Remembering Tiananmen Square And The Pro-Democracy Protests

Tiananmen Square

In any given life, there are certain events that remain firmly imprinted in our memories. I carry an indelible memory of an evening in late May 1989. I had just returned home from a meeting and my wife excitedly called me into the television room. On the screen were images of tens of thousands of young people gathered at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The English-language commentator was talking about the pro-democracy movement that had been steadily growing in many Chinese provinces and that was finding its most dramatic expression among the students and their supporters gathered in Tiananmen Square. We understood that this was truly an historic moment and expressed to each other the hope that the Chinese Communist autocracy might actually be on the point of yielding to the great call for freedom of thought and action that was so clearly expressed among those gathered at the Square.

Everything changed in the late hours of June 3rd. Deng Xiaoping had commanded that his troops crush the movement using whatever force was necessary. And crushed it was. The event and its consequences have been detailed extensively since. The massacre at Tiananmen Square definitively demonstrated that the methods of State violence instituted by Mao Zedong remained firmly in place as Communist Party policy.

Soon after the events of June 3rd and 4th, Australian sociologist Jonathan Unger compiled a series of essays written by colleagues and friends detailing the movements throughout China that had led up to the Tiananmen Square protests and what followed. [1] Though published in 1991, these essays remain an ongoing testament to a time when the aspiration for human freedom throughout China took living form, only to be overturned by powerful forces controlled by the State and then erased as far as possible from the collective memory of the Chinese people.

One of the more important understandings to emerge from this collection of essays is that the young and idealistic students who gathered in the name of democratic reform were united in their calls for an end to corruption in government. They also called for the establishment of an independent press capable of reporting impartially on all aspects of Chinese life, the creation of an independent judiciary able to reign in government excesses, and the universal protection of both academic freedoms and the right to exercise critical thought.

Another of the central messages delivered by the essays is that the protests were not confined to Beijing, but were part of a broad-based awakening. They represented a collective reaction to perceived corruption and incompetence in government, and were a response to the disregard of the Chinese Communist Party to the aspirations of Chinese citizens for both economic and political reform. The demonstrations at Tiananmen Square were a living manifestation of the will of the people of China, emboldened by the courage of university students and community leaders, to bring an end to the nepotism that permeated all levels of government and the tight control of individual freedoms exercised by the Communist Party.

The immediate trigger for the 1989 protests at Tiananmen Square was the unexpected death of Hu Yaobang, Party General Secretary and former revolutionary leader. Hu Yaobang had long supported an easing of the tight controls that constricted many freedoms in China, and supported the free expression of political, philosophical, and intellectual thought. He was also a strong advocate of the right of students to gather and to demonstrate peacefully in public spaces. His death on April 15th 1989 generated protests throughout China against the regime of Deng Xiaoping. These protests were actively supported by both officials and by workers – often in the tens of thousands – in many provinces. But they did not all prove to be peaceful. One of the essays describes how the student protests in the city of Xi’an in Shaanxi Province soon after Hu Yaobang’s death in April resulted in clashes with police in which a number of student protesters were killed. [2] The violence exercised by the police in the Xi’an protests was but a prelude to what was soon after to erupt at the hands of the Chinese military in Tiananmen Square.

Unger’s collection reveals that, contrary to appearances, China at the time of the pro-democracy demonstrations was not a unified entity under the Central State. The essays make it clear that local leaders and many within the general population throughout China were in full sympathy with the spirit of the protesters. But the support and goodwill of Chinese citizens was no match for the power of armoured tanks and the ruthless compliance of heavily armed soldiers.

The spirit of hope and freedom expressed in the pro-democracy protests in China in 1989 was brutally stilled before it had the opportunity to do its work.


One of the more powerful retrospective analyses of the massacre at Tiananmen Square and its consequences is that produced by the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent for the 25th anniversary of the event in 2014. [3] In this superbly produced documentary, members of the Australian Embassy in Beijing at the time were brought back together 25 years later to reflect on their experiences in May and June 1989. Their individual accounts help provide a detailed mosaic of what went down at that time. Those interviewed included the Ambassador David Sadleir, the Defence Attaché Peter Everett, the Economic Counsellor Geoff Raby, and the Embassy Media Officer Gregson Edwards among others. Their accounts leave no doubt about the ferocity of the Chinese response to the protests, a response that has been completely stripped from the historical records in China. Mention of the event remains absolutely forbidden in all Chinese media. Any reference to it on the internet is immediately taken down, while harsh punitive measures are meted out to any in China who would dare to raise the issue.

Those interviewed describe how hundreds of thousands of PLA members were trucked into Beijing from other provinces in the days leading up to the massacre. According to Greg Edwards, the soldiers started shooting indiscriminately into the crowd at around 11 pm on June 3rd. Many were killed and injured in that first volley. Soon after, armoured personnel carriers “came tearing into the square.” One of them stalled at a barrier and the crowd descended on it. It was “stopped by a crow-bar in the spokes, and then set alight.” The soldiers inside were incinerated.

Soldiers in huge numbers then descended into Tiananmen Square. Their trucks and tanks simply ran over protestors and the crowd was subjected to indiscriminate machine-gun fire. Edwards recalled: “It’s not known how many protesters were shot or crushed that night.” The bullets used at Tiananmen Square were not ordinary bullets, but were designed to shred flesh when they entered the body. Many who fell were not fatally wounded, but bled to death within a short time.

By the morning of June 5th, the army had complete control of Beijing. Troops used bulldozers to push bodies into heaps, doused them in petrol, and then burned them up. According to Peter Everett, most of the students killed did not die in the actual assault on Tiananmen Square, but were systematically rounded up by the military and killed in the weeks following June 4th. Many were forcibly removed from their parents’ houses, taken elsewhere, and executed. The parents received notices that their children had been “shot while trying to escape” or that they “fell down the stairs.”

The precise number of those killed as a result of the Tiananmen Square massacre will never be known with certainty. Recently released documents in the UK reveal that the British ambassador to China at the time estimated that over 10,000 people – mostly students – were killed in consequence of the Tiananmen Square action. [4]

The terror unleashed at Tiananmen Square is not a singular aberration or strategic error on the part of the Chinese Communist State. Violence has been explicitly built into its structure from the outset. This sanctioned violence reached extraordinary levels during Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution during which millions of people died. Nor did it end with Tiananmen Square. In the decade that followed, two groups within China – the Uyghurs of Xinjiang and members of Falun Gong throughout China – were designated Internal Enemies and thereafter systematically subjected to State violence.

Chinese history has been re-written for the Chinese. The events of Tiananmen Square in 1989 appear nowhere on Chinese internet search engines. History textbooks used by schools in China make no mention of the massacre. On those few occasions when 1989 is referred to by politicians, the event is passingly portrayed as a necessary minor intervention to deal with a small group of agitators whose thought and actions threatened the peace and prosperity of the Chinese people.

The suppression of acts that are clearly unjust but knowingly undertaken at the highest levels of government appears to be part of the political machinery in China. What has been done with the history of Tiananmen Square has, in the two decades since, been repeated in the matter of “re-educating” over one million Uyghurs detainees in Xinjiang [5] and the reported “harvesting” of organs from Falun Gong prisoners of conscience for use by transplant surgeons throughout China. [6] These activities show the degree to which Chinese leaders have disregarded their more noble traditions in the pursuit of control, of power, and of wealth.

The roots from which the Chinese soul draws nourishment have lain dormant during the moral winter that China has endured over the past century, but the perennial turning of seasons is ultimately unstoppable. The chilling inhumanity exercised in the present age must subside in its turn. The Wen Yen Commentary was believed to have been elaborated by the Confucian school over two thousand years ago. In it, we find the following commentary on the first Hexagram of the I Ching, Ch’ien/ The Creative:

“The four fundamental attributes of the Creative are likewise the attributes necessary to a leader and ruler of men. In order to rule and lead men, the first essential is to have humane feeling toward them. Without humaneness, nothing lasting can be accomplished in the sphere of authority. Power that influences through fear works only for the moment and necessarily arouses resistance as a counter-effect.

On the basis of this conception, it follows that the mores are the instrument by which men can be brought into union. For nothing binds people more firmly together than deeply rooted social usages that are observed because they appear to each member of society as something beautiful and worth striving for. . .

Furthermore, as the foundation of social life there must be the greatest possible freedom and the greatest possible advantage for all. These are guaranteed by justice, which curtails individual freedom no more than is absolutely necessary for the general welfare. Finally, to reach the desired goals, there is the fourth requisite of wisdom, manifesting itself by pointing out the established and enduring paths that, according to immutable cosmic laws, must lead to success.” [7]

It would appear that we either learn very slowly or that the very nature of power and its exercise has an irremediably corrosive effect on human nature. The principles of just government were recognised in China even before the birth of Jesus and will hopefully be meaningfully recovered in the uncertain future that awaits us all.

There is a consistent political ethos underlying the events at Tiananmen Square in 1989, the enforced “re-education” of Uyghurs and the colonisation of Xinjiang (and Tibet beforehand), and the “disappearing” of tens of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners throughout China since 1999. Elements of this ethos with its undercurrents of secrecy, suppression, and “control of the narrative” remain active and visible in the present day even in regard to the Covid-19 pandemic. This is reflected in the refusal of Beijing to permit outside observers from entering China to investigate the origins of the outbreak that has brought unspeakable grief to so many families around the world and upended the economies of so many countries.

As the power and the confidence of the Chinese State continues to grow, one can only hope that the expressions of good will and the yearning for freedom expressed so strongly and, in the end, so poignantly by those who paid the ultimate price at Tiananmen Square, will find their fruition in the fullness of time.

Vincent Di Stefano is a retired osteopath and practitioner of natural medicine. He is author of “Holism and Complementary Medicine. History and Principles” published by Allen and Unwin in 2006. His website “The Healing Project”  extends the ideas presented in the book and his blog “Integral Reflections”  offers an occasional more interactive medium addressing those ideas.


  1. Jonathan Unger:The Pro-Democracy Protests in China. Reports from the Provinces, M.E. Sharpe, London, 1991
  1. Joseph W. Esherick,Xi’an Spring, in Jonathan Unger (1991), pp. 81-86
  1. Tiananmen: Australia’s Witnesses.ABC Foreign Correspondent (3rd June 2014). Viewed at:
  1. Tiananmen Square protest death ‘was 10,000’. BBC News (23rdDecember 2017). Viewed at:
  1. Human Rights Watch:Eradicating Ideological Viruses. China’s Campaign of Repression Against Xinjiang’s Muslims. September 2018. Viewed at:
  1. The problematic issue of reconciling the immense number of organ transplants that occurred in China after 1999 with official accounts of the sources of donor organs was substantively documented by David Kilgour and David Matas in 2006. Ten years later, they extensively updated their findings. (See: More recently, this issue has been picked up by Australian researcher Matthew Robertson in his March 2020 report:Organ Procurement and Extrajudicial Execution in China: A Review of the Evidence. (See:
  1. Richard Wilhelm and Cary F. Baynes.The I Ching: Or, Book of Changes, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1968 (Third Edition), pp. 376-377



Support Countercurrents

Countercurrents is answerable only to our readers. Support honest journalism because we have no PLANET B.
Become a Patron at Patreon

Join Our Newsletter


Join our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Get CounterCurrents updates on our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Related Posts

Join Our Newsletter

Annual Subscription

Join Countercurrents Annual Fund Raising Campaign and help us

Latest News