June 3, 2022

The Tiananmen Square Massacre

The Tiananmen Square Massacre

June 3, 1989. In a bloody government crackdown on dissent, Chinese troops storm Beijing's Tiananmen Square and open fire on a pro-democracy demonstration, killing hundreds of unarmed civilians.


Cold Open - The May 4th Movement

It’s May 4th, 1919 at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China. Almost six months after the end of World War I.

A Chinese university student pushes his way through the massive “Gate of Heavenly Peace” at the north of the square; where 3,000 other students have gathered to protest the actions of the Chinese government. Recently, the student has learned that the government plans to cede lands in eastern China to Japan as part of the Treaty of Versailles, the diplomatic end to World War I. The student joins thousands of others in calling for an end to the government’s weakness and their acceptance of Japanese imperialism. He demands that the Chinese government protect their own people, and refuse to sign the treaty. 

The student is angry but not as angry as some of the others.

The student hears shop windows shattering near the square. He fears the protest is about to turn violent. He looks for an exit from the square, but it's too late. He’s swept up in a throng of people pushing from the square out into the street.

The student looks on in horror as a group of protestors light torches…and hurl them at a nearby house. Flames leap from the home, and smoke billows into the air as the shouts from the protestors grow louder and the crowd more eager for violence.

A warning shot fires overhead, and the student turns to see a line of police marching down the street.

He tries again to flee, but he can’t escape the swarm of protestors. And soon, the police apprehend him, throwing him to the ground.

The student shields his face and cries out as one of the policemen hits him with a club. Finally, he's picked up off the ground, pulled from the chaos, and taken into custody.

Later that day, the student will sit in a jail cell, trying to nurse his wounds along with countless other protesters who were beaten and jailed.

Alarmed by the student uprising that began in Tiananmen Square, China will eventually refuse to sign the Treaty of Versailles, and the government will release the jailed protesters. Those students become symbols of what's known as the “May 4th Movement,” that inspires cultural change in China, and ignites student protests for years to come.

Decades later, calling on memories of the May 4th Movement, thousands of students will return to Tiananmen Square to mount weeks of pro-democracy demonstrations aimed at China’s communist regime. But the student protests will spark an aggressive military response that will leave hundreds dead and thousands wounded starting on June 3rd, 1989.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is May 31: The Tiananmen Square Massacre.

Act One

It’s the night of April 21st, 1989 on a college campus in Beijing.

In the dark, 21-year-old student Wu’er Kaixi stands outside near a makeshift stage. Wu’er is nervous. He’s organized a student rally for democratic reform in China. He hoped maybe a few hundred students would show up, but word quickly spread to other universities, and now, tens of thousands have gathered to hear Wu’er share his vision for a freer China.

Days earlier, Hu Yaobang, a former government official, died of a heart attack. Many young people saw Hu as their leader in the fight against oppressive authoritarian rule in China. Hu’s funeral is scheduled for tomorrow. So tonight, Wu’er and the other students have gathered to pay their respects and to ensure that the fight for democracy doesn’t die with their leader.

Wu’er takes a deep breath. He reminds himself that he’s prepared, he believes in his message, and he’s also a talented showman. Wu’er leaps onto the stage, and steps into a spotlight as the crowd cheers him on.

Wu’er inspires the audience by speaking out against the government in a way most people are too afraid to do. He talks about the freedoms enjoyed by democratic nations. He says they as Chinese citizens have no less right to those freedoms than anyone else. He paints a picture of a China where people can speak out against the government without fear of reprisal.

When Wu’er finishes speaking, the energy on campus is electric. Wu’er wants to keep the rally going and show the public how angry China’s young people truly are. He knows where they need to go next.

So Wu’er leads thousands of students in lockstep to Tiananmen Square. When they reach the Gate of Heavenly Peace, Wu’er calls out for them to link arms in a show of solidarity. He wants everyone to know that this protest is led by China's youth, and they’re willing to stand together.

But soon, Government officials arrive and tell the students camped out in the square to clear out before Hu Yaobang’s funeral the following day. But by the next morning, on April 22nd, Wu’er and the others have refused to leave. And they’re joined by thousands of students from other universities.

By the end of the day, close to 100,000 students have gathered in the square. Wu’er and other leaders quickly realize they can turn their pro-democracy rally into a full-blown movement.

Along with Wu’er, another student leader’s voice starts to catch the attention of those around her. Her words are sharp, angry, and inspiring. At 23 years old, Chai Ling is already a gifted speaker who’s spent much of her time at school organizing protests. Now, she’s ready to use her skills on a much larger scale.

Over the next several days, Chai and Wu’er become part of a small leadership group that aims to shape the protesters into a more cohesive body. They decide their ultimate goal should be to get government officials to meet with them and hear their demands. But first, they have to determine what they’re asking for.

They discuss the need for democracy and an end to authoritarian rule. But Wu’er urges them to create clear, actionable items to present to the government. The leadership group doesn’t always agree, and they’re often disorganized. But eventually, they do decide to push for a few basic democratic principles: freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and due process. They also call for more transparency in government, which they believe will curtail what they see as rampant corruption among Chinese leadership.

But Chai and Wu'er know their list of demands won’t mean anything if there’s no one to listen. In order to get a high-ranking government official to even hear them out, they decide they need to expand their movement beyond Tiananmen Square.

So, Chai, Wu’er, and the leadership group travel to college campuses in Beijing to encourage student sit-ins, and to spread the word of their effort to other major Chinese cities. But while they’re spreading their message, they agree to continue their occupation of Tiananmen Square.

Throughout April and into May, their movement grows. Student sit-ins take place at universities all across the country. Older Chinese citizens rally to the cause as well; coming to the square, passing out leaflets in town, and spreading the movement’s pro-democracy message.

As thousands more join the fight, Chai and Wu’er are finally contacted by government officials, who promise to sit down with them. But the meeting never seems to happen, and eventually, Chai grows impatient. She tells the group they need to do something drastic to get the government’s attention.

In May of 1989, Chai, Wu’er, and other student leaders will organize a hunger strike. But the students' actions will anger the government, and before long, those in power will try to stop the protests by force.

Act Two: The Hunger Strike

It’s early afternoon on May 13th, 1989 at a university cafeteria.

Chai Ling sits among a group of 200 students. They dig into what will be their last meal before starting a hunger strike. The students all wear headbands with a revolutionary message scrawled across the fabric: “Give me liberty, or give me death”.

Days earlier, Chai debated with other student leaders about the need to stage the hunger strike. Some believed that Chai was going too far. They argued that students shouldn’t risk their health for the sake of protest. But Chai disagreed. She said they needed to do something bold to make the government pay attention. Eventually, enough Chai’s argument won the day, and before long, volunteers for the hunger strike started lining up.

Today, the students finish their last meal in the cafeteria. Then, Chai leads them on a march back to Tiananmen Square. She shouts to anyone within earshot, “We are staging a hunger strike to reveal the true face of the government… and of the people.”

Chai’s call for bold action appears to pay off almost immediately. On May 14th, the second day of the strike, Chai, Wu’er, and other student leaders are whisked from Tiananmen Square to the office of the Minister of China’s United Front, a department designed to recognize and confront potential opposition to China’s Communist Party. There, the students finally get their face-to-face meeting with a high-ranking official.

The minister greets the students as honored guests. He apologizes that it’s taken so long to open up a dialogue with them. He also expresses concern over the health of the students who are on the hunger strike. Chai can’t help but think her tactics are working. But soon, the minister makes his true motive clear.

He informs the students that on the following day, May 15th, Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev is arriving in China for the two nations’ first summit since the 1950s. The minister says the Chinese government intends to welcome Mr. Gorbachev in Tiananmen Square. Then, the minister gives an ominous warning, saying, “If the students do not leave the square by tomorrow, the consequences will be hard to predict.” He adds, “None of us wants to see anything bad happen.”

When the student leaders return to Tiananmen Square, they’re already at odds about how to respond. Wu’er says they should at least partially clear the square and show their support for Gorbachev. He says over the past several years, the Soviet leader has been a force for social reform in his own communist nation. Wu’er believes Gorbachev can inspire China to make the types of changes the students are pushing for.

But Chai disagrees. She argues that Gorbachev’s visit means Western journalists will flock to China to cover the summit. She wants the world’s media to see the hunger strike, and broadcast their protest all over the world. Again, Chai wins the argument.

On May 15th, Western journalists arrive to cover the upcoming summit, but many are instantly drawn to the events taking place in Tiananmen Square. The Western media covers the story of the hunger strike and the massive student demonstration, just like Chai hoped. The Chinese government has no desire to draw more attention to the students, so Chinese leaders scrap any attempt to bring Gorbachev to Tiananmen Square.

Chai sees this as a victory. She knows the students have forced the government’s hand with the whole world watching. Chai believes the movement is gaining real power.

But Western media coverage of the protest, and the students’ refusal to leave the square for Gorbachev’s arrival, angers the Chinese government. Chai and Wu’er begin to hear rumors of possible military action. In late May, they learn that small bands of soldiers are being bussed in from outside the city to try to shut the protest down.

Chai and Wu’er quickly spring into action and help organize groups to intercept the soldiers' buses on the road, stopping them from reaching the square. Their plan works. Huge groups of peaceful protesters surround the soldiers’ buses and make it impossible for them to move. Some of the soldiers are stranded for days before the government finally calls off the operation.

After their peaceful stand against the incoming soldiers, Chai and Wu’er believe victory is within sight. But the Chinese government is done playing games. And in early June, soldiers and tanks will flood Tiananmen Square, bringing the student demonstration to a violent end.

Act Three: Military Action

It’s the night of June 3rd, 1989 in Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

Wu’er Kaixi stands in front of the roughly ten thousand students who are still gathered in the square. He prepares to give what he believes will be his final speech.

Wu’er, Chai Ling, and the other students received news that the government is planning to send tanks and soldiers to the Square to crush the protest. But Wu’er and Chai won't go down without a fight.

Wu’er summons as much energy as he can, and calls out to the crowd: “Tiananmen Square is ours, the people’s, and we will not allow butchers to tread on it. We will defend Tiananmen Square… and defend the future of China.”

But any thought of the future quickly disappears when Wu’er and the others hear the sound of tanks as the military enters Tiananmen Square, and soldiers open fire on the unarmed protesters.

Many of the students try to stand their ground. They set fire to some of the soldiers’ buses in and around the square. But as the violence escalates, thousands of protesters give up, running to safety.

Wu’er knows if he’s caught he will be sent to prison or executed. And many of his supporters know it, too. They quickly concoct a plan to get Wu’er out of Tiananmen Square.

Late on the night of June 3rd, 1989, an ambulance speeds into the square. One of the students grabs Wu’er and helps him into the back. The student then conceals Wu’er under the body of a dead protester. The ambulance then whisks Wu’er to safety. And from there, he will go on the run, and eventually escape to Hong Kong.

Amidst the chaos, Chai also rushes out of the square before the students’ final withdrawal and leaves the city by train. She will eventually sail to America, hidden in a crate. Both leaders will spend their lives in exile.

The next morning, soldiers will continue their assault on the remaining students until the military gains complete control of Tiananmen Square. Then, they clear the square of the dead, the wounded, and any evidence of the protest.

The Chinese government downplays the incident, claiming only 241 people died, the majority of whom were soldiers. But the Western media dubs the military action, “The Tiananmen Square Massacre.” And multiple independent studies list the death toll of the protesters at close to 1,000, with thousands more maimed or wounded. Those numbers don’t account for any of the protesters who are believed to have been executed after being taken into custody.

Then on June 5th, the Chinese government makes a show of force by rolling tanks through a now-empty Tiananmen Square. That day briefly, a lone protester steps in front of the tanks. Images of this man will be broadcast all over the world. The unidentified protester often called “Tank Man” will come to represent all of the people who stood up and fought for change until they were attacked by the military in Tiananmen Square on June 3rd, 1989.


Next on History Daily. June 6th, 1944. On D-Day, over 150,000 Allied troops storm the beach at Normandy, beginning the liberation of Western Europe from Nazi Germany.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack. 

Sound design by Derek Behrens. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Michael Federico.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.