Tussle in Tiananmen Square

What does the Chinese government say happened on June 4, 1989?

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Western media characterize the incident as a brutal government crackdown on peaceful protesters. What does the Chinese government say about it?

Very little. Neither the 1989 protests nor the ensuing massacre is included in Chinese textbooks, and many students today have never heard of these events. For the most part, the government avoids discussing the issue at all. The government does acknowledge that the People’s Liberation Army intervened after seven weeks of demonstrations and that people were killed. But the official line is that, rather than crushing a peaceful protest, the military simply defended itself—and the country—against violent counterrevolutionary elements. (“Counterrevolutionary” is used in China in much the same way as “anti-American” in the United States.)

The state did give its own version of events immediately after the violence in 1989. Chinese television showed ragged protesters with black arm bands throwing Molotov cocktails and army vehicles set on fire. It showed People’s Liberation Army soldiers helping people who were hurt. The only deaths it acknowledged were the deaths of People’s Liberation Army soldiers—several were burned alive in their vehicles—who were declared martyrs. One example of the government’s interpretation of events is the infamous image of a man in a white shirt blocking four Chinese tanks. At the time, the Western media pushed the “Tank Man” as a symbol of Chinese military might bearing down on its own people. Chinese television broadcast the entire video—in which the tanks try to drive around him before he finally disappears into the crowd—to show how much restraint the soldiers used.

Since then, the government’s attitude toward Tiananmen Square has shifted from countermessaging to dismissal. In 1990, then-General Secretary Jiang Zemin called the international controversy “much ado about nothing.” In 2003, Premier Wen Jiabao referred to the incident as occurring “in the last century.” Leaders now call it settled history and decline to elaborate.

The government also avoids discussing the death count. No one knows exactly how many people died the night of June 3, since information is scarce and unreliable. Most estimates range from about 150 to 3,000 deaths. The Chinese Red Cross initially reported 2,600 deaths but quickly retracted its statement. Some news organizations have reported an official government number of 241, but it’s unclear who arrived at that figure or how. The most conservative estimate comes from the group Tiananmen Mothers, a group of relatives of people killed in the massacre, which has confirmed 186 deaths, although not all at the hands of the army. Relatively few deaths actually occurred in the square itself—most of the violence took place in the streets surrounding it.                                   

The Chinese government also uses its own language to refer to the massacre. Officials tend to call it “chaos” or “turmoil.” Rather than a mass uprising, they point to the influence of a few older “black hands” over impressionable students. Chinese dissidents call it “June 4” or “6-4”—a loaded term, since it’s an allusion to the first student protests of May 4, 1919, against the Chinese ruling class, known as “5-4.” Chinese officials reject that terminology: When they need to use a date, they call it the “June 4 incident.”

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Explainer thanks Merle Goldman of Boston University, Norman Kutcher of the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch, and Jeffrey Wasserstrom of the University of California, Irvine.