Three decades ago, Chinese troops killed hundreds of protesters in the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Most recent reports put the death toll at 10,000. Here's what we know.
Three decades ago, thousands of Chinese troops entered Tiananmen Square and opened fire on unarmed protesters. As many as one millions demonstrators — mostly university-age liberals — had gathered there in the weeks prior, seeking both political and economic reforms.
While the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had silenced previous demonstrations, the violent retaking of the Square in 1989 was so brutal that it earned the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
We still don’t know how many people died there, as the Chinese government has done everything in its power to suppress and forget about the activities that took place that day. While official records say that 241 people lost their lives, most estimates suggest the real figures to be much higher.
A doctor at the time said that 500 lives were lost, while a radio announcer reported the Tiananmen death toll at more than 1,000. Most recently, however, even these estimates have risen to shocking proportions.
According to The Independent, a secret British cable from the time alleged that a minimum of 10,000 people were massacred that day. Those who were merely wounded were simply bayoneted to death as they pleaded for mercy. Victims were then incinerated — and “hosed down the drains.”
As much of under collective understanding of this historical incident has been based in presumably false data — likely intentionally so — and has only garnered further clarity in recent years, an exploration of the event itself and modern clarifications is in order.
The Chinese Communist Party V. “Bourgeois Liberalism”
The CCP was desperate to quash what they saw as “bourgeois liberalism.” China’s educated youth were fed up with the country’s economic prosperity being funneled to corrupt leaders at the top, only for price inflations to burden the masses.
Hu Yaobang, a general secretary in the CCP since 1980, had been encouraging the government to listen to it’s citizenry. He fought from within to sway his peers into supporting democratic reforms, and providing the youth with more opportunities. By 1987, he was ousted, and forced to resign.
In mid-April, he died — and became an immediate martyr to those fighting for the cause. Tens of thousands of students organized a protest at Tiananmen Square on the day of Hu’s funeral, April 22. While similar efforts were undertaken in cities across China, Beijing’s demonstration was the focal point of this national movement.
Countless journalists were in Beijing to report on USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s arrival that May. Soon after, the number of protesters in Tiananmen Square reached 1 million — and garnered global media coverage. In the beginning, only warnings to disperse were given by the government.
That would soon change.
There was internal discussion regarding how to approach this growing issue, at first. Zhao Ziyang, a moderate who served as Hu’s successor) advised negotiations with the crowd. He wanted to offer them concessions, and thereby assuage their anger and alleviate the situation.
Chinese premier Li Peng and his loyal base of stern supporters, however, overruled this stance. Perhaps most notable was the reactionary fear of anarchy by elders statesman Deng Xiaoping — who insisted on using force to eradicate this movement at all costs.
Before May turned to June, the government implemented Martial Law in Beijing. Troops were stationed throughout the city. Their passage to Tiananmen Square was blocked by adamant citizens, however, who made a statue called “Goddess of Democracy” their hub.
June 3rd, 1989: The Tiananmen Square Massacre
Armed troops and tanks made their way to the Square on the night of June 3rd and morning hours of the 4th. They shot those who stood in their way, and crushed those who wouldn’t move out of it. Thousands decided to leave and avoid confrontation, but many didn’t.
Most notably, of course, was the globally publicized image of a man facing down a series of oncoming tanks on June 5th.
Reports of the events at Tiananmen Square were largely dismissed by China as necessary measures to combat “counterrevolutionaries.” The Western media, meanwhile, did refer to the government’s activities as a “massacre,” with the U.S. imposing economic and diplomatic sanctions.
The CCP arrested thousands, imprisoned many of them, and executed some, as well. Numerous protest leaders fled the country. Ziyang, who had encouraged his peers to find nonviolent solutions, was placed on house arrest and replaced.
And while the government admitted that 241 people died and ca. 7,000 others were wounded — this was a conservative admission, to say the very least.
While public commemoration of the event is federally banned, and the government’s censorship retains a tight grip on virtual discourse — a document declassified in 2017 has shed new light on how horrific the Tiananmen Square massacre really was.
Obfuscated Reporting And Modern Revelations
Freedom House, an independent organization dedicated to promoting freedom around the world, labeled China as “Not Free” in their 2014 Freedom in the World report, giving the country almost the lowest score possible in nearly every category (see their ranking methodologies and definitions here).
A number of factors contribute to the country’s lack of freedom, but most can be traced directly to the Chinese government. The establishment’s grip on its constituents is strong and unyielding.
With the current climate, decades after the Tiananmen Square massacre, there seem to be even fewer opportunities for people to speak out and enact change. The CCP has a monopoly on political power: organized opposition is illegal, and independent political parties are strictly forbidden.
Those who participate in such organized efforts face jail time, or injury, just for speaking their minds. The CCP’s complete domination over the government and, therefore, the policies that guide the country, ensure that only they can make the rules.
These realities, indeed, seem to have been at play during the violent butchering of Chinese citizens at the tail end of the 1980s. British ambassador to China Sir Alan Donald wrote a secret diplomatic cable around 24 hours after the massacre, which was only declassified in 2017.
The cable reveals stunning information previously unknown to most of the world, and likely, much of the country itself. According to Sir Alan, at least 10,000 people were killed. One of the Chinese army units was apparently so vicious that the former ambassador described them as “primitives” in the document.
The cable provides a hitherto unprecedented look at what really occurred that day. Let’s take a look.
The 27 Army And Extermination Of Peaceful Demonstrators
Sir Alan’s cable has since found a new home in the U.K. National Archives. The former ambassador explained that his account stemmed from personal conversations from a “good friend” in China’s State Council — the government’s cabinet — who spilled the proverbial beans to Sir Alan in confidence.
Sir Alan said this source “has previously proved reliable and was careful to separate fact from speculation and rumor,” making his recounting of the events of June 3rd and June 4th highly credible.
Sir Alan’s cable to London described the “atrocities” against several thousand pro-democracy protesters as being undertaken by the 27th Army of Shanxi Province. He called this truculent group of soldiers “60 percent illiterate” and “primitives.”
According to Sir Alan and his trusted source, however, the troops that entered Tiananmen Square prior to the 27th Army were unarmed. This was an initial attempt to disperse the massive group of protesters without violence, as most were students, unharmed, and non-violent.
Unfortunately, this approach rapidly came to an end.
“The 27 Army APCs (armored personnel carriers) opened fire on the crowd before running over them,” Sir Alan wrote in his cable. “APCs ran over troops and civilians at 65kph (40 miles per hour).”
He explained that even though the CCP had provided protestors with a warning — a timeframe they needed to follow — or else — even this small amount of leeway was underhanded, a lie, and viciously broken.
“Students understood they were given one hour to leave square, but after five minutes APCs attacked,” Sir Alan said.
The group of protesters remained steadfast, even in the face of annihilation. Shots rang out, innocents were struck, and people began to die. Nonetheless — there was power in numbers, and a solidarity that allowed them to find courage — and thousands joined hands as bullets flew.
“Students linked arms but were mown down,” wrote Sir Alan. “APCs then ran over the bodies time and time again to make, quote ‘pie’ unquote, and remains collected by bulldozer.”
As if this wasn’t atrocious enough, the government’s criminal and inhumane activity that day got even worse. With no regard for the families of these victims, not to mention their identities, what was left of them was disposed of — in an unspeakably callous manner.
“Remains incinerated and then hosed down drains,” Sir Alan wrote.
Though it’s remained unclear why exactly the government implemented such horrifically brutal measures on its non-violent population of young students that day (besides the obvious fear of having citizens force nationwide change) the former ambassador’s cable seems to confirm that notion.
According to Sir Alan, the violent attacks stemmed from a substantial portion of China’s State Council who were afraid of civil war breaking out. The tides seemed to be turning, and those in power would certainly not benefit from a freer populous. Hence — clamping down even further was vital.
On top of that, the recently declassified cable stated that the 27th Army was put into play that day specifically because of its disregard for anything but orders. The troops were “the most reliable and obedient,” Sir Alan explained.
“27 Army ordered to spare no one,” he wrote. “Wounded girl students begged for their lives but were bayoneted. A three-year-old girl was injured, but her mother was shot as she went to her aid, as were six others.”
The diplomat’s sources also told him that “snipers shot many civilians on balconies, street sweepers etc for target practice.” The declassified document also claimed that this excessive force continued even after the first wave of killings were completed.
“1,000 survivors were told they could escape but were then mown down by specially prepared MG (machine gun) positions,” wrote Sir Alan. “Army ambulances who attempted to give aid were shot up, as was a Sino-Japanese hospital ambulance.”
“With medical crew dead, wounded driver attempted to ram attackers but was blown to pieces by anti-tank weapon.”
Sir Alan’s declassified cable even claimed that troops killed one of their own officers.
“27 Army officer shot dead by own troops, apparently because her faltered,” he wrote. “Troops explained they would be shoot if they hadn’t shot the officer.”
Of course, state TV was painting an entirely different picture. Before the army was deployed to wipe out protestors, Chinese television was repeatedly broadcasting the following claims:
“Tonight a serious counter-revolutionary rebellion took place. Thugs frenziedly attacked People’s Liberation Army troops, seizing weapons, erecting barricades, beating soldiers and officers in an attempt to overthrow the government of the People’s Republic of China.”
“For many days, the People’s Liberation Army has exercised restraint and now must resolutely counteract the rebellion. All those who refuse too listen to reason must take full responsibility for their actions and their consequences.”
The Chinese Red Cross estimated the death toll to be around 2,700 people on June 4th, 1989. While this is far less conservative than the CCP’s preposterous count of 200-300, it’s far lower than Sir Donald’s considerably trustworthy account — which ended with a stunning figure.
“Minimum estimate of civilian dead 10,000,” the final sentence of his cable read.
Sir Alan’s now-declassified assessment of the Tiananmen Square massacre and the resultant death toll aligns completely with a confidential U.S. government file reported on in 2014. This document quoted a Chinese military source, and said the CCP’s own internal figures estimated the bodycount to be 10,454 people.
Unfortunately, China’s oppressive government still restricts free speech and the publishing of any substantial reporting that dares to threaten the powers that be. In the age of social media and unprecedented internet access, however, resourceful youths are continuously finding ways to thwart these efforts.
Hopefully, we’ve arrived at a stage where truth will leak out regardless of the establishment’s wishes — in order to show the world what seemingly reasonably governments are truly capable of.
After learning about the Tiananmen Square massacre, read about the Jonestown massacre. Then, take a look at 33 disturbinng picures of the Mai Lai massacre: the war crime the U.S. got away with.