Why Do People in Mainland China Believe Only a Few Died in Tiananmen Square?

A Chinese soldier stands guard in front of Tiananmen Gate outside the Forbidden City in 2014 in Beijing.

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Answer by Clay Shirky, teaches social media at NYU in Shanghai:

Many of the answers to this question hinge on the phrases “only a few” and “in Tiananmen Square.” Your answer will vary depending on the assumptions you make about those phrases.

Prof. Ezra Vogel, author of Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China, a biography of Deng’s life concentrating on the period after Mao’s death in 1976, including the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, notes that collecting accurate data about the killings themselves is difficult. The shootings (and some vehicular homicide) were in more than one location, there was no safe place from which to report on events, and journalism was (and remains) tightly controlled in China.


Vogel pieces together multiple accounts of the night of June 3, 1989, and early morning of June 4, concluding that:

By 11:00 pm [on June 3], the troops, still unable to advance [from Muxidi], began firing live weapons directly at the crowds…People’s Liberation Army trucks and armored cars also began charging ahead at full speed, running over anyone who dared to stand in their path.


By 1 a.m. on Sunday, June 4, soldiers had begun arriving from every direction. Around the edges of the square, on Chang’an Boulevard and at the Great Hall of the People, soldiers opened fire on civilians who had begun taunting, throwing bricks, and refusing to move. The protestors had not expected that the troops would fire real bullets, but when some died and when wounded protesters were carried away, the remaining people panicked.


About the number killed, Vogel collects a number of different sources:

Official Chinese reports a few days after June 4 stated that more than two hundred were killed.

[Prime Minister] Li Peng told [U.S. national security adviser] Brent Scowcroft on July 2 that 310 had died.

Ding Zilin, the mother of some of those killed, later tried to collect the names of all those killed that night, and as of 2008 she had collected almost three hundred names.


Timothy Brook, a Canadian scholar then in Beijing, drawing on estimates by foreign military attachés and data from all eleven major Beijing hospitals, reported that at those hospitals there were at least 478 dead.

Assuming the People’s Liberation Army killed a few hundred students that night, most of them during the approach to Tiananmen Square, is it the case that only a few people died in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989?


You would assert that only a few people were killed if you believed that a few hundred is a small number. Americans in general do not believe this—our source of national trauma for military opening fire on civilians during anti-government protests was the Kent State shootings of 1970, in which four students were killed.

You would assert that only a few people were killed in Tiananmen Square if you believed that “in Tiananmen Square” refers only to the site of the student occupation in front of the Great Hall of the People but does not refer to the larger protest movement determined to block the passage of the military and police into the square.

Both of these assumptions are deeply affected by the culture of the hearer. For most Americans, military killings of protesting citizens is itself shocking in any number, and “Tiananmen” is the name of a protest movement, not a gate in the center of Beijing.


A better way to frame the factual heart of the original question would be to ask:

  1. Did Deng order the PLA to use deadly force against the citizens participating in the political uprising known as the Tiananmen Square movement?
  2. Did the number of people killed on the night of June 3 and early morning of June 4 reach into the hundreds?

The answer to both of those questions is “yes.”

Why do so many people in mainland China believe only a few people died in Tiananmen Square on June 4th, 1989? originally appeared on Quora. More questions on Quora: