saw someone fall next to me’
The protests brought tens of thousands to Tiananmen Square, both students and workers. (Reuters: Dominic Dudouble)
In 1989, artist Guo Jian was just about to graduate from Beijing’s Central University for Nationalities. He was a class captain, and took a strong interest in the pro-democracy movement.
However he had previously served in the People’s Liberation Army as a propaganda poster painter and it’s those experiences that now inform his work.
On the night of the massacre, around 10:00 PM, he and his fellow students rode bikes to Tiananmen Square. On the way, they heard reports that soldiers had entered the square.
“We began to hear gunshots. We all thought it was the sound of firecrackers. We thought the students had started a dialogue — we all felt that it was impossible,” he said.
Guo kept riding. He saw more and more people run back towards him, away from the direction of the square. Some were carrying wounded protesters, shouting about the army.
“I saw someone fall next to me. You could see the trail of sparks the bullets made. At that moment, I failed to react,” he said.
Guo and his four classmates decided to help transfer people lying wounded on the street to the hospital. But the soldiers kept firing.
“On the way back, the last person running at the back was shot and killed instantly. After that we were too afraid to go out,” he said.
A group of journalists at the pro-Democracy Tiananmen Square protests on May 17, 1989. (Reuters: Carl Ho)
At the hospital, he realised the seriousness of the situation.
“The emergency department was full of people. When I followed a doctor and entered a small room, it was full of bodies,” he said.
“Blood was everywhere on the floor. I was completely shocked. In the bicycle parking area outside, several dozen bodies had been placed there.”
‘My personality seemed to split’
Guo Jian’s artwork The Square. It’s a model of Tiananmen Square covered in pork mince. (Supplied: Guo Jian)
Following the massacre, Guo could not find a job because of his refusal to admit fault in the aftermath of the government crackdown.
He had to return to his hometown in remote Guizhou province, and was unable to get a passport for more than three years. In 1992, he managed to come to Australia, and established himself as a professional artist.
“The moment I was shot at, my personality seemed to split into two,” he said.
“Many artworks that I created later were around the theme of my two identities — a student pursuing democracy and protesting against authoritarianism, and a soldier with a gun suppressing the students. It seemed that a part of me was killing the other.”
A painting from Guo’s The Day Before I Went Away series. He draws on his experiences in the People’s Liberation Army.
His work has attracted the ire of Chinese authorities, who go to great lengths to censor any discussion of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
On June 1, 2014, on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the massacre, Public Security agents visited Guo’s home in Beijing and detained him. They had taken issue with his installation piece The Square, in which he covered a model of Tiananmen Square with pork mince.
He was detained for 15 days and deported to Australia afterwards.
‘Even the textbooks were changed before the exam’
Emily was working towards her crucial university entrance exam during the massacre, and like many other young people, knew people affected by the violence of that night.
“One of my best friend’s sisters was at Beijing Normal University. She said some of her schoolmates went missing,” she told the ABC.
Because of the massacre and the subsequent crackdown on dissent, the texts Emily was using to prepare for the entrance exam were hastily changed.
“Before June 4, we had reviewed a lot of market economy theories by Hu Yaobang … for the subject of politics in the exam,” she said.
“After the incident, we were told these theories wouldn’t be mentioned — even the textbooks were changed just before the exam.”
All students entering universities in the months after the massacre were forced to undergo military training, to “help develop their patriotism”.
In some universities — including Peking University, the birthplace of the ’89 Democracy Movement — first-year students had to undertake military training for a full year, meaning it would take them five years to graduate.
Emily chose to go to another university, and came to Melbourne to study her master’s degree in 2004.
“Looking back all these years after leaving China, I still have this heartfelt pain. China lost a very good opportunity to move towards democracy and the rule of law,” she said.
Young people kept in the dark over generations
Protesters arriving at Tiananmen Square in May 1989, riding past a portrait of Mao. (Reuters: Shunsuke Akatsuka, file)
Born in 1990, Ming says he never even heard about the Tiananmen Square massacre until he was at university.
He happened to overhear his roommates talking about the so-called June Fourth Incident — a topic which is completely censored by Beijing and inaccessible for ordinary Chinese people.
It is not mentioned in Chinese state media, and it is not taught in schools. It is also a taboo topic even within some Chinese families, including Ming’s.
Ming used software to get around China’s infamous firewall system, and for the first time saw footage of the event. He could not believe his eyes.
“I thought it was half-true and half-fake,” he said.
“However, as I learned more about the details of the incident by reading various materials and watching many documentaries, I realised that this did happen.”
Despite now knowing about this secret the Chinese government had tried to keep from his generation, Ming still knows it would be dangerous to discuss it too often with his friends.
Many young people in China do not even know about the Tiananmen Square massacre. (Reuters: Shunsuke Akatsuka, file)
But when he came to Australia to study a few years ago, he says the topic came up frequently.
“I studied media in Australia. Some Chinese students used Tiananmen Square as an example in their presentations, to illustrate how [China] censored media,” Ming said.
Many of his fellow Chinese students had also not heard anything about Tiananmen until they entered university.
“Their faces would turn pale if I mentioned even one word about this incident,” he said.
‘Victims of a leadership’ determined to hang onto power: Bob Hawke
HS He — who did not want his full name to be published — was studying in Sydney around the time of the massacre.
“I had a part-time room service job in a small motel — I kept turning on the TVs in the rooms I was cleaning to watch footage of the massacre in Beijing,” he said.
Mr He participated in two major protests organised by local Chinese students, expressing condolences to the dead protesters.
“I still remembered vividly the moving and heartfelt speech by the former prime minister Bob Hawke at Parliament House,” he said.
“The image of Mr Hawke’s emotional and tearful reaction is vivid in my mind.”
Mr He was one of the more than 40,000 Chinese nationals Australia granted humanitarian protection to after the massacre. They were later offered permanent residency as well.
“For me, June 4 means that the people stood up and said no to the Communist Party in a country where we had so many corrupt officials, from top to bottom.”