On April 21st 1989, about 100,000 students gathered at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to commemorate Hu Yaobang, and voice their discontent with China’s authoritative communist government. Hu, the deposed, reform-minded leader of the Chinese Communist Party, had died six days earlier.
The next day, an official memorial service for Hu Yaobang was held in Tiananmen’s Great Hall of the People, and student representatives carried a petition to the steps of the Great Hall, demanding to meet with Premier Li Peng. The Chinese government refused such a meeting, leading to a general boycott of Chinese universities across the country and widespread calls for democratic reforms.
When Hu Yaobang suddenly died to a heart attack on April 15th 1989, students reacted strongly. Hu’s death provided the initial impetus for students to gather in large numbers. In university campuses, many posters appeared eulogising Hu, calling for a reversal of Hu’s legacy. Within days, most posters focused on bigger political issues, such as freedom of the press, democracy, and corruption.
Small spontaneous gatherings to mourn Hu began on April 15th around Monument to the People’s Heroes at Tiananmen Square. On the same day, many students at Peking University (PKU) and Tsinghua University erected shrines, and joined the gathering in Tiananmen Square in a piecemeal fashion.
On April 20th, most students had been persuaded to leave Xinhua Gate. To disperse about 200 students that remained, police employed batons; minor clashes were reported. Many students felt they were abused by the Police, and rumours about police brutality spread quickly. The Xinhua Gate incident angered students on campus, where those who were not hitherto politically active decided to join the protests. Also on this date, a group of workers calling themselves the “Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation” issued two handbills challenging the central leadership. This led to the first huge crowd assembling on April 21st.
Ignoring government warnings of violent suppression of any mass demonstration, students from more than 40 universities began a march to Tiananmen on April 27th. The students were joined by workers, intellectuals, and civil servants, and by mid-May more than a million people filled the square, the site of communist leader’s Mao Zedong’s proclamation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. On May 20th, the government formally declared martial law in Beijing, and troops and tanks were called in to disperse the dissidents. However, large numbers of students and citizens blocked the army’s advance, and by May 23rd government forces had pulled back to the outskirts of Beijing.
On June 3rd, with negotiations to end the protests stalled and calls for democratic reforms escalating, the troops received orders from the Chinese government to reclaim Tiananmen at all costs. By the end of the next day, Chinese troops had forcibly cleared Tiananmen Square and Beijing’s streets, killing hundreds of demonstrators and arresting thousands of protesters and other suspected dissidents. In the weeks after the government crackdown, an unknown number of dissidents were executed, and communist hard-liners took firm control of the country.
The international community was outraged at the incident, and economic sanctions imposed by the United States and other countries sent China’s economy into decline. However, by late 1990, international trade had resumed, thanks in part to China’s release of several hundred imprisoned dissidents.