The Tiananmen Square Massacre

by Adena Feitelson for Professor Pines's Rhetoric course

History is history not because events happen, but because there are people there to witness and testify to it. However, since a single individual could not possibly know every detail surrounding any particular event while it happens, it is the role of the historian to see and understand history from as many angles as possible. Through the research process for this paper, I came to realize that events happen the way they do because each person present makes a specific decision to act a certain way. This is the story of that realization.

When I decided to research the Tiananmen Square Massacre, I was prepared to read several different versions of what actually happened. I was quite surprised to then discover that the sources I consulted did not differ on “what happened,” but rather on “why it happened.” Here is the what: on June 4, 1989, thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators gathered in Tiananmen Square, a 100-acre square located in front of China’s capital building in Beijing, and were killed by martial fire. Though the student-dominated pro-democracy movement started in the early 20th century, it did not form a cohesive body until the late 1980s. Despite its growth, the organization remained leaderless and disorganized. Starting in late April of 1989, after the death of a prominent intellectual in the democracy movement, Hu Yoabang, huge numbers of students flocked from all the major universities in China and gathered in Tiananmen Square to participate in a hunger strike.1 The students held huge posters that had sayings like, “Compatriots, I’d like to know: where can we find China’s way out,”2 and, “Democracy is the foundation for building the country.”3 The demonstrators set up camp whilst advocating for government reform. These demonstrations, though peaceful, attracted the presence of troops that kept relative order and lasted seven weeks, through the end of May.4 On June 4, 1989, Deng Xiaoping, president of China’s Communist Party (CCP), with no public warning, ordered the military to clear Tiananmen and the streets surrounding the capital building of all demonstrators. The world was shocked to learn that thousands of peaceful demonstrators had been killed that day. Thus, the facts of “what happened” are fairly clear, but the causes and consequences are perpetually disputed. These disagreements are a result of each historian only looking at the event from one perspective. In my attempt to uncover the “why,” I tried to understand the social, political, and economic perspectives separately before formulating my own synergistic explanation.

In his book Behind the Tiananmen Massacre, published in 1990, Chu-yuan Cheng, an expert on the history of Chinese economics, asserts that while the demonstrations were “the outcome of grievances that had been suppressed for four decades,”5 the Massacre was “completely unnecessary and unjustified.”6 These loaded statements made me wonder why a leader, President Deng Xiaoping, would compromise China’s international status as a credible government by ordering a massacre in the capital’s largest square. In addition to soiling China’s credibility, Deng betrayed the people’s trust. Even though he was the president of the CCP, and considered a traditional leader, Deng implemented a number of industrial and agricultural reforms in the 1970s that really added to the overall standard of living in China. His agricultural reforms, namely the abolition of collective farming, were popular because individual farming families were able to earn more for what they grew and food was more widely distributed to the public.7 These reforms lead to greater diversification of work for rural laborers, forcing some of these laborers to work in small factories, thereby expediting the production process and increasing the national income level.8 All of these things created a certain level of popularity for Deng, but resentment still existed because of the strict government regulations that existed in all enterprises, public and private. Some enterprises were almost like “appendages to the governmental organs”9 because they were told what and how much to produce of a particular product. Deng’s decisions to grow and expand the economy were generally good for China’s economy, but what he did not foresee was the effect they would have, especially his “open-door policy,”10 on the social mentality of China’s lay-people. This open-door policy promoted foreign trade and consumption, which boosted product diversification, but also “brought the population into closer contact with foreigners and overseas Chinese.”11 With these policies in place, the common Chinese family had more surplus wealth, which meant that family members were no longer required to work on the family farm or in the family mill. Cheng argues that this foreign influence lead to a greater sense of individual freedom among the Chinese, especially the young people. In addition to a greater emphasis on individual ambitions, the open-door policy brought with it a more capitalist approach to trade, which undermined the main Communist (and Marxist) idea that Capitalism itself is self-destructive. According to Cheng, this sense of empowerment, in combination with Western culture and Capitalist ideologies, are ultimately what led to the organization and mass demonstration of the student pro-democracy movement for governmental reform.12

Cheng’s explanation proved extremely helpful in showing how social unrest and demand for change sprouted from economic reforms. Even so, how did peaceful demonstrations lead to a massacre of thousands? How peaceful were these demonstrations? In order to shed light on these questions, I had to understand what exactly this movement was demanding of its government.

A number of public speeches and writings from members of the pro-democracy movement, assembled in chronological order in Han Minzhu’s Cries for Democracy, proved extremely helpful in understanding the public perspective on economic and social reform. A woman translated these documents from their original Chinese into English under her pseudonym Han Minzhu in order to protect her identity. Not only does Minzhu provide an outstanding array of first-hand accounts, but these accounts also represent the degree to which the demonstrators and the Chinese public rejected the Marxist foundation of communism in China. For example, on May 12th, 1989, a teacher from the People’s University ardently asserted that “[b]y making a comparison of various countries, one discovers that in all democratic nations with a pluralistic political system, the political situation is relatively stable.”13 Here, this unnamed individual argues that economic and social turmoil does not entirely originate from foreign exposure (i.e. the open-door policy), but rather from the current schism within the Party that has consequently led to “errors in policymaking, corruption, and [a] low morale and apathy of the people.”14 Earlier in his remarks, this individual lists the faulty points of a socialist government, but ultimately arrives at the conclusion that the government should be an example for the people, no matter what form it takes. In other words, the necessary repairs must start within the political body. Once that cohesion is returned, then appropriate and sound policy-making can transpire. Another Minzhu example of prodemocracy accusations comes from an essay written by Ye XX (probably a false name), in which she asserts that, “[u]nder the authoritarian system, the leaden weights of totalitarian politics and an unfree economy have suppressed the talents and wisdom of this most gifted people in the world.”15 In her essay, Ye argues that the CCP does everything it can to limit the opportunities of intellectuals. According to her, if the CCP continues this way, and does not take the advice of China’s intellectuals, China will continue to grow poorer and more backward until there is nothing left.16 While there were an overwhelming number of testimonies that pushed for internal Party reform, Minzhu asserts that, “many student activists and intellectuals, [advocated for] reforms that would install some checks on the Party’s absolute power, [and] that would protect the people.”17 In other words, according to Minzhu, while the call for a fundamental transition of government from communism to democracy was prominent amongst demonstrators, the call for checks on the Party’s power by outside political bodies (a less radical approach) was more widespread.

With this unique insight into the student pro-democracy movement, it was clear how the movement saw the problem and what they thought was necessary to fix it. However, the Minzhu source did not fully explain the “schism” to which multiple individuals alluded. What had led to this division within the Communist Party? And, how did that contribute to the decision to massacre innocent demonstrators on June 4th, 1989? In order to investigate these gaps, I had to find an identical source – one exactly like Minzhu’s – but this time offering first-hand accounts of the key members of the Communist Party.

I was skeptical that any such source existed until I discovered The Tiananmen Papers, published in 2001 by Public Affairs. The Tiananmen Papers is a collection of documents, conversations, and speeches made by key CCP leaders. The revelation of these documents was published first in their original Chinese, and then translated into English by the compiler and various unknown individuals. The Tiananmen Papers is credited to one Zhang Liang, whose real name is unknown because he is thought to have been a member of one of the inner circles of CCP. His anonymity was essential for the protection of him and his family. The compilation of The Tiananmen Papers is so significant because there are no other records of such secretive nature (concerning a political body); indeed, this collection of documents is “unprecedented in the drama of the story it tells, the fullness of the record it reveals, and the potential explosiveness of its contents.”18 Also, documents of this nature would have only been available to a very exclusive group of people when these conversations were documented (i.e. between 1986 and June 1989) – hence the anonymity. The editors of this source, Andrew Nathan and Perry Link, conclude that the exposure of these documents is evidence that those who built the CCP were in fact able to reform or change it from the inside.

The Tiananmen Papers revealed that even though the disorganization of the pro-democracy movement had a hand in an unsuccessful series of demonstrations, beginning in the mid-1970s up until June 1989, it was the schism inside the government that lead to an unnecessary and violent end of the movement.19 After learning about rulers like Louis XIV of France in a class I took earlier this year, I assumed that leaders with absolute power, in this case Deng Xiaoping, took every measure to protect that power out of paranoia that another might undermine and overthrow them. However, according to some transcripts of Party meetings, Deng Xiaoping was not entirely comfortable with having to approve every important decision because of the stress that came with those decisions. On May 19th, 1989, Deng even said to one of his advisors, “‘I carry too much weight, and that’s not good for the Party or the state. I should think about retiring – but how can I, right now?’”20 According to Andrew Nathan, editor of The Tiananmen Papers, Deng’s concern for the Party’s stability made him an easy target for manipulation by the extreme ends – the capitalist-leaning liberals verses the traditional-communist conservatives – of the Party.21 In her essay, Grasso explains that on the liberal end there was Deng’s protégée, General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, who became increasingly pro-democratic in the face of the economic crisis (i.e. hyperinflation) and was often seen out amongst demonstrators, showing his support.22 More liberal than the rest of the Party members, Zhao often advocated for his fellow human-beings (i.e. the students), saying “[t]he students’ hunger strike in the Square had gone on for four days now. It’s been extremely costly to their health.”23 For him, according to Nathan, it was necessary to treat the demonstrators like people, regardless of any ideological differences. He was the only one in the Party’s inner circle to voice the opinion that martial law may not be the only option against the people.24 Unfortunately for Zhao, the rest of the Party did not share his point of view and they consequently decided to relieve him of his government position, on the grounds that “[h]e was trying to split the Party on purpose.”25 On the extreme other end of the Party, Nathan explains, was a shrewd man named Li Peng, the Party’s general secretary or Prime Minister; he was second-in-command to Deng, and an extreme hard-liner.26 Li was extremely manipulative of Deng and did everything in his power to skew the truth about the demonstrators, while simultaneously and consistently pushing for martial law. In a meeting with Deng and the CCP, Li declared, “[i]t has now become increasingly clear that a tiny, tiny minority of individuals [the intellectuals] are trying to use the turmoil to reach their political goals.”27 Nathan proceeds to explain that Li often used the term “turmoil” to describe the pro-democracy movement because that was the same term the movement used to describe the economic situation, as well as the schism within the CCP. By using their terms out of context, Li masterfully engineered how the rest of the CCP, especially Deng Xiaoping, perceived the motives behind the pro-democracy movement. At this point in my research it seemed to me that, ultimately, it was Li Peng who pushed Deng over the precipice to agree to use the military to clear Tiananmen Square.

After reading transcript after transcript in The Tiananmen Papers, it seemed to me that one of the main problems of the CCP schism was that the members considered themselves on the opposite side of the people (i.e. the demonstrators). However, both sides claimed to be on the side of China and Her overall well-being. How can two parties be on the side of China, but also against each other? To compound this incongruent definition of China’s well-being, the decisions made by Deng were based on what he knew and not necessarily on the truth. In other words, Deng, being considerably more moderate than Li Peng, probably would not have made a decision that led to thousands of deaths, that compromised China’s legitimacy in the global community, and that created social unrest and economic instability. Nathan even explains that “Deng was willing to consider [Zhao’s] advice,”28 but was ultimately sidetracked by Li’s hardline conjectures.29 The Tiananmen Papers were extremely helpful in understanding the government’s perspective of the Tiananmen demonstrators, but I still wanted to understand the decision-making process and the rationale behind those decisions.

Alan Liu, a Chinese professor at University of California, Santa Barbara, and previously Yale University, is known for his expertise in Chinese politics and his work in psychology, and expertly dissects this concept of decisions and the psychology behind making decisions in his essay “Symbols and Repression at Tiananmen Square, April – June 1989.”30 Where The Tiananmen Papers seem to blame Li Peng as the force behind the Massacre decision, Liu argues that it was actually Secretary Li Ximing of the Beijing Party Committee who had the greatest influence on Deng because it was Li’s responsibility to brief Deng on all activities going on in Beijing. Consequently, Secretary Li seized this opportunity to radicalize and “portray the student movement as a gigantic worldwide conspiracy … that was aimed at the overthrow of the Communist Party.”31 Liu asserts that for Deng and the elders of the CCP, this was a very serious threat, especially since most of them (the older members of the Party) had witnessed the Cultural Revolution of 1966-69, during which China teetered on the precipice of anarchy.32 By using the sensitive residual sentiments from their previous experiences, Secretary Li transformed what was happening from a national political issue to a personal attack on the powerful members of the CCP. Since Li knew that “symbolically Beijing is to the nation, [what] Tiananmen is to Beijing,”33 Liu asserts that Li made it seem like the students were creating turmoil in the exact spot where great leaders and moments in China’s history took place. In other words, it was a defamation of the Square and the historical significance it holds. Eventually, after much influence from Secretary Li, Deng started using the word “turmoil” interchangeably with “chaos” and “unrest.”34 This, Liu argues, is exemplary of the downward spiral that ended with the Massacre. In the end, it did not seem to matter that the demonstrators were innocent human-beings because Deng, and the other Party elites, were motivated by what they were told and how they were encouraged to see rather than what they knew and saw.

At this point, I had a fair understanding of the various perspectives – that of the student movement and of the Chinese Communist Party leaders – and the rationale behind the decision-making. The students felt that the Party had too much absolute power, and should be remedied by either checks on the power or an entire governmental transformation from communism to democracy. Either way, the call was to save China’s economy and to protect the people, especially the right to free speech. The government, influenced heavily by a few different advisors, believed the student movement was hostile and power hungry. In truth, there was no student movement conspiracy to stage a coup. Even in the face of the peaceful demonstrations, Party leaders did not see this. However, that did not satisfy me. What happened to China in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Massacre – how did She recover? What did the government do to try to rectify the serious damage it had inflicted upon itself and the nation? How did the international community, especially the US, react to this atrocity?

To help address some of the aftermath concerns, I turned to historians June Grasso, Jay Corrin, and Michael Kort for a general overview of the period they call the “repression.”35 In the scramble to cover up their actions, the CCP censored all television broadcasts and limited reports to saying that “the protestors were a mere ‘tiny handful’ of looters and criminals who had been responsible for atrocities against the army,36 which were accompanied by images of vandalized army trucks and injured soldiers, all of which was taken out of context. The government proceeded to warrant a general arrest of all people, especially the intellectuals, who dared to say anything to the contrary. If it was dangerous for the locals, then members of foreign press came in a close second. Not only did the army illegally arrest reporters and camera crews, the CCP ordered every hotel and public housing facility to disconnect all satellite antennae so that they did not have access to foreign broadcasts.37 In short, the CCP did everything it could to cut off any communication and influence from the West. While this source was helpful, it only (briefly) covered the CCP’s reaction and protectionist measures against the West.

In his article “Now It Is Our Turn,”38 on June 13th, 1989, New York Times American columnist A.M. Rosenthal asserts that US (i.e. Western) intervention would be extremely beneficial for China’s political and economic recovery from the Tiananmen incident. Rosenthal claims “Chinese like Deng Xiaoping have shown they are ready to destroy the economic well-being of the country rather than risk open political expression.”39 In other words, he believes that the CCP preferred to destroy the integrity of China’s economy rather than negotiate peacefully with the people. I had a few problems with this. First, though it is possible that the public was not privy to this information at the time, there is no mention of Deng being pulled in two directions. Even though Rosenthal wrote this column nine days after the Massacre occurred and did not have as much hindsight as I have now, nor a look into China’s interior politics, his claiming that a government deliberately destroyed its own economy is, in my own opinion, ludicrous. For me, this is an outrageous thing to say because not many governments would intentionally do this because the economy of a nation is extremely fragile and extremely important to the nation’s well-being. Though self-destructive political bodies do exist, it is not something I would assume in a newspaper column, especially without evidence. In other words, I do not think that Rosenthal truly understood the impact a society’s economy can have on its overall political and social stability. He goes on to say that US money and (moral) support will help solve China’s problem. His air of American arrogance and sense of superiority continues when he says “[t]he valuable Voice of America should be beamed louder and longer at China.”40 Rosenthal seems to think that what the US has to offer is so valuable that any suffering nation would be foolish to turn it away. Overall, I was not satisfied with this particular American response.

In the wake of my frustration, I came across another article that seemed to have a better understanding of what China really needed. In his article “Ungoverning China,”41 Nicholas Kristof expertly recognizes the nature of China’s rising inflation, exasperated by the Massacre, and rightly acknowledges it as “one of the nation’s greatest single causes of political instability.”42 This was the kind of insight I expected to find upon turning to American sources. In addition to that, Kristof makes a profound observation that I had not previously considered. He explains that “[m]uch of a future leader’s ability to get results will depend on his moral legitimacy”43 among the people, but especially among the student movement. In other words, in addition to formulating an extremely sound economic recovery plan, the success of China’s future leader only extends as far as the trust he instills in the people (i.e. the new generation of rising leaders); a morally sound leader will yield morally sound decisions.

Since it seemed that so much depended on China’s economic recovery, I turned back to Chu-yuan Cheng to obtain a more expert opinion. In 1990, Cheng believed that the future of China was dependent on how long hard-liners stay in power because they will be the ones to decide whether to continue with Deng’s reforms, which will ultimately lead to further liberalization, or to backtrack to a Maoist economic structure, in which all agriculture will be recentralized and consequently lead to a large spike in unemployment.44 In other words, whichever direction Chinese leaders decide to take, social and political conditions will worsen before they get better. In 2001, Zhang Liang similarly argues that “the building of democracy in China has to depend on forces rooted inside China … [T]he basic solutions to China’s problems must be sought at home.”45 In short, the problems and consequences of the Tiananmen Square Massacre can only be fixed from the inside out because the decisions that led to those problems originated from the internal schism of the Chinese government.

In the greater scheme of history, a huge chunk of time that has no definite beginning, the Massacre was fairly recent. Nevertheless, a lot can happen in 20 years. Today, China is still a one-party state, despite multiple campaigns to launch the China Democracy Party in 1998 to 1999, but, as Kerry Brown notes, “China is alone among the world’s top ten economies in being a one-party state.”46 While this amazing economic turnaround is positive change for China, Guoguang Wu asserts that it also reduces the “incentives of the Chinese leadership to reconstruct political institutions in order to relax the Communist Party’s monopoly of public power, and to include average citizens in political participation.”47 In other words, China has made some commendable improvements, but it seems to me that She has a long way to go until the people of China truly have a voice.


1. June Grasso, and Jay Corrin, and Michael Kort, Modernization and Revolution in China: From the Opium Wars to the Olympics, Fourth edition, (Armonk, NY: Sharpe, Inc., 2009), 233.
2. Han Minzhu, Cries for Democracy: Writings and Speeches From The 1989 Chinese Democracy Movement, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990), 15.
3. Ibid., 27.
4. June Grasso, Modernization and Revolution in China, 233.
5. Chu-yuan Cheng, Behind the Tiananmen Massacre: Social, Political, and Economic Ferment in China, (Boulder: Westview Press, 1990), 11.
6. Ibid., 11.
7. Chu-yuan Cheng, Behind the Tiananmen Massacre, 15.
8. Ibid., 15.
9. Ibid., 14.
10. Ibid., 21.
11 Ibid., 21.
12. Chu-yuan Cheng, Behind the Tiananmen Massacre, 25.
13. Han Minzhu, Cries for Democracy, 161.
14. Ibid., 161.
15. Han Minzhu, Cries for Democracy, 291.
16. Ibid., 291.
17. Ibid., 148. [emphasis added by Feitelson]
18. Zhang Liang, The Tiananmen Papers, edited by Andrew J. Nathan and Perry Link, (New York: Public Affairs, 2001), xv.
19. Ibid., xii.
20. Zhang Liang, The Tiananmen Papers, xxx.
21. Ibid., xxxi.
22. June Grasso, et al., Modernization and Revolution in China, 234.
23. Zhang Liang, The Tiananmen Papers, 177.
24. Ibid., 191.
25. Ibid., 258.
26. Ibid., xxiii.
27. Zhang Liang, The Tiananmen Papers, 225.
28. Ibid., xxxvi.
29. Ibid., xxxvi.
30. Alan P. L. Liu, “Symbols and Repression at Tiananmen Square, April–June 1989,” Political Psychology 18, no. 1 (March 1992), 45-60.
31. Ibid., 48.
32. Ibid., 49.
33. Ibid., 48.
34. Ibid., 50.
35. June Grasso, et al., Modernization and Revolution in China, 235-238.
36. Ibid., 235.
37. Ibid., 236.
38. A.M. Rosenthal, “Now It Is Our Turn,” New York Times, 13 June 1989.
39. Ibid.
40. Ibid. [emphasis added].
41. Nicholas D. Kristof, “Ungoverning China: Crushing of Protest Weakens Ability to Any Successor Leadership to Rule,” New York Times, 5 June 1989.
42. Ibid.
43. Ibid.
44. Chu-yuan Cheng, Behind the Tiananmen Massacre, 185.
45. Zhang Liang, The Tiananmen Papers, xiii. [emphasis added].
46. Kerry Brown, “Power to the Party,” The World Today 64, no. 8/9 (Aug.-Sep., 2008), 10.
47. Guoguang Wu, “China in 2009: Muddling through Crises,” Asian Survey 50, no. 1 (January/February 2010), 39.


Brown, Kerry. “Power to the Party.” The World Today 64, no. 8/9 (Aug.-Sep., 2008): 9-11.

Cahn, John. “Origins and Consequences of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, Parts 1, 2, and 3.” World Socialist Website. Published by International Committee of the Fourth, 2009.

Cheng, Chu-yuan. Behind the Tiananmen Massacre: Social, Political, and Economic Ferment in China. Boulder: Westview Press, 1990.

Grasso, June, and Jay Corrin, and Michael Kort. Modernization and Revolution in China: From the Opium Wars to the Olympics, Fourth Edition. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 2009.

Kristof, Nicholas D. “Ungoverning China: Crushing of Protest Weakens Ability of Any Successor Leadership to Rule.” New York Times, 5 June 1989.

Liang, Zhang. The Tiananmen Papers. Edited by Andrew J. Nathan and Perry Link. New York: Public Affairs, 2001.

Liu, Alan P. L. “Symbols and Repression at Tiananmen Square, April–June 1989.” Political Psychology 18, no. 1 (March 1992): 45-60.

Minzhu, Han. Cries For Democracy: Writings and Speeches From The 1989 Chinese Democracy Movement. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.

Rosenthal, A. M. “Now It Is Our Turn.” New York Times, 13 June 1989.

Salisbury, Harrison E. “In China, ‘A Little Blood’.” New York Times, 13 June 1989.

Wu, Guoguang. “China in 2009: Muddling through Crises.” Asian Survey 50, no. 1 (January/February, 2010): 25-39.

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