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June Fourth Backgrounder

June Fourth refers to the June 3-4, 1989 government military crackdown that ended the large-scale, peaceful protests in Beijing and other cities that spring and early summer. Despite persistent citizen demands for the truth and an accounting of the bloodshed, the authorities have offered nothing beyond their characterization that the protests were “counterrevolutionary riots”—a  label they later changed to “political disturbance” (政治风波)—which “the Party and state suppressed by using decisive measures.” (党和国家采取果断措施平息).

In 1989, a spontaneous gathering of students on April 15 in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to mourn the death of Hu Yaobang, the liberal former CPC General Secretary, grew over the following weeks into a massive protest with demonstrations in Beijing as well as more than 400 other cities in China. It came to be known as the 1989 Democracy Movement.

The students were joined by other Beijing residents, including workers and labor union activists, teachers, journalists, and government cadres, in their call for a reassessment of Hu Yaobang (who was forced to resigned in January 1987), an end to corruption, a free press, and disclosure of the incomes of leaders and their families. On May 13, several hundred students from Peking University began a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square. More than one million people—from all walks of life—marched in Beijing on May 17 to support the hunger strikers, and again on May 21, in defiance of the martial law imposed the day before.  Despite the peaceful nature of the protests, the authorities called them “turmoil,” and responded with force.

In late May, hundreds of thousands of People’s Liberation Army troops converged on Beijing. In the night of June 3-4, soldiers, inside columns of tanks, headed toward Tiananmen Square and carried out their order to “clear” it. They opened fire on unarmed students and other civilians in the surrounding areas. The crackdown was carried out in other cities too.

Although The 1989 Democracy Movement riveted attention around the world, and the Chinese government’s bloody crackdown was condemned by the international community, it succeeded in chilling the Chinese civil society’s calls for democratic reforms and an end to corruption. Many Chinese leaders since have cited the “stability” that followed the crackdown as a prerequisite for China’s rapid economic reform. (“Killing 200,000 for 20 years of stability,” the saying went.)