Most people in the western world remember the Tiananmen Square Massacre this way:
1) Students protest for democracy in Beijing, China, in June of 1989.
2) Chinese government sends troops and tanks to Tiananmen Square.
3) Student protesters are brutally massacred.
In essence, this is a fairly accurate depiction of what happened around Tiananmen Square, but the situation was much longer-lasting and more chaotic than this outline suggests.
The protests actually started in April of 1989, as public demonstrations of mourning for former Communist Party Secretary General Hu Yaobang.
A high government official's funeral seems like an unlikely spark for pro-democracy demonstrations and chaos. Nonetheless, by the time the Tiananmen Square Protests and Massacre were over less than two months later, 250 to 7,000 people lay dead.
What really happened that spring in Beijing?
Background to Tiananmen
By the 1980s, the leaders of China's Communist Party knew that classical Maoism had failed. Mao Zedong's policy of rapid industrialization and collectivization of land, the "Great Leap Forward," had killed tens of millions of people by starvation.
The country then descended into the terror and anarchy of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), an orgy of violence and destruction that saw teenaged Red Guards humiliate, torture, murder and sometimes even cannibalize hundreds of thousands or millions of their compatriots. Irreplaceable cultural heirlooms were destroyed; traditional Chinese arts and religion were all but extinguished.
China's leadership knew that they had to make changes in order to remain in power, but what reforms should they make? The Communist Party leaders split between those who advocated drastic reforms, including a move toward capitalist economic policies and greater personal freedoms for Chinese citizens, versus those who favored careful tinkering with the command economy and continued strict control of the population.
Meanwhile, with the leadership unsure of which direction to take, the Chinese people hovered in a no-man's land between fear of the authoritarian state, and the desire to speak out for reform. The government-instigated tragedies of the previous two decades left them hungry for change, but aware that the iron fist of Beijing's leadership was always ready to smash down opposition. China's people waited to see which way the wind would blow.
The Spark - Memorial for Hu Yaobang
Hu Yaobang was a reformist, who served as General Secretary of the Communist Party of China from 1980 to 1987. He advocated rehabilitation of people persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, greater autonomy for Tibet, rapprochement with Japan, and social and economic reform. As a result, he was forced out of office by the hardliners in January of 1987, and made to offer humiliating public "self-criticisms" for his allegedly bourgeois ideas.
One of the charges leveled against Hu was that he had encouraged (or at least allowed) wide-spread student protests in late 1986. As General Secretary, he refused to crack down on such protests, believing that dissent by the intelligentsia should be tolerated by the Communist government.
Hu Yaobang died of a heart attack not long after his ouster and disgrace, on April 15, 1989.
Official media made just brief mention of Hu's death, and the government at first did not plan to give him a state funeral. In reaction, university students from across Beijing marched on Tiananmen Square, shouting acceptable, government-approved slogans, and calling for the rehabilitation of Hu's reputation.
Bowing to this pressure, the government decided to accord Hu a state funeral after all. However, government officials on April 19 refused to receive a delegation of student petitioners, who patiently waited to speak with someone for three days at the Great Hall of the People. This would prove to be the government's first big mistake.
Hu's subdued memorial service took place on April 22, and was greeted by huge student demonstrations involving about 100,000 people. Hardliners within the government were extremely uneasy about the protests, but General Secretary Zhao Ziyang believed that the students would disperse once the funeral ceremonies were over. Zhao was so confident that he took a week-long trip to North Korea for a summit meeting.
The students, however, were enraged that the government had refused to receive their petition, and emboldened by the meek reaction to their protests. After all, the Party had refrained from cracking down on them thus far, and had even caved in to their demands for a proper funeral for Hu Yaobang. They continued to protest, and their slogans strayed further and further from the approved texts.
Events Begin to Spin Out of Control
With Zhao Ziyang out of the country, hardliners in the government such as Li Peng took the opportunity to bend the ear of the powerful leader of the Party Elders, Deng Xiaoping. Deng was known as a reformer himself, supportive of market reforms and greater openness, but the hardliners exaggerated the threat posed by the students. Li Peng even told Deng that the protesters were hostile to him personally, and were calling for his ouster and the downfall of the Communist government. (This accusation was a fabrication.)
Clearly worried, Deng Xiaoping decided to denounce the demonstrations in an editorial published in the April 26th People's Daily. He called the protests dongluan (meaning "turmoil" or "rioting") by a "tiny minority." These highly emotive terms were associated with the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution. Rather than tamping down the students' fervor, Deng's editorial further inflamed it. The government had just made its second grave mistake.
Not unreasonably, the students felt that they could not end the protest if it was labeled dongluan, for fear that they would be prosecuted. Some 50,000 of them continued to press the case that patriotism motivated them, not hooliganism. Until the government stepped back from that characterization, the students could not leave Tiananmen Square.
But the government too was trapped by the editorial. Deng Xiaoping had staked his reputation, and that of the government, on getting the students to back down. Who would blink first?